Theses Doctoral

Founders and Funders: Institutional Expansion and the Emergence of the American Cultural Capital, 1840-1940

Paley, Valerie

The pattern of American institution building through private funding began in metropolises of all sizes soon after the nation's founding. But by 1840, Manhattan's geographical location and great natural harbor had made it America's preeminent commercial and communications center and the undisputed capital of finance. Thus, as the largest and richest city in the United States, unsurprisingly, some of the most ambitious cultural institutions would rise there, and would lead the way in the creation of a distinctly American model of high culture.
This dissertation describes New York City's cultural transformation between 1840 and 1940, and focuses on three of its enduring monuments, the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Metropolitan Opera. It seeks to demonstrate how trustees and financial supporters drove the foundational ideas, day-to-day operations, and self-conceptions of the organizