The Metropolitan's holdings of art from sub-Saharan Africa, the Pacific Islands, and the Americas are today regarded as canonical. They constitute such an integral part of the institution that few realize their inclusion is the result of the vision and sustained efforts of a uniquely influential figure in both American political life and the New York art scene: Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller (1908–1979). The scion of one of the nation's most significant philanthropic families, Rockefeller served as vice president from 1974 to 1977 under Gerald R. Ford and was elected to four consecutive terms as governor of the State of New York between 1959 and 1973.
Key formative influences for Rockefeller were his mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, a founder of the Museum of Modern Art, and his travels. His passion for collecting included modern art, Far Eastern sculpture and painting, and Precolumbian, South Sea Islands, and African art. In 1930, when he graduated from Dartmouth College, he became a member of the board of the Metropolitan Museum. The Metropolitan's lack of interest in avant-garde art had been a catalyst for the establishment of the Museum of Modern Art the year before. Rockefeller advocated for Precolumbian art, another notable absence in the Met's holdings, but his efforts were thwarted by the Met's director, Herbert Winlock. With the encouragement of René d'Harnoncourt, Rockefeller founded a cultural organization devoted to these neglected artistic traditions. The scope of this "Salon des Refusés" was vast, encompassing an array of non-Western art traditions. In its initial 1954 charter, this pioneering venture was named the Museum of Indigenous Art. Located in a townhouse adjoining Rockefeller's boyhood home across from the Museum of Modern Art at 15 West Fifty-fourth Street, it later became known as the Museum of Primitive Art.
Over the course of two decades, the collection of the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at the Museum of Primitive Art became the most important ever assembled. It was shaped by Rockefeller's quest for aesthetic excellence across a vast spectrum of traditions. The museum's co-founder and vice president, René d'Harnoncourt, recruited the art historian Robert Goldwater as director, and together they assisted Rockefeller in realizing his goal of establishing these traditions as fine arts in the West. Toward this end, Goldwater oversaw an extensive program of landmark exhibitions. Before his death in 1968, d'Harnoncourt served as an emissary on behalf of Rockefeller in brokering an agreement with Thomas Hoving, the director of the Metropolitan, to create a department encompassing the holdings of the Museum of Primitive Art and Rockefeller's personal collection. When the Museum of Primitive Art closed in December 1974, its library, its staff, and 3,500 works were transferred to the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing at the Metropolitan. Nelson Rockefeller died before the wing, dedicated to the memory of his son, opened to the public in 1982.
Sixty years after the founding of the Museum of Primitive Art, the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas occupy a place of prominence at the Metropolitan, fulfilling Rockefeller's vision.