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Follow the Rockefellers

Joe Pierson examines an art piece at the David Rockefeller Creative Arts Center
Ralph Gardner Jr.
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Joe Pierson at the David Rockefeller Creative Arts Center

My wife and I have this somewhat, though not entirely, tongue-in-cheek travel philosophy that can be summed up in three simple words: Follow the Rockefellers. What that means is that if you vacation where members of the family have put down roots and spread their philanthropy – places like Acadia National Park in Maine, the Virgin Islands, and The Grand Tetons – you can’t go far wrong.

Rockefeller landscapes tend to offer natural wonders, tastefully majestic structures, impressive gardens and a tradition of landscape and historic preservation. Subsequent generations of the family – the fourth generation known as “The Cousins” are currently in charge – have atoned for the sins of the earlier ones by funding programs that focus on fossil fuel divestment and sustainable development.

As someone who has taken full advantage of the walking trails, ponds, boathouses and gardens at Acadia National Park (it’s not entirely clear to me whether I’ve occasionally been trespassing on private Rockefeller property or not, but nobody has pressed charges so far) I didn’t need to be asked twice when I was invited to visit the new David Rockefeller Creative Arts Center in Pocantico Hills in Westchester County. It opens today.

I was familiar with the area because for several years my daughter Gracie worked as a line cook at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, another Rockefeller inspired enterprise. It’s just up the road from the Creative Arts Center. The Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture is a good example of the family’s largesse, even if the cost of dinner at Blue Hill presents a stress test for the average person’s credit card. David Rockefeller donated the eighty-acre property and restored the barns that would become Stone Barns Center.

That’s another thing about the Rockefellers. When they’re referring to barns, sheds or playhouses they’re not those humble, utilitarian structures as you and I know them. The barns at Blue Hill could easily be mistaken for a medieval village. The same thing for the David Rockefeller Creative Arts Center. Before it was repurposed it was used as a storage space for vehicles and for, oh, a monumental Jean Dubuffet sculpture.

I have old bikes in my shed. The Rockefellers have Dubuffets. The sculpture was restored, weatherized and now stands at the entrance to the Rockefeller estate, a National Trust property, as you make your way through its gates to the David Rockefeller Creative Arts Center. Would anyone object if I refer to it as the “DR” from here on?

Joseph Pierson is one of the cousins, Nelson Rockefeller’s grandson and the current chair of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. He joined me Wednesday morning for a tour of the center as workmen put on the finishing touches. Joe confided: “I remember as a kid this place being used as storage for trucks and piles of gravel. My grandfather was the last to use it as an orangerie.”

In the 1920’s the space was filled with orange trees. The family gave them away decades later, according to Joe, to places like the New York Botanical Garden and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The redesigned structure, a “net-zero” building with solar arrays and lots of natural light – it includes gallery space and a 200 seat theater – will host public programming in the performing, literary and visual arts, twelve months a year.

Dostoevsky wrote “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” I feel the same way about arts venues and their bathrooms. The DR’s are gender-inclusive, which I suppose explains the lack of urinals, tastefully lighted and with an abundance of stalls.

The DR’s inaugural exhibition is called “Inspired Encounters: Women Artists and the Legacy of Modern Art” and includes works by contemporary artists as well as several by some of the dozen women artists in the family’s collection. It was fun to travel the exhibition with Katrina London, the show’s knowledgeable curator, as well as with Joe.

He remembered from childhood the first piece one encounters entering the gallery. That made sense to me because it would appeal to a child’s eye, featuring an egg popping through a collage of rag paper. There was some discussion between Joe and Katrina about what kind of egg it was – perhaps a duck or goose egg. I remained above the fray.

Mary Bauermeister’s High Towered also brought back fond memories for Joe, an avid environmentalist. It consists of piles of skipping stones in descending size on linen covered board, the smallest so tiny they require a magnifying glass.

Joe remembered the artworks hanging amid his grandfather’s Picassos and Warhols at Kykuit, the forty-room historic mansion above the DR that crowns the estate and overlooks the Hudson River. “The first couple of rooms were like sitting rooms,” Joe remembered, “until you got to the grotto at the end.”

The grotto? One of the challenges of interviewing a Rockefeller is that you want to get the full story without broaching the family’s privacy or appearing overawed. But a grotto? Maybe it’s on the Kykuit tour, which is open to the public from late May through mid-November.

My wife, an accomplished trespasser, has no such qualms breaking protocol. She confessed that she’d driven up the road to Kykuit before she and our dog Wallie picked me up. Joe encouraged me to do the same and said to feel free to drop his name if anybody asked who we were.

The road to the mansion was dotted with large pieces of modern sculpture and impressive views of the Hudson through the trees. We didn’t get out of the car and bang on the front door. But a fountain I spotted through the gates was more reminiscent in size and ambition of Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers in Rome’s Piazza Navona than of the average burbling Lowe’s tabletop fountain.

I look forward to purchasing a ticket and returning soon.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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