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At the end of the 19th century, modern art emerged as a movement that questioned realism and moved toward the abstract. Because modernism rejected traditional form, techniques, and subject matter, it wasn’t immediately embraced by the art establishment. Modern art made its American debut at the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art, also known as the Armory Show. By the late 1920s, individual collectors had begun to appreciate this new art form, but there was no major institution dedicated to exhibiting modern art in the United States.

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and Modern Art

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, the matriarch of the Rockefeller family’s second generation, founded New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1929 with friends Lillie P. Bliss and Mary Quinn Sullivan, giving modernism a dedicated showcase. Abby’s taste in art was in stark contrast to that of her husband, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who himself would found the Met Cloisters museum in 1938, to showcase Medieval art.

Over lunch in 1928, three women launched the radical idea of founding a museum in New York just to exhibit modern art. As Abby Aldrich Rockefeller recalled, “I began to think of women whom I knew in New York City, who cared deeply for beauty and who bought pictures, women who would be willing, and had faith enough, to help start a museum of contemporary art.”

MoMA Through Time

Modern Art and Nelson Rockefeller

Abby’s son Nelson Rockefeller served MoMA as its first president beginning in 1939, when it moved into its permanent home. In fact, as Abby worked to launch the new institution, she envisioned it as an ideal outlet for Nelson’s interest in art patronage and collecting. Of all her children, Nelson’s love of art and his aesthetic taste aligned most closely with hers. At MoMA as well as the family’s other major venture of the 1930s, Rockefeller Center, Abby viewed Nelson as someone who might “hold the fort for the modern.”Richard Norton Smith, On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller. (New York: Random House, 2014), 6.

Not only as president, but as chairman of MoMA’s Junior Advisory Committee, Nelson applied personal charisma and political savvy to earn the museum wide recognition, and proved to be an expert fundraiser. MoMA quickly became a global influencer, introducing its visitors to artists like Picasso and Matisse, as well as to the International Style of architecture pioneered by Gropius, Le Corbusier, and others. For the rest of his life, Nelson continued to promote and expand the cultural institution we know today.

Many other Rockefeller family members have also served on the MoMA board of trustees. These have included Abby’s youngest son, David Rockefeller (who joined the board in 1948 and subsequently engaged renowned architect Philip Johnson, director of the Department of Architecture at MoMA, to redesign the Sculpture Garden), as well as Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller, David Rockefeller, Jr., and Sharon Percy Rockefeller.

Gallery: A Mother, a Son, and Modern Art


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Photo + Media Editor and Archivist, Rockefeller Archive Center