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A 'Transformational Gift': New York's Met Will Receive $1 Billion Cubism Collection

Apr 9, 2013
Originally published on April 10, 2013 4:19 pm

The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art will receive what its director calls a "truly transformational" gift: Leonard A. Lauder's collection of 78 cubist works.

"Although the Met is unique in its ability to exhibit over 5,000 years of art history, we have long lacked this critical dimension in the story of modernism," Thomas P. Campbell, the Met's director and CEO, said in a statement. "Now, Cubism will be represented with some of its greatest masterpieces, demonstrating both its role as the groundbreaking movement of the 20th century and the foundation for an artistic dialogue that continues today. This is an extraordinary gift to our Museum and our City."

Lauder, the heir of his mother Estee Lauder's cosmetics fortune, agreed to give the museum 33 works by Picasso, 17 by Braque, 14 by Gris, and 14 by Léger. Forbes, which has calculated Lauder's net worth, values the collection at $1.1 billion.

"The Cubist trove therefore signifies a gift of 13.5% of Lauder's total net worth — and drops his fortune to $7 billion," Forbes reports. "It also enshrines him in the pantheon of the most generous philanthropists of all time."

The New York Times has a bit more on the significance of the collection:

"Scholars say the collection is among the world's greatest, as good, as if not better, than the renowned Cubist paintings, drawings and sculptures in institutions like the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the Pompidou Center in Paris. Together they tell the story of a movement that revolutionized Modern art and fill a glaring gap in the Met's collection, which has been notably weak in early-20th-century art.

"'In one fell swoop this puts the Met at the forefront of early-20th-century art,' Thomas P. Campbell, the Met's director, said. 'It is an unreproducible collection, something museum directors only dream about.'"

The Times adds that Lauder has been courted for years over his collection. The National Gallery of Art in Washington was among those seeking the collection, the Times reports.

Lauder explained his decision to give to the Met in a statement.

"I selected the Met as the way to share this collection because I feel that it's essential that Cubism — and the art that follows it, for that matter — be seen and studied within the collections of one of the greatest encyclopedic museums in the world," Lauder said. "The Met's collection of modernism, together with those of MoMA, the Guggenheim, and the Whitney, reinforce the City's standing as the center for 20th-century art and fuel New York's ongoing role as the art capital of the world."

The collection will be presented for the first time at the Met during an exhibition scheduled for the fall of 2014.

Update on Wednesday, April 10 at 7:20 p.m. ET. Terms Are Unique

Carol Vogel, art reporter for The New York Times, says the terms of the donation are unique for an art gift. She tells Audie Cornish, host of All Things Considered, that having no strings attached is significant.

"There are a lot of collections that have come to institutions with very, very strict guidelines," she says. "They have to be either shown together as a whole collection or they can't be split up or they can't travel past that museum."

Vogel says it gives the museum many different options when curating exhibits. "Realizing that, he simply is giving it to the museum," she says.

You can listen to the rest of their conversation at the top of this post.

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A monumental gift, an exciting and historic moment and an unrivaled collection. Those are just some of the extravagant words from another museum today, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, announcing a gift of art worth more than a billion dollars. They're cubist paintings - 78 of them - from the collection of cosmetics tycoon Leonard Lauder, but they are not your typical Met fare.

For more on Mr. Lauder's gift and what it means for the Met, we're joined by Carol Vogel. She's an arts reporter for The New York Times. And, Carol, let's start with the art. What's in this Lauder collection and help us understand its place within the world of cubism.

CAROL VOGEL: Well, there are a lot of firsts in this collection. The first time that cubism was ever exhibited and that the public could see it and actually criticize it, which they did because it was so shockingly different from anything they'd known before, was in 1908 in a Paris exhibition. And Mr. Lauder was able to buy two wonderful paintings by Braque from that exhibition. He also was able to get what's considered the first cubist painting that Picasso ever made in 1909.

There are all kinds of things - the first collages that were ever made that incorporated wonderful things like sand and bits of newspaper and things like that, all of those kinds of firsts are in his collection. He waited very, very patiently for years, often, to get just the right thing to fill in a gap in the story of cubism.

CORNISH: And I know you've actually interviewed Leonard Lauder. Tell us a bit more about him.

VOGEL: Well, he's terribly charming, terribly focused as a collector, adores art, has been very involved with museums in the city before and realizing that the Metropolitan Museum didn't have the kind of cubist art that an institution of that stature should have. He really targeted the gift for them.

CORNISH: How big a deal is it that he is offering this art with no strings attached, no restrictions or conditions on how it's displayed or where it's displayed?

VOGEL: Well, I think that's a pretty big deal because there are a lot of collections that have come to institutions with very, very strict guidelines. They have to be either shown together as a whole collection, or they can't be split up, or they can't travel past that museum. And I think realizing that the Metropolitan Museum is an encyclopedic institution - and this work not only harks back to something like tribal African art or back to the future of all the young artists who are looking at cubism for inspiration, that there are so many different kinds of exhibitions that can tell different stories - realizing that, he just simply gave it to the - or is giving it to the museum.

CORNISH: Now, as we mentioned, these paintings aren't the sort of thing that one normally finds at the Met. How do they fit into the current collection there?

VOGEL: They fit in absolutely perfectly because the Met is really trying to build its 20th century holdings. This was a chapter that was not as well represented because, of course, at the time that cubism was getting very, very hot and was being made was just at the moment that the Museum of Modern Art was being founded. And so that was the focus of new art back then. The Met sort of fell by the wayside in telling this story. And now, so many years later, they realized this was a huge gap.

CORNISH: So what will be done with the art? I mean, will we see an exhibit almost immediately?

VOGEL: We're going to be seeing an exhibit in 2014, which the curators are working on right now. And what's interesting is even though major, major pieces from this collection have been included in exhibitions all over the world, it's never been shown as a collection together. So in 2014, when the Met has this, it'll be the first time that anybody who hasn't known Mr. Lauder and seen his art will see what his collection looks like and how it hangs together as a sort of story within the history of art.

CORNISH: Carol Vogel is arts reporter for The New York Times. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

VOGEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.