MFA Boston Receives Gift of Native American Art from Estate of David Rockefeller

Buffalo Hunt

Published October 19, 2018

52 Artworks from the Collection of David and Peggy Rockefeller Include Watercolors, Textiles, Beadwork and Pottery, Representing Artists from 13 Native American Tribes and Nations

BOSTON — The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), has announced the gift of the Estate of David Rockefeller from the Collection of David and Peggy Rockefeller—an acquisition comprising 52 works of art by Native American artists and works representing Native American culture. The objects in this cornerstone gift were assembled primarily by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller in the 1920s and 1930s, and include Plains beadwork, Navajo (Diné) weavings and rugs, Nez Perce cornhusk bags and one Taos School painting, as well as pottery, watercolors and baskets by a variety of artists from 13 Native American tribes and nations. Later works in the collection were added by their son David Rockefeller and his wife Peggy. The MFA is one of two institutions to receive a gift of Native American art from the Estate of David Rockefeller, along with the Mesa Verde National Park Museum in Colorado, which John D. Rockefeller, Jr., helped to sponsor in the 1920s. At the MFA, these objects present an opportunity to add greater depth and breadth to the existing collection. The acquisition is part of the Museum’s renewed commitment to the collection, interpretation and display of Native American art, as reflected in the ongoing exhibition Collecting Stories: Native American Art; the Native North America Gallery in the Art of the Americas Wing; and recent installations of Native American works in the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art.

“This gift represents the remarkable legacy of the Rockefeller family as leading art collectors and as land preservationists, both on Mt. Desert Island in Maine, where their Native American collection was displayed, and widely across the United States. These significant examples of Native American art will allow us to broaden the stories we present in our galleries and further explore in our public programs,” said Matthew Teitelbaum, Ann and Graham Gund Director. “As the MFA continues to diversify the narratives we tell about the art of the Americas, we strive to be inclusive of the wide range of artists who have contributed to these histories. By strengthening the Museum’s collection in this critical area, this gift marks an important step forward.”

John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller acquired the core of the gift during their travels throughout the American West in the 1920s and 1930s. At the time, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., became active in the growing land conservation movement in the U.S. and sponsored projects related to Native American art and anthropology in the Southwest. The Rockefellers purchased and later donated thousands of acres of land for the National Park Service at this time, including at Grand Teton National Park, while simultaneously collecting Native American art during the course of their travels. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., purchased objects directly from a number of artists, including renowned potter Maria Montoya Martinez (Poveka or Water Pond Lily) (1887–1980, San Ildefonso Pueblo) and her husband, Julian Martinez (1885–1943, San Ildefonso Pueblo)—acquiring some of the first blackware pottery they ever made. Rockefeller’s son, David, met Maria Martinez on his first visit to the Southwest as a child in 1926, part of a 10,000-mile tour of the American West with his parents and brothers.

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller became particularly interested in contemporary watercolors by Velino Shije Herrera (Ma-Pe-Wi) (1902–1973, Zia Pueblo), Tonita Peña (Quah Ah) (1893–1949, San Ildefonso Pueblo) and Awa Tsireh (Alfonso Roybal) (1898–1955), among others. Smoking Pipe (about 1926), an oil painting by famed Taos School artist Eanger Irving Couse (1866–1936), was purchased by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., in 1926.

“These gifts of Native American art add a new dimension to the MFA’s collection and allow us to envision displays in our 19th- and 20th-century galleries where Native American art will enter into compelling dialogues with our renowned collection of American painting and decorative arts,” said Dennis Carr, Carolyn and Peter Lynch Curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture. “The MFA’s efforts to collect Native American art began in the 1870s, shortly after the Museum opened to the public, but then diminished in the decades after the 1910s. These objects, which were made or collected during the 1920s and 1930s, are an important complement to our current collection.”

The objects being donated to the MFA and Mesa Verde National Park were part of a collection of Native American art displayed in the “Rest House,” located on the Rockefeller family’s property on Mt. Desert Island in Maine. After John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s, death in 1960, his son David inherited most of his father’s properties in Maine, as well as his parents’ collection of Native American art, which he and Peggy left on view in the Rest House until his death in 2017.

“The immersive quality of the ‘Rest House’ collection, with its mixture of textiles, pottery, basketry and paintings, exemplifies a fashionable way to display Native American art in the early 20th century. Because the Rest House was a private family retreat, the collection has remained a lesser-known aspect of the Rockefeller family’s collecting and specifically of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller’s artistic sensibility,” said Pam Parmal, Chair and David and Roberta Logie Curator of Textile and Fashion Arts. “We are pleased to provide a public acknowledgement of this important contribution.”

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