By RICK LYMAN
Oct. 16 -- When Nelson A. Rockefeller made
his final trip to Mexico in 1978, several months before his death, his
eye was drawn to a small hacienda surrounded by a picket fence along a
rural road in Oaxaca. Atop each picket was a tall, strangely striking
figurine made of rough pottery.
The former Vice
President stopped the car, walked to the door and
discovered the shop of a family of potters. Each statue on the fence
had been damaged somehow in the making and just perched on the
fence to help advertise the shop. They were evocative pieces spanning
many years, left to bake in the Mexican sun. Rockefeller bought them all.
"For Nelson Rockefeller,
folk art was an entree to the people," said Marion
Oettinger Jr., senior curator and curator of Latin American art at the San
Antonio Museum of Art. "When he was on collecting trips to Mexico, he
would just plunge into the markets. He loved it."
statues are now part of a staggering 2,500-piece collection
of folk art assembled by Rockefeller that forms the seed of the new
Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Latin American Art at the San Antonio
The center, which
is to open on Oct. 24 in a new $11 million wing at the
museum, will contain not only one of the world's largest Latin American
folk art collections, but also extensive galleries devoted to pre-Columbian
art, Spanish colonial pieces and modern and contemporary works by
Latin artists. In all, the center will present Latin American art spanning
nearly three millenniums, from 1,000 B.C. to the present.
is hoped, the center will also contain a library, research
center, seminar rooms and space for visiting scholars.
"There are a
lot of museums in the United States with significant
collections of pre-Columbian art," Oettinger said. "Other museums also
have important folk art collections and pieces by contemporary artists,
and a handful have Spanish colonial collections. But we will be the only
one that covers all four elements. We're it."
Edward J. Sullivan,
chairman of the department of fine arts at New York
University and a specialist in modern and contemporary art from Latin
America, called the Rockefeller folk art legacy "one of the truly important
collections." He concurred that the center would set the museum apart
because of its significant collections in all major areas of Latin American
art. "Their colonial art is very impressive, on the same level as a place like
the Denver Museum of Art," he said, adding, "the aggregate of all that
material really makes it a top place for looking at Latin American art."
Visitors will enter through the museum and then an orientation area.
center was constructed in an L-shape to swing around a
pair of 200-year-old oak trees. The four exhibition areas spread out from
a central atrium.
Each area has
its own design motif: the doorways in the pre-Columbian
section are cut in the shape of a semi-hexagonal Mayan arch; the colonial
gallery is shaped like a massive barreled vault with Romanesque arches,
reminiscent of a Spanish church; the folk areas include the burnt terra
cotta colors found in adobe homes, with doorways crowned by wooden
lintels; the contemporary collection is visually connected with tall, narrow
openings crisscrossed with lattice. Viewing Art As an Ambassador
was always in promoting the interrelationship between
Mexico and America," said Ann R. Roberts, who chose the San Antonio
museum as the repository of her father's collection. "So I wanted the gift
to go to a place where it would work toward furthering that
sons, Mark and Nelson Jr., who inherited a South Texas
ranch where their father once intended to build a house, donated money
for a network of computers to lead visitors through the center.
art was only one of many enthusiasms for Rockefeller, a
lifelong collector of many kinds of art, but it was a substantial one.
He was a young
man in the 1920's when his mother encountered Mexican
folk art at a craft show in Manhattan. The children's playhouse at the
Rockefeller estate in Tarrytown, N.Y., is still covered with Mexican tiles
and folk art motifs as a result, Roberts said.
visited Mexico in 1933 and was enraptured by the folk
pieces he found in rural markets. With the help of friends and advisers,
particularly the Mexican muralist Miguel Covarrubias, a writer and
caricaturist for The New Yorker, Rockefeller began amassing a dizzying
array of pieces that he found in markets and ion subsequent excursions
into the Mexican hinterland, including an extended tour of Latin America
"This was a collection
that he lived with," said Oettinger, who wrote the
text for "Folk Treasures of Mexico," a 1989 book based on Rockefeller's
collection. "You can see pieces from the collection in some old pictures of
Rockefeller at his various homes."
During the 1930's,
when Fascism was on the rise in Europe and beginning
to take root in parts of Latin America, Rockefeller came to believe that the
only way to combat it was to develop closer links between the peoples of the
United States and Latin America. The best way to do that, he felt, was through
an appreciation of each other's culture.
When he was president
of the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan he
compiled an exhibition of about 5,000 pieces of art borrowed from
Mexican institutions, and established the museum's Inter-American Fund
to purchase more Latin American pieces for the permanent collection.
In the 1940's,
Rockefeller's interest in Latin American affairs brought him
into the Roosevelt Administration.
In 1944, he was
named Assistant Secretary of State for American
Republic Affairs, focusing on trade and diplomatic relations in the
In his travels
around Latin America he continued to forage through local
markets for art.
moved from four terms as Governor of New York
through three unsuccessful presidential campaigns to a career-capping
two years as Gerald R. Ford's Vice President, his trips to Mexico
continued. But his interests widened and many of the folk pieces gathered
in the 30's and 40's were packed away and half forgotten.
pre-Columbian collection had already gone to the
Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it became part of the Michael
Rockefeller wing, and most of his contemporary pieces, including those
by Latin artists, had gone to the Museum of Modern Art. But his folk art
remained, for the most part, scattered around the Rockefeller residences
or stored in crates.
that her father would have wanted this particular
collection kept together. "It became my way of honoring my father after
his death," she said. "It was a period in his collecting that I felt very close
to because it is what I grew up with." Finding a Home With an Ethnic Mix
So she purchased
the entire collection from her father's estate and began
the task of finding a museum that would become its home.
"We were looking
for a museum that was an art museum, not only a folk
art museum, so that it would have other areas of collection, a broader
base," Roberts said. "We were also looking for a museum that was in a
mixed community, that had a Latino and an Anglo population, that already
had an interest in folk art so they weren't just kind of making it up, and
that already had some kind of relationship with its Latin community."
Honoring the Legacy Of an Aficionado She gave about 500 pieces to the
Mexican Museum in San Francisco, which is devoted solely to folk art
and was too small to take all 3,000 pieces.
The rest of the collection went to San Antonio in 1985.
began his career as an anthropologist interested in rural
Mexico, came to the museum a year later and assembled a large
exhibition, "Mexico: Splendors of 30 Centuries," that was a smashing
success in San Antonio and eventually toured the nation. That show,
combined with the experience of writing the book about the Rockefeller
folk collection, led him and other officials at the museum to expand their
Latin American collection.
The museum, along
the San Antonio River north of downtown and about
a mile from the center of tourist activity along the Riverwalk, had opened
in 1981 in the abandoned Lone Star brewery. The sprawling complex had
space for a new wing.
In 1994, voters
in San Antonio approved a $1 million "quality of life"
bond issue to spur the project's capital campaign, originally set at $10
million. The next year the Mabee Foundation of Tulsa, Okla., offered a
$1 million challenge grant contingent on the museum's raising another $8
million by mid-1995. That goal was eventually exceeded by $1 million,
bringing the budget for the construction, endowment and installation of the
center to $11 million.
That left only the task of choosing a name.
"It seemed appropriate
to honor Rockefeller, both because of his folk art
collection and because of the family's support for the museum and the
center," Oettinger said.
she and her stepbrothers also knew that placing her father's
name on the wing would raise its profile.
"It was a question
both of the museum's generosity, a recognition of my
father's love for Latin America and his work there, and a gift that might
bring more awareness of the museum," she said. "In a sense, his name on
the center endorses it."