Wednesday, January 18, 2023

the last book I ever read (Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Family, excerpt six)

from Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Family by Patrick Radden Keefe:

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which occupied a grand location on Fifth Avenue, jutting into Central Park, had originally been conceived in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, when a group of prominent New Yorkers decided that the United States needed a great art museum to rival those of Europe. The museum was incorporated in 1870 and moved into the Fifth Avenue site a decade later. It started with a private art collection, consisting mostly of European paintings, which was a gift from John Taylor Johnston, a railroad tycoon, along with donations from some of his fellow robber barons. But from the very beginning, the museum exhibited a fascinating tension between the interests and indulgences of its coterie of wealthy backers and a more public-minded, egalitarian mission. The Met would be free, and open to the public, but subsidized by gifts from the rich. At the dedication of the museum, in 1880, one of its trustees, the lawyer Joseph Choate, gave a speech to the Gilded Age industrialists who had assembled and, in a bid for their support, offered the sly observation that what philanthropy really buys is immortality: “Think of it, ye millionaires of many markets, what glory may yet be yours, if you only listen to our advice, to convert pork into porcelain, grain and produce into priceless pottery, the rude ores of commerce into sculptured marble.” Railroad shares and mining stocks—which in the next financial panic “shall surely perish, like parched scrolls”—could be turned into a durable legacy, Choate suggested, into “glorified canvases of the world’s masters, which shall adorn these walls for centuries.” Through such transubstantiation, he proposed, great fortunes could pass into enduring civic institutions. Over time, the crude origins of any given clan’s largesse might be forgotten, and instead future generations would remember only the philanthropic legacy, prompted to do so by the family’s name on some gallery, some wing, perhaps even on the building itself.

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