A trove of Native American art kept locked in a Rockefeller family home in Seal Harbor, Maine, for nearly 100 years has found a new home at Mesa Verde National Park.
The Estate of David Rockefeller recently donated 115 works of art from the Collection of David and Peggy Rockefeller to Mesa Verde and 52 works to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Tara Travis, supervisory museum curator at Mesa Verde, said it’s an exciting time for people like her.
“This doesn’t happen very often in the life of museum curators,” she said.
The Rockefeller family has a long history of working with Mesa Verde, the National Park Service and the Museum of Fine Arts. Much of the donated collection was purchased by John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller directly from living artists during trips their family took to the American West in the 1920s, including a tour of Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde in 1924.
The works donated to Mesa Verde include a Navajo pictorial rug with the initials J.D.R., woven corn husk baskets, concha belts, wood sculptures by Blackfoot artist John Louis Clarke, wood block prints by Gustav Baumann, paintings by Eanger Irving Couse and early examples of San Ildefonso Pueblo black-on-black pottery by Maria Martinez and her husband, Julian Martinez.
Inspired by the earlier trips with his family, John D. Rockefeller’s son, David Rockefeller, during an entomological expedition in 1934, purchased a watercolor painting called “Kachina Dancer” by Jemez Pueblo artist Jose Rey Toledo at Grand Canyon National Park. Travis said many of the donated pieces have unique stories and direct ties to the Rockefeller family.
“A lot of this artwork has not been seen for … almost 100 years, so part of its significance is what was this family collection can now be viewed by so many visitors in the future,” Travis said.
While museum staff are preparing and planning to exhibit the donated artwork, four pieces are currently on public display at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center. Travis said the museum will soon display more of the artwork at the visitor center and eventually put on an exhibit at the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum. She said the donation is a positive contribution to the Southwest.
“Mesa Verde National Park is a big draw to visitors from throughout the world, and I think this will only encourage more visitation,” Travis said.
More than 2,000 miles east, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston is processing its own influx of Native American artwork. Dennis Carr, the Carolyn and Peter Lynch curator of American decorative arts and sculpture at the museum, said it’s fitting that the donated works are split between Mesa Verde National Park and the East Coast institution.
“The trips that they took and the kind of objects that were collected during this time period were very influential in shaping the understanding of Native American art for an East Coast audience,” Carr said.
He said the Rockefellers were incredible philanthropists in their day and most of their efforts, like sponsoring major museum projects, were very public. But he said the family’s Native American collection was neither well-known nor open to the public.
Now that both Carr and Travis have an opportunity to share this relatively unknown artwork, they plan on collaborating. Carr said the Museum of Fine Arts has experience in displaying works like this, while Mesa Verde can provide historical context in understanding the Rockefeller family and the moment of collecting artwork in the 1920s.
“The opportunity to bring these objects to public view is very exciting for the MFA Boston but also for Mesa Verde National Park,” Carr said. “People will be able to see these things from the collection really for the first time.”
According to news reports, the Rockefeller estate earlier this year sold the home in Seal Harbor, Maine, for $19 million and auctioned artwork from the Estate of David Rockefeller, who died in March 2017, for $646 million.
Carr and Travis declined to comment on the estimated value of the donated art collection.