2017-07-04 17:27:03
Putting Doubts to Rest About Leonard Lauder’s Gift to the Met

When the philanthropist and cosmetics tycoon Leonard A. Lauder gave his trove of Cubist paintings, drawings and sculptures to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2013 — one of the most significant gifts in its history — the Met knew it would have to provide galleries of a quality commensurate with that of the collection.

As a result, hanging over the Met’s decision this year to postpone its new $600 million wing for Modern and contemporary art — as well as the museum’s recent management turmoil — have been nagging questions: Is Mr. Lauder’s gift, valued at more than $1 billion four years ago, now at risk? If the Met takes too long to resurrect the project or ultimately scales it back, might Mr. Lauder take his collection elsewhere?

Mr. Lauder, who agreed to answer these questions only through email, made clear that his initial donation of 78 works of art was never contingent on the Met’s construction of a new wing, nor was its future now in jeopardy.

“There is no issue with my gift,” he said. “We are aligned and I am confident that the Met will present the collection in a manner that is consistent with the excellence for which it is known.”

Mr. Lauder has conveyed this message to Daniel Brodsky, the Met’s chairman, and to Daniel H. Weiss, who recently ascended to the top job at the Met, becoming chief executive as well as president. “Leonard has assured us he wants this gift to come to the Met,” Mr. Weiss said, adding, “We made commitments to him about how we would honor and store and exhibit this collection and he’s open to hearing modifications of this vision.”

Just what precisely those “commitments” are is unclear; the contractual terms of the gift are confidential. But The New York Times has learned that under the agreement, the Met has until 2025 to create a suitable home for the Lauder material.

Originally, the new wing was to be completed by 2020 — in time for the Met’s 150th birthday — and be designed by David Chipperfield. But the Met had difficulty securing lead donors for the project and then confronted a looming budget deficit.

The Met had been looking for two gifts to cover half the $600 million construction cost; people with a net worth of at least $5 billion were approached, without success.

These possibilities included the conservative activist and philanthropist David H. Koch, a Met trustee emeritus who funded the $65 million refurbishment of the museum’s plaza and the renovation of New York City Ballet’s Lincoln Center home, both of which bear his name. Also asked was the Wall Street financier Stephen A. Schwarzman, who gave $150 million to create a cultural center at Yale University in 2015 and $100 million to the New York Public Library in 2008, both of which are named after him.

It can’t be easy for the Met to see the Museum of Modern Art win two major gifts for its renovation and expansion: $100 million from the media mogul David Geffen last year and $50 million from the hedge fund billionaire Steven A. Cohen last week (even after MoMA announced it had completed fund-raising for its $400 million construction costs and is now raising money for its endowment).

Part of the motivation for the Met’s new wing was to demonstrably increase its commitment to contemporary art, while attracting collectors’ dollars and art donations.

Mr. Lauder, chairman emeritus of the Whitney Museum of American Art, could have provided a lead financial gift for the Met addition. But he had made clear that he did not want his name on the wing (nor on the Whitney’s new home in the meatpacking district, though that museum ultimately did call it the Leonard A. Lauder Building).

He is also known to believe that with his Cubist collection he has given enough to the Met. Asked about this, Mr. Lauder, 84, said, “I have been actively supporting the Met through acquisitions and exhibitions, and will continue to support the museum in ways that help advance its mission.”

The Cubist collection — which has Picassos, Braques, Légers and works by Gris — catapulted the Met forward, given its weakness in Modern and contemporary art. (Mr. Lauder has added works in the years since.)

Mr. Lauder could have bestowed his gift on another institution, namely the Museum of Modern Art. (However, Mr. Lauder’s brother, Ronald, is the honorary chairman there and the two are famously rivals.) The Cubist cache would never have gone to the Whitney because that museum collects only American art.

The collection could also conceivably end up in the Met Breuer, but the museum has leased that building for eight years — until 2023 — after which its future is uncertain.

While the Met Breuer program has received some critical acclaim, it is a drain on the Met’s resources because it costs $17 million a year to run and can siphon donor support from the Fifth Avenue flagship. Should the Whitney decide to expand, it could take the Breuer building back, although that museum is more likely to add a city-owned site to the north of its current location.

There is general agreement that the Met’s current home for Modern and contemporary art — the 1987 Lila Acheson Wallace Wing of the main building — needs an overhaul. The original architect, Kevin Roche, told The Times in 2014, “I was never very happy with what happened.”

The recently scuttled redesign originally called for the construction of a new wing, an expansion of the roof garden and, possibly, even a new entrance to the museum from Central Park.

Now, the Met will probably carry out a less ambitious — and less expensive — renovation. It has put the redesign on the back burner to concentrate on infrastructure needs, including replacing the skylights and roofing system above the European paintings galleries. Faced with deficits, the Met has been working during the past several months to cut costs and raise revenue.

The fate of its Modern and contemporary galleries will fall to whichever director is selected to replace Thomas P. Campbell, who resigned in February and left at the end of June. To conduct the search the Met has just named Phillips Oppenheim, the firm that helped the Met select Mr. Campbell in 2008.

Mr. Brodsky, the board chairman, said that Mr. Lauder had publicly demonstrated his support for the Met by attending the farewell dinner for Mr. Campbell and by reassuring museum executives on a separate occasion at his home.

“Leonard had the head curators and me to his house and said, ‘This is the greatest museum in the world,’” Mr. Brodsky said. “‘There is nothing that’s happened that would change my mind about my gift.’”