Press release

The Nelson A. Rockefeller Vision: In Pursuit of the Best in the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas
October 8, 2013–October 5, 2014

The Nelson A. Rockefeller Vision

Location: The Michael C. Rockefeller Wing, first floor
Press Preview: Monday, October 7, 10:00 a.m.–noon

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas (AAOA) will celebrate the genesis of its permanent collection with a special exhibition that opens October 8.  The Nelson A. Rockefeller Vision: In Pursuit of the Best in the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas is organized to mark the 60th anniversary of the establishment of The Museum of Primitive Art, the direct precursor to the Metropolitan’s Department of AAOA. The Museum of Primitive Art was a pioneering cultural institution that featured Nelson Rockefeller’s non-Western art collection.  The announcement by Rockefeller of an agreement to transfer his collection to the Metropolitan Museum was made in 1969 and in January 1982 the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing opened to the public. 

The exhibition is made possible by the Friends of the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.

Highlighting some 50 masterpieces and many unpublished documents selected from the more than 3,000 Rockefeller gifts encompassing three areas—Africa, Oceania, and the Americas—the exhibition will reveal his vision for The Museum of Primitive Art, the first institution dedicated entirely to the artistic excellence of the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. While a selection of historically significant works from the collection will be highlighted in a gallery for special exhibitions within the AAOA department, the overview of its founding vision will permeate all of the AAOA galleries, where additional commentary on works on permanent display will expand upon that narrative.  

“A generation before ‘globalism’ became a household name, Nelson Rockefeller’s vision for The Museum of Primitive Art was to make evident the enormous spectrum of artistic expression absent from the Metropolitan’s fine arts holdings,” said Alisa LaGamma, Curator in Charge of the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, “When a survey exhibition of The Museum of Primitive Art’s collection was presented at the Met in 1969, Governor Nelson Rockefeller announced at a press conference that his non-Western art collection would be given a permanent home at the Met, thus ‘rounding out its art archives of the creative accomplishments of [humankind].’ This development and subsequent transfer of The Museum of Primitive Art to The Michael C. Rockefeller Wingmarked the culmination of a quest that was sparked in the 1930s, when a young Nelson Rockefeller first began a lifelong engagement with Latin America and its Pre-Columbian artistic heritage.”
Works highlighted in the exhibition will be presented together with archival documents. They will  include the template for the collection developed by René d’Harnoncourt recorded in a series of notebooks titled “Desiderata and Collection” (and “Catalog and Desiderata”).  Additionally correspondence concerning the shaping of the collection through the 1960s and installation drawings and photographs of influential The Museum of Primitive Art exhibitions will also be integrated into the installation. Examination of these documents will reveal the systematic approach developed by The Museum of Primitive Art’s curatorial staff to advise Nelson Rockefeller on shaping the world’s great collection of non-Western art, or as Museum of Primitive Art curator and the AAOA department’s first head, Douglas Newton, described as “the best of everything.”  

Exhibition Overview
From the Americas, highlights in the exhibition will include: a 12th-9th century B.C.E ceramic “Baby” figure, which was a centerpiece of the landmark 1965 exhibition The Jaguar’s Children: Pre-Classic Central Mexico—the work’s acquisition during the course of the exhibition had a transformative impact on The Museum of Primitive Art’s pre-Columbian holdings; a vibrantly colored 14th-century feathered Inca tunic from Peru acquired in 1956; a 19th-century Tlingit knife from Alaska which was among the first objects from North America that Nelson Rockefeller purchased and kept in his home prior to donating it to The Museum of Primitive Art in 1959.  Oceanic highlights will include: one of only two dozen surviving examples of Solomon Island shields with mother of pearl inlay; a Mangareva Figure representing the Polynesian agricultural god Rago, considered the signature Oceanic work acquired by The Museum of Primitive Art; and an Abelam Yam Mask, a basketry genre from New Guinea collected in the  region by curator Douglas Newton considered among the most outstanding examples of a tradition in which enormous yams were exchanged in ceremonial competitions.  African highlights will include: a monumental D’mba headdress from Guinea selected on the basis of its favorable comparison  with the one now at the Musée Quai Branly in Paris; Male and Female Poro Figures by a master from Ivory Coast that were featured in the 1963 landmark exhibition Senufo Sculpture from West Africa; and the epic creation of a Fang Master from Gabon: Sculptural Element from a Reliquary Ensemble (The Great Bieri).  Robert Goldwater, the director of The Museum of Primitive Art, advised Rockefeller on the acquisition of the latter work, considering it among the masterpieces of the history of art.

Located adjacent to Nelson Rockefeller’s boyhood home and directly across from the Museum of Modern Art, this innovative and emphatically fine arts institution had the mission to build an authoritative collection and to generate exhibitions that would shape and expand public appreciation of non-Western art.  Art historian Robert Goldwater served as its director, and René d’Harnoncourt, Nelson Rockefeller’s close associate and  director of the Museum of Modern Art, remained an active advisor and member of its executive committee.  Over the course of its history, The Museum of Primitive Art’s connections to the regions represented were varied but significant:  Nelson Rockefeller traveled extensively to Mexico and Latin America and served as Assistant Secretary of State for American Republic Affairs under President Franklin Roosevelt as well as President of Inter-American Affairs; his son, Michael, undertook research and field collecting in the Pacific; and the transition from colonialism to independence was celebrated through the loan of major works from the African collection to several important exhibitions in West and Southern Africa.    

Related Publication and Programs
The exhibition will be accompanied by the summer 2014 issue of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin

The publication is made possible by The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation. 

The Metropolitan’s quarterly Bulletin program is supported in part by the Lila Acheson Wallace Fund for The Metropolitan Museum of Art, established by the cofounder of Reader’s Digest.

In addition, an Audio Guide and features on the Metropolitan Museum’s website will lead visitors from the special exhibition gallery into AAOA department’s permanent galleries, where additional works acquired by Rockefeller are on view. This public programming relating to this exhibition will extend through the fall of 2014 and will include curatorial tours and conversations in the exhibition, a Sunday at the Met on October 27 titled Pioneering Globalism:  Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, and the Rockefeller Legacy, and a panel discussion on the Metropolitan’s African collection and the African art canon on March 18, 2014. 

The Nelson A. Rockefeller Vision: In Pursuit of the Best in the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas is overseen by Alisa LaGamma, in collaboration with: Yaelle Biro, Assistant Curator, Eric Kjellgren, Associate Curator, Julie Jones, Curator Emeritus, Heidi King, Senior Research Associate, and Jennifer Larson, Assistant Visual Resource Manager, all of the Metropolitan Museum’s Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.

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July 17, 2014

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