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The Greatest Gift

From the Magazine: Friday, November 17, 2006

Andrew Mellon gave America its finest art museum, the National Gallery.

Many of the structures that adorn the nation’s capital are monuments to the necessity of government—the Department of Agriculture, the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Trade Commission. But one edifice, right on the Mall, delivers the opposite message: that Americans can provide for each other directly, without the state’s intervention. That building, whose cool and classical style contrasts with that of the ponderous federal agencies that surround it, is the National Gallery of Art, the gift of Andrew Mellon to the people of the United States.

Mellon’s gift is supremely American. In other countries, the national art museum is often as much a government institution as the IRS and the FTC are here. Our great gallery, by contrast, has its roots in philanthropy, business, public service, and, above all, the imagination of a single man.

In some ways, Mellon was a typical millionaire. The great industrialists of early 20th-century America made their fortunes from resource wealth—coal, iron, land. Mellon came from a banking family, and he made major investments in such companies as Gulf Oil, Pittsburgh Coal, and the Aluminum Company of America. With Henry Clay Frick, he founded Union Steel, the forerunner of U.S. Steel. To celebrate the utility of aluminum, he commissioned an all-aluminum auto and an aluminum dressing room at his mansion.

But there was a subtle difference between Mellon and the other titans. He tended to create capital in a more modern way, by investing in ideas. In 1911, he established his own idea factory, the Mellon Institute. Companies wrote contracts with chemists, engineers, or physicists under which the scholars promised to find a way to answer a certain problem or improve a process in a set time frame. Today, the idea of such applied science sounds mundane, but that is because Mellon made it popular. By the time he completed construction of the institute’s home, which consumes a city block in Pittsburgh, institute scientists had earned 669 patents.

Mellon created capital by investing in ideas.

Several principles guided Mellon. One was frugality, which came naturally—his ancestors were Scotch-Irish. Another was the firm belief that the best investments were in high-quality businesses. Finally, Mellon believed that it was the obligation of business leaders to amass wealth and then make a large gift to society, as anonymously as possible. Taxing income too heavily was counterproductive—immoral, even—because it eroded the wealth that would comprise such offerings.

When his friend and partner Henry Clay Frick introduced him to art collecting, Mellon applied his principles to his new hobby. Experience as Frick’s executor only strengthened Mellon’s antitax conviction. Trying to wrap up the estate, he discovered that taxes threatened the integrity of the collection that his friend Frick had constructed so carefully.

As Treasury Secretary in the 1920s, Mellon applied his ideas on a national scale. As a measure of frugality, for example, he cut the dollar bill’s size by a third, the first big change in the currency since Civil War days. The move saved the Treasury $2 million a year. When it came to tax rates, he used railroad language to explain his philosophy.

One could charge citizens only “what the traffic will bear.” Tax rates set too high would discourage business and so yield less revenue than expected. This was an early version of the Laffer Curve. Serving from Harding to Hoover, Mellon cut taxes five times. His fame as financial steward was so great that only Alan Greenspan has matched it since. It was said of Mellon that “three Presidents served under him.”

While in government, Mellon was also busy with a very private activity. He was collecting paintings and hanging them in his apartment at 1785 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W. One of his early acquisitions was Vermeer’s 1665 masterpiece, “Girl with the Red Hat,” which he bought for $140,000 in 1925. He had decided on his own gift to the American people: a national gallery like that in London. He kept the project secret.

Even gifts of paintings to trusts for the gallery became public targets.

When the Crash came in 1929, Mellon expected blame, and he got it. He took the hostility in stride and coolly capitalized on the downturn to stock his gallery with new pictures—acquiring Jan van Eyck’s “Annunciation” and Raphael’s “Alba Madonna” from the Hermitage in Leningrad. He got bargains because Stalin, desperate for hard currency, was selling works the communists considered decadent.

Such purchases by a Cabinet member would be cause for controversy today—an official from one sovereign state taking advantage of another. But the United States at the time did not recognize the government of Soviet Russia. Men of Mellon’s era were intensely hostile to communism. They believed that by removing the art from the Bolsheviks’ hands, they were rescuing it from thieves. Mellon hid the pictures in a locked room at the Corcoran, a forerunner of the National Gallery. The old man and his colleague David Finley would visit them monthly.

