As the recent changes in the MOCA structure question the relationship between money and the museum, we wanted to cite positive examples of a patron’s influence within an institution. For instance, just look to the vivacious Vera List, the New York philanthropist whose legacy has shaped institutions like the New School, the Jewish Museum, MIT, the Lincoln Center, and the New Museum, which she helped to found.
In an engaging 1973 interview with Paul Cummings, Vera (who passed away in 2002) discusses her personal collecting history as well as her activities as a patron. Along the way, she drops gems like recounting the terrible scandal of curator Alan Solomon shaking things up and showing Robert Rauschenberg for his first show as new director of the Jewish Museum; her conflicted feelings when her Modigliani began to accrue market value (“in a sense, it spoiled it; and in sense it hasn’t. But I guess I was naive enough to buy things and just enjoy them”); and even a comment implying that Norman Rockefeller may have been the Saatchi, Dakis or Pinault of his day, as the measure of the market for certain artists.
In particular, Vera dwells on her pet poster project. Never one to stand idly by while checks were written, she actively commissioned artists like Andy Warhol, Sol LeWitt, Frank Stella, Robert Indiana, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg to create limited edition prints and posters for the Lincoln Center. The project thus functioned as a type of self-sustaining public art program that would benefit the institution (as both fundraising and free publicity) while introducing the broader public to the cutting edge artists of the day. In the aforementioned interview, List outlines the evolution of the initiative:
Paul Cummings: How did your Poster Project start?
Vera List: Yes. The Poster Project started because one day my husband told me that he had made a very large contribution to Lincoln Center. This was when it was going up. Mr. Rockefeller had approached him, and he had made this contribution. I was horrified because I guess the idea — I’m not averse to contributing for a building — but, oh, I just felt that there was so much wealth involved in this project that I couldn’t see his having made so large a contribution to the building. And I questioned it. We discussed it. Finally he gave me the privilege of allocating how these funds were to be used. And that was great. So I met with Mr. Rockfeller. Here these buildings were going up, and they were going to house music and drama and theater, and dance, all of that. This was marvelous. I guess I felt the same way as I did about the New School that, well, the visual arts should be there. I’ve always believed that one’s environment is what stimulates people. It’s what stimulated me as a child. My mother was very dramatic. We were the poorest of the families around, and of the relatives, but we had the most beautiful home. This was it; and it was a very essential part of living as far as I was concerned. Well, I felt that there should be visual arts there. He went along with the idea. A certain sum was set aside to buy painting and sculpture. Of course, I used to go to Carnegie Hall — for a minute I thought my mind had gone back to Symphony Hall in Boston — but it’s Carnegie Hall here in New York where they had those big three-sheeters, all very ugly. The little traveling I had done — you’d go to Paris and see all the exciting posters around there which were very colorful and stimulating.
PC: Columns of type set up.
VL: Yes. Great. But you walk around New York, and you see the three-sheeter. They gave you the news, but this was it. So that gave birth of the idea of allocating a certain sum for posters. The idea was to commission the fine artist, the creative artist of the time and order a design. This is not to say that the fine artist will create a better poster than a good designer will, not necessarily at all. But to bring to the general public — they walk down the street, they see an image, something would attract them, and something would happen. Of course at the time, there was much talk about what was happening to the city and so forth. I always felt that if people’s sensibilities were awakened, they would seek to make the whole city a more amenable place in which to live. So that’s how that started.
Vera personally oversaw the project and handled commissions up through around 1974. The program continues to this day, with recent commissions from Marilyn Minter, Chuck Close and Richard Serra. For more information about the project or to purchase the latest commissions, check the website.