Friday, May 11, 2012

A cranky Patersonian changes the world of art

New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art contains one of the world's finest and most diverse collections, thanks in large part to a cranky, uncharitable Paterson industrialist. By most accounts, the guy didn't even care that much about art.

If you visit the Met and read the small placards next to the works on display, chances are you'll frequently see the words "Rogers Fund" as the funding source. That's referring to Jacob Rogers, the aforementioned curmudgeon. The son of Rogers Locomotive Works' founder Thomas Rogers, he became the manufacturing concern's president upon his father's death in 1856. The company was the largest of five locomotive manufacturers in Paterson, turning out a new railroad engine every two days.

While Jacob Rogers was among the wealthiest men in the city, there's no trace of his generosity anywhere in Paterson. In fact, he seemed to enjoy turning down requests for donations and small favors. Young boys who asked if they could use a portion of his land for a ballfield were told he'd lease them the land for $2000 per month -- after they erected a $5000 fence around it. Even when he chose to give funds to a worthy cause, the donations could end at any time. A representative from a local hospital suggested that Rogers might be able to afford a monthly gift of more than the $100 he had been sending; the stipend was quickly and permanently stopped.

Much of this behavior stemmed from restrictions the Paterson city government had put on Rogers' business, primarily forbidding the company from starting any of its locomotives within the city. Undoubtedly this meant having to use protracted and expensive means of moving product out of the factory to customers. Rather than seeking a mutually satisfying compromise, Rogers instead held a grudge against the city to his dying day.

That's a good explanation for why there are no grand tributes to Rogers' largess in Paterson, but how does he become one of the Met's most influential donors? It seems that his contrariness is a major factor. He'd read about a wealthy man who'd died in the Midwest in the 1880s, leaving his entire estate to a group of educational institutions. The man's family contested the will, but it held up in court.

Rogers, a lifelong bachelor, didn't believe in inheritance and saw an opportunity in the Midwestern man's approach. He became a member of the Met, delivering his $10 membership fee to the museum director each year. He asked about the institution's management structure and finances, and though he mentioned he'd be addressing the Met in his will, the director didn't think much of it. It seems that the only times Rogers visited the museum were to deliver his annual dues -- not exactly the type of member one would expect more than a couple thousand dollars from after death. Apparently the Met management was unaware he was a wealthy locomotive magnate. They just thought he was an unusual man who was curious about where his membership money was going.

Rogers' seeming obscurity at the museum ended with his death in 1901. Other than small inheritances to a few of his nephews, he left the entirety of his estate -- liquidated property and all -- to the Met. The $5 million was the first gift over $1 million the struggling museum had ever received. Rogers stipulated that his bequest was to be invested and the principal left untouched; the museum was allowed to spend only the income. Unlike other donors, however, he set no boundaries on the types of art the institution could purchase with the proceeds of his gift. As the museum's then director Luigi Palma di Cesnola said of New York millionaires at the time, "They will give money for buying collections, and for building purposes, because both remain visible monuments of their generosity, while endowment funds are invisible and remain unknown to the general public."

Since then, the income from Rogers' gift has funded the museum's productive archaeological expeditions in Egypt as well as the acquisition of legendary works by Rembrandt, Velasquez and other acclaimed artists. The principal continues to grow and earn, ensuring that a Patersonian known in life as tightfisted and mean will, nonetheless, endure as an example of generosity.

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