As Crash deepened into Depression, animosity mounted. A freshman Democratic congressman from Texas—Wright Patman—tried to have Mellon impeached. By 1932, Mellon was moving out of the Treasury and onto the liner Majestic, crossing the Atlantic to become U.S. ambassador in London. There he arranged, through Finley, the acquisition of the anonymous 1616 painting of Pocahontas that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery today.

Back home in the 1930s, Mellon endured years of prosecution by Franklin Roosevelt’s administration. At the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, one of Mellon’s own successors, led campaigns against him with FDR’s assent. The Treasury charged that Mellon had not paid enough taxes. Morgenthau told the prosecutor, “I consider that Mr. Mellon is not on trial, but the privileged rich.”

Critics charged that Mellon was planning the gallery to appease his enemies in government and get them to drop their case.

There is evidence that Morgenthau was also personally competing with Mellon. The New Dealers believed that they could legislate and litigate the country into recovery, that laws and courts were the best tools for making citizens happy—quite a contrast to Mellon’s attitude at the Treasury.

Morgenthau even dueled with Mellon over art. Mellon was using his own private money to buy high-quality art from all over the world—the skill of the artist, not his nationality or political leaning, always came first in the purchase decision. Morgenthau, by contrast, now ostentatiously began his own art collection, using public money to buy works of underemployed artists across the country.

In 1934, as one of his first acts as secretary, Morgenthau established the Painting and Sculpture Section of the Procurement Division at the Treasury Department. The regional art that Morgenthau’s juries picked was far removed from Mellon’s choices: workers or families in the familiar realist style that still hangs in our post offices today. Republicans complained that Washington had established a “New Deal Aesthetics Ministry” and wondered whether, if their candidate, Alf Landon, won in 1936, the country would be decorated with “Landon Art.” Mellon, above all, was merely betting that his paintings would age better than Morgenthau’s—and so enrich the people more—literally. A glimpse at the contemporary art market suggests he was correct.

But at the time Mellon’s prosecutors were undaunted. Even gifts of paintings to trusts for the gallery became public targets. The assaults preoccupied Mellon, and irritated him because they spoiled the surprise of his gift. In fact, critics charged that Mellon was planning the gallery to appease his enemies in government and get them to drop their case. But when biographer David Cannadine later combed through Mellon’s papers, he found no evidence that Mellon worked a cynical deal with his pursuers. And Mellon was indeed exonerated of the tax charges, though only after his death.

On December 31, 1936, Mellon, now 81 years old, called at the White House, and, over tea, unfolded his plans to donate a fully stocked art museum to the nation. Roosevelt accepted. During the spring of 1937, Mellon’s health faded, but not his resolve. His art dealer, Joseph Duveen, drove him around Washington, pointing to grimy limestone government buildings. The gallery, Duveen argued, must be elegant. Mellon agreed and promised to buy Tennessee pink marble to house his art. “Thanks,” Mellon said to Duveen. “It’s been the most expensive ride of my life.’’

Again, Mellon was following his old rules. The gallery—which would cost $10 million to build—was to be called the National Gallery, not the Mellon Gallery. Mellon donated $25 million worth of art—a total gift worth the equivalent (converting to take into account the growth of GDP per capita) of $5 billion today. By setting a high standard,

Mellon hoped, he would lure others to join him. And they did. Chain store king Samuel Kress gave his collection of Italian paintings to the museum. Joseph Widener of the railroad family gave Rembrandt’s “The Mill” and Raphael’s “Small Cowper Madonna.”

The National Gallery opened in March 1941, nearly four years after Mellon’s death. Franklin Roosevelt himself told a crowd of 8,000 that “the giver of this building has matched the richness of his gift with the modesty of his spirit.” It was a concession that the prosecution of Mellon had been wrong.

Within a year, the gallery would provide a refuge to soldiers and sailors, strolling with their dates. For two-thirds of a century since, it has brought joy to millions. Mellon reminded the country that the private sector can provide as well as the public sector. And he did so not through laws but through art.


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