The art of giving it away

Paul Mellon: Billionaire's private passion was public improvement, not self-aggrandizement.

February 05, 1999

BALTIMOREANS who visit the National Gallery of Art to commune with Rembrandt and Monet without paying should thank a shy billionaire who lived the private life. The gallery was Andrew Mellon's vision, but Paul Mellon's creation.

The old man, Andrew, made fortunes through an inherited bank in Pittsburgh. As secretary of the Treasury for Presidents Harding, Coolidge and Hoover in the 1920s, he managed the nation's prosperity and, some say, its subsequent collapse.

Andrew concluded that Washington needed a National Gallery of Art like London's after serving as ambassador to Britain. In 1937, he gave 115 paintings and money to build the majestic museum. After his father's death, son Paul saw the project through to its 1941 opening. Before his death Monday at 91, Paul Mellon gave another 913 works of art and the exciting East Wing to the National Gallery.

Paul Mellon worked at spending, not earning. His only connection to business was owning it. Some $1 billion in philanthropy flowed from him, saving Atlantic shoreline in three states, giving Yale a museum of British art, promoting modern literature.

Each is a reflection of Paul Mellon's taste, not his name. The genius of Andrew and Paul Mellon's creation was to call it the National Gallery of Art -- possessed by all citizens, attracting other donors -- not a Mellon monument. How different from many worthy rich people who build something to put their names on.

Money must be made before it can be given. Many people are skilled at half that equation. In the National Gallery of Art, the separate strengths of father and son, who were not close, realized their single vision. The nation and people are richer for their tandem collaboration.

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