The Met Breuer, the Beaux Arts wing that opened in 2009, came with a $125 million endowment — the largest in the Met’s history — but its new exhibitions never had the money to fill them. And having had a headquarters on Fifth Avenue since 1978, it wanted something loftier than lower Fifth.
So this morning the Met is announcing the Big Money for the Big American Abstract Expressionist Painting. Its new wing, the country’s largest single construction and renovation in the Met’s history, was designed by Frank Gehry to embrace his obsession with abstract expressionism. How does the Met’s money go from $125 million to $85 million with great success? (The old wing’s budget had been $20 million a year.) With the help of a $50 million gift from the late Eli Broad, a $35 million gift from Aby Rosen and his wife, Marina, and $25 million from Barbara Davis, the families of Arnold Davis and Joseph Davis, who built and built the Met, built a $100 million endowment for the Met Breuer — and then put their money to good use.
Thanks to Broad, Rosen, and Davis, the Met Breuer’s new acquisitions will enable it to showcase the works of the great American abstract-expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Ed Ruscha, and others — 37 paintings and drawings by the 12 midcentury American painters it has on display now and 28 more important works by them. The idea is to return them to the Met’s historical art canon. With this gift, and the admissions fees, it’s a pretty safe bet that the wing will be full by July 1, 2022.
The Broad gift is especially significant because it puts Broad, who is no longer alive, in the front of the line for art-buying honors. His representatives negotiated with the museum on behalf of his widow, Edith.
That said, Gehry’s gift will propel the museum toward just edgier works than it has amassed since opening. Gehry’s design is dense with galleries for white and gray things — there is one for Dale Chihuly, of all people. It’s inviting for a curator to select works to fill the space — after all, what’s the worst that can happen? But this could lead to an over-saturation. Too much Gehry in the building, and it turns into a cube.
The deal just got much easier for the Broads and others to mount purchases. It’s rumored that the Broad Museum, under construction in Los Angeles, is working on a deal to have its own endowment — and it’s not too hard to imagine that the museum for which Broad once generously gave a gift would be asking for as much as $500 million.
The museum and other fine art institutions in recent years have traditionally been starved for funds, and more people than ever seek out art and museum-going. Therefore the best research available on art markets suggests that a couple of hundred million might help — a nice cushion — but what is more important is being viewed as top dog in the art-buying world.
Who knows what will happen, of course, in art prices, what institutions will approach, and how much they’ll be able to get. But the art and sculpture market is fascinating enough that such thought should be given to funding museums to the point where they are not as dependent on rich collectors (including philanthropists) as they used to be.
Anyway, $115 million of a project that involves an artist like Giorgio de Chirico or a Richard Serra or a Paul Klee will often, sadly, go to donors rather than artists who will benefit from the fundraising. But the magic number of $125 million — the one Broad and his family established and the Met pursued — will ensure that the Met’s artists have a place on the museum floor. And that’s the kind of effect $125 million can have on a modern gallery.