They can look like department stores, airport
terminals, and corporation headquarters or castles, cloisters, and mansions.
Some are treasuries of the past, while others exist at that point, the
famous "cutting edge," where present becomes future. In New
York City, more people go to them than to all other arts venues (opera,
concerts, ballet, theater) combined; attendance even outstrips that for
all the city's professional sports events. They are museums -- the great
success story of American culture in the 1990s.
Not so coincidentally, another 1990s phenomenon is
the ascendance of two brothers -- and fellow Penn alumni -- to the chairmanships
of major New York museums: Leonard Lauder, W'54, to the Whitney
Museum of American Art and Ronald Lauder, W'65, to the Museum of
Modern Art (MoMA).
In 1946, their parents founded the Estée Lauder Company,
which has since grown into a multi-billion-dollar corporation, purveying
perfumes and cosmetics around the world through its Estée Lauder, Clinique,
Prescriptives, and Aramis lines. It's a "museum-quality" company,
which means you'll always find its products at Bloomingdale's and Neiman
Marcus but never at K-Mart or your local discount drugstore. The Rockefeller
fortune, from the oil industry, fueled the founding of the Museum of Modern
Art. Vanderbilt money from railroads funded the Whitney. But now the Lauder
name is replacing Rockefeller and Vanderbilt at the two museums. Oil and
railroads versus fragrance and skin-care products. It's a new world ...
post-industrial, post-Cold War, postmodern.
It was Leonard Lauder who, as a six-year-old, began
the collecting mania that has fed the brothers' love of art. Leonard's
first passion was postcards of Art Deco hotels in Miami Beach. Today,
he and his wife, Evelyn (who is a corporate vice president at Estée Lauder),
collect early 20th-century French painting, English dolls' heads from
the 1920s, plaques from a Brooklyn movie palace, and much else. As well
as being chairman of the board at the Whitney, he's president and chief
executive officer of Estée Lauder, Inc., and he seems to love his job,
selling beauty around the world. In photos from press conferences announcing
a new product or ad campaign, he's invariably smiling, often surrounded
by glamorous Estée Lauder models. But, as Aubrey Beardsley is quoted in
another context (The Cantos of Ezra Pound, C'05, G'06),
"Beauty is difficult," and heading the company keeps Lauder
on a rigid schedule of meetings and travel. Finding time for an interview
is almost impossible. He's in New York for a day and a half. Finally,
we talk on the phone.
When I ask what attracted him to contemporary art,
he talks not about painting, or sculpture, or the Whitney. "When
I was in elementary school I would go to MoMA twice a week to see the
old movies ... and of course I would see the art there, too. Then, when
I went to Penn, I founded a cine-club and ran two film societies to show
the old movies. This was before VCRs, videos, Turner Classic Movies, mind
you." Leonard chose Penn "because of Wharton and because Penn
was a great school then and it's even better now." As for his collecting:
"I live a wonderfully schizoid art life. In the office, I have Minimalist
and Pop Art, and at home, Cubist works by Picasso and Braque."
It's the hottest day of the year when I visit his younger
brother, Ronald, in his 42nd-floor offices at Estée Lauder, a few blocks
north of MoMA. Out the windows, hazy views of Central Park. On the walls,
works by recent German artists -- Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar
Polke. There's Anselm Kiefer's massive Héliogabal, looking like
a set for the Immolation Scene in Die Götterdämmerung. It's one
of my favorite contemporary paintings and I'm glad to see it again, a
decade after the Kiefer show at MoMA. When I ask Lauder to talk about
collecting, he dispenses some advice for beginners: "Buy as many
art books as your bookcases or financial position can sustain and just
look at the pictures and train your eye to recognize the best of each
artist, then determine those artists you really love, and whatever you
buy make sure it's among the artist's best work."
Then he reels off his three categories for works of
art: "'Oh,' 'Oh my,' and 'Oh my God.' Only buy 'Oh my God's."
Last year he had the ultimate "Oh my God" experience when he
bought Paul Cézanne's Still Life, Flowered Curtain and Fruit
for $50 million, the second highest price ever for a painting. (Another
Penn alumnus, Walter Annenberg, W'31, Hon'66, still holds the record,
shelling out $57 million for Vincent Van Gogh's Wheatfield with Cypresses.)
Ronald and his wife, Jo Carole (who is active on several MoMA committees),
concentrate on collecting Old Master drawings, 20th-century painting and
sculpture, and medieval arms and armor.
As well as pictures, Ronald collects chairmanships
-- of Estée Lauder International and Clinique; Central European Media;
the Central European Development Corporation; the Jewish Heritage Council;
the Auschwitz-Birkenau Preservation Project; the Sakharov Archives at
Brandeis University; MoMA; and the Commission for Art Recovery of the
World Jewish Congress. His public persona is more serious than his brother's.
And he's had a larger public presence than Leonard -- notably as Republican
candidate for New York City mayor in the 1989 primary against Rudolph
Giuliani, and as Ronald Reagan's ambassador to Austria in 1986-87. The
prestigious Vienna post turned into a nightmare when, a few weeks after
Lauder's arrival, Kurt Waldheim was elected Austrian president, despite
evidence that he'd participated in Nazi war crimes. Lauder refused to
attend Waldheim's inauguration, and stayed only a year and a half as ambassador.
The Lauders have donated tens of millions in paintings
and money to the Whitney and MoMA and recently gave $1 million to start
a $10 million endowment drive at the Bronx High School of Science, their
other alma mater and part of the New York City public-school system. "What
with all the budget cuts going on in the city," Leonard said, "we
decided to help them so they could invest in some computers." In
the past decade, New York City's educational system, from kindergarten
to the City University of New York, has gone through a series of profound
and painful crises. Private gifts like the Lauders' and public programs
like the National Institutes of Health Bridges Program, which sends minority
community-college science students to work in labs at four-year colleges,
are a big help. As Leonard said at the press conference announcing the
gift: "Any time you raise the bar of excellence, it brings everyone
else along with it."
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Gazette Last modified 9/1/98