The National Gallery takes possession

It was a pleasant surprise, a few weeks ago, to hear a small but vibrant voice on the other end of the telephone respond, “Yes, this is Olga Hirshhorn.” Yes, that Hirshhorn. Olga is the widow of Joseph Hirshhorn, the entrepreneur and art collector whose generosity established the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum on the National Mall. Hirshhorn died in 1981.

It wasn’t exactly a surprise, however, when the National Gallery of Art announced on Thursday that the remaining 62 works left by Paul Mellon to the National Gallery had officially arrived there. Mellon’s widow Rachel Lambert Mellon died on March 17, and everyone knew the art would come to the gallery when she passed on. When her husband, one of the gallery’s major benefactors and the son of its founder Andrew Mellon, died in 1999, these works remained with the woman everyone knew as Bunny Mellon, many of them on the walls of her house. “We almost never buy a painting or a drawing we would not want to live with or see constantly,” Mellon once said, underscoring the particularly personal and domesticate nature of his art collecting.

Over the years, Mellon left an astonishing amount of money and art to the National Gallery, and it was his support that was largely responsible for creating I.M. Pei-designed East Building. Since 1964, as Mellon’s houses filled up with art, masterpieces would trickle down to the National Gallery. Of the 110 works he left in Bunny’s care, 48 had already been released to the gallery, including a Van Gogh that was put on display last December.

So more surprising, perhaps, than the arrival of the remaining works left after Paul’s death, was the remarkable longevity of Bunny, and the loss of this living link to the gallery’s original benefactors. It was another reminder of how new so many of Washington’s seemingly long-established cultural institutions really are. Even the National Mall was a work in progress when the National Gallery was founded in 1937. And the widow of the Hirshhorn’s founder is still alive and can still remember that  “lovely day” when Lady Bird Johnson came to her house in Connecticut, wandered its grounds, admired her husband’s sculpture collection and chatted so amiably. It was that encounter which helped bring the Hirshhorn collection to Washington and under the care of the Smithsonian and thus the American people.

Bunny Mellon, who was born in 1910, lived to 103, just shy of the 104 years of Huguette Clark, the daughter of Sen. William Clark, the robber baron born under the administration of President Martin Van Buren. Clark’s gifts to the Corcoran, including money to build the wing still known as the Clark wing, greatly expanded its collection. After a long and reclusive retirement from public view, Huguette died three years ago, leaving an estate of more than $300 million, some $11.25 million of which went to the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

That money has now become part of the Corcoran’s death dowry, to be divided up by the National Gallery and George Washington University as they take possession of the art, real estate and cash spoils of the-long-troubled and now defunct museum and art school. To complete the deal, the National Gallery will be part of a legal attempt to change the terms of William Corcoran’s original 1869 deed of trust, which called “for the perpetual establishment and maintenance of a Public Gallery and Museum.”

American museums were built not with state patronage, but the private donations of the very wealthy. The system allows for a lot of idiosyncrasy, curious codicils and sometimes cumbersome rules that in some cases require the art to remain exactly where the original benefactor placed it in his or her mansion, or in the case of the National Gallery’s Chester Dale Collection, forbid the loan of works to other institutions. Museums don’t much like these rules, but they live with them because they need the art and the money to survive. The donor’s wishes are a sacred writ that allows for the survival and enlargement of the public’s access to art.

There is an implied promise of immortality in the gift of one’s art to a major museum. Your name will live in perpetuity, perhaps chiseled in stone on the building’s façade, or on the wall label next to a painting or sculpture. But nothing is forever. Paul Mellon’s wishes and Bunny’s privacy were respected with infinite discretion. William Corcoran and William Clark, and many other donors who chose the Corcoran over the National Gallery and other options for the perpetual care of their bequests, were not so lucky.

Underneath the whole, strange, often surreal process is a truth no one likes to acknowledge: The powerful force of forgetting. Does anyone remember that it was Bunny Mellon, a talented horticulturalist, who created the White House Rose Garden? Or that Mark Twain once called William Clark “as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag; he is a shame to the American nation, and no one has helped to send him to the Senate who did not know that his proper place was the penitentiary, with a ball and chain on his legs.”

Or as someone once said, Ars longa, vita brevis. Except neither is quite true. Life is sometimes longer than we think, and the ideals embodied in art far more frail than we would like to imagine.


Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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Ron Charles · May 23, 2014