The works Nelson Rockefeller collected remained inextricably tied to the places they were made—places he enjoyed visiting to learn more about the world. The role of the Museum of Primitive Art was to generate outreach and inspire pride abroad among those countries of origin.
Rockefeller's first love was Precolumbian art. Beginning in the 1930s he traveled extensively in Mexico and Latin America, dedicating his energies toward fostering economic development. Under President Roosevelt he was appointed to the newly created position of Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (1940) and later served as Assistant Secretary of State for American Republic Affairs (1944).
Rockefeller first traveled with his family to Africa in 1956. On September 30, 1960, he acted as President Eisenhower's representative, leading the U.S. delegation at Nigeria's independence. A highlight of that visit was spending time with Kenneth Murray, Surveyor of Antiquities, and Bernard Fagg, archaeologist and curator, at the National Museum in Lagos.
To celebrate independence across the continent after this trip, the MPA mounted the exhibition The Traditional Arts of Africa's New Nations in 1961. The transition from colonialism to independence was also heralded through the loan of twenty-three major African works from the MPA to L'Art Nègre, which opened in Dakar, Senegal, in 1966 and subsequently went to Paris in conjunction with the First World Festival of Negro Africa, presided over by President Léopold Sédar Senghor.
Nelson's son, Michael, shared his father's passion for non-Western art. After graduating from Harvard University in 1960, he traveled to Papua New Guinea with the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology to make a documentary film. Michael stayed on to research and collect the art of the Asmat peoples. During a later visit to the region, his life was tragically cut short when he disappeared during a boating accident. The more than six hundred works he gathered were first presented in the 1962 MPA exhibition The Art of the Asmat, New Guinea: Collected by Michael C. Rockefeller and are today enshrined in the wing as his legacy.
Michael C. Rockefeller and the Art of the Asmat
For Oceania, the MPA's most prominent engagement with the original sources of its masterworks was Michael C. Rockefeller's collecting and research among the Asmat people of New Guinea. In 1961 Michael Rockefeller, already an MPA Trustee, joined the Harvard-Peabody New Guinea Expedition to the island's western highlands. During the expedition, he traveled the Asmat region on the southwest coast and spent three weeks acquiring works for the museum and documenting and photographing Asmat art and cultural practices. Following a brief trip home, he returned in September 1961, collecting works in numerous Asmat villages before tragically losing his life on November 18.
Michael Rockefeller's extraordinary accomplishments are reflected in the breadth, quality, and meticulous documentation of his Asmat collection, which contains more than six hundred works, including the towering bis (ancestor) poles that are a focal point of the Metropolitan's Oceanic galleries. To honor Michael Rockefeller's achievements, the MPA staged the 1962 exhibition The Art of the Asmat, New Guinea: Collected by Michael C. Rockefeller. Held in a specially constructed pavilion in the courtyard of the Museum of Modern Art, it presented works from the collection together with a selection of his evocative photographs of Asmat life and art.