The collector

J.P. Morgan’s artistic passion drives museum

John Pierpont Morgan was many things. Financier. Banker. Owner of the White Star Line and its ill-fated ship, the RMS Titanic. (Reportedly, he was scheduled to take part in its maiden voyage but changed his plans at the last minute.) Globe-trotter. Philanthropist.

But among his many roles, few were more important than that of collector.

“He collected everything,” says William M. Griswold, the director of The Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan, “from pocket watches to Old Master paintings to Chinese porcelain.

“He liked a lot of things, and he knew a lot about them. He was not collecting for show. It was a passion.”

The breadth and depth of that passion is reflected in the holdings and exhibits at The Morgan.

“We have collections spanning drawings and prints from their origins in the 14th century in Italy up to the present,” Griswold says. “We have one of the great collections of printed books and bindings, beginning with three Gutenberg Bibles. No other museum has three. We have one of the great collections of medieval and Renaissance illuminated manuscripts. We have a collection of literary historical manuscripts, letters in the handwriting of Veronese and Titian, manuscripts by Einstein and Bob Dylan, a great collection of ancient Near Eastern seals and music manuscripts spanning the history of European music, though our strengths are the 18th and 19th centuries.”

As Griswold chats in his stately white office in a building that was once the home of Morgan’s son and namesake (known as Jack), his enthusiasm bubbles to the surface.

“For me, what this represents is the creative process, the work of writers, artists and the great figures in history confronting creative challenges. It’s the history of ideas and the history of the imagination. That’s what unites these disparate collections.”

No surrender

And the exhibits they inspire. Exploring them, you can’t help but be moved by the terrible wonder of the human mind. “Churchill: The Power of Words” (through Sept. 23) gives us the man who almost single-handedly for a time stood up to the Nazis and saved Western civilization. (Although you have to wonder if it was the American in Winston Churchill that gave the British prime minister some of his moxie. His mother may have been Lady Randolph Churchill to the Brits, but she’ll always be Jennie Jerome, good Brooklyn girl, to us.)

Anyway, by the time you get to the 1940 speech in the House of Commons in which Winnie announced: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender,” you’ll find it hard not to surrender to tears.

From the blood, sweat and tears of Churchillian England you waft through the marble McKim Rotunda to the rarefied world of “Renaissance Venice: Drawings From the Morgan” (through Sept. 23), in which the delicate draftsmanship of Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese and company stirs you in a whole different way.

These are rich delights indeed. The pleasures of “Robert Wilson/Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach” (through Nov. 4) are purely Minimalist as the show reunites director Wilson’s spare storyboards with composer Glass’ hypnotically repetitive score and footage from the landmark 1976 opera, which redefined what the genre could be.

The dry wit of “Einstein on the Beach” may be too arid for some. Not so the letters and works on display in the warm red and green original library, which can be described only as baronial. There’s Edgar Allan Poe’s Byronic “Tamerlane” (1827); the original manuscript of Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1889-90); a 1954 letter from Ernest Hemingway to George Plimpton, then editor of The Paris Review, declining an interview in the salty language we imagine Papa sprinkled regularly; and some hilarious 1955 correspondence in which poet Marianne Moore was asked to come up with a name for a new Ford. The company went instead with its own – the Edsel. Should’ve stuck with Marianne, guys.

Housing history

As you might imagine, maintaining and presenting such treasures is something of a challenge. But, Griswold says, “with the completion of the Renzo Piano addition and the restoration of our 1906 building, we can represent at any given time the range of our collections.”

The Morgan is not one building but actually a complex of buildings a few blocks south of Grand Central Terminal. “Mr. Morgan’s library,” as it was called, was built between 1902 and 1906 next to his home on Madison Avenue and 36th Street. Created in the style of an Italian Renaissance palazzo by Charles McKim of the legendary McKim, Mead & White – which put a Beaux Arts stamp on much of New York City and its environs — the library is one of the most architecturally significant buildings in the country. It’s joined by the Annex building, which replaced Morgan’s residence in 1928, and his son’s former home, a brownstone added to the campus in 1988.

Two years ago, the original library was given a $4.5 million facelift that included new lighting and exhibit cases, the restoration of period furniture and fixtures; the cleaning of the walls and applied ornamentation; and the opening of the North Room, the office of Belle da Costa Greene, the Morgan’s first director.

This followed the $106 million, 75,000-square-foot expansion in 2006 by Pritzker Prize winner Renzo Piano, which reflects the original trio of buildings and unites all through the central glass Gilbert Court, containing some streamlined Ellsworth Kelly sculptures through Sept. 9.

“Most visitors don’t realize there’s a lot going on behind the scenes,” Griswold says. “The Renzo Piano expansion gave us a three-story subterranean vault, a concert hall, a new Reading Room, which is an independent research library (primarily for scholars), an education center, a new restaurant and café and offices.”

Like other cultural institutions, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Morgan has lived through the continuing recession to find audiences returning. Its attendance is up roughly 20 percent. With an operating budget of $18 million and 140 full-time employees, Griswold says, the institution is looking forward to greeting visitors with fall shows on drawings from a great Munich collection and the enchanting world of Beatrix Potter.

“I think interest in the arts is high right now,” he says.

People are searching for an authentic experience beyond the digital world, he adds – one that The Morgan’s rich history can definitely provide.

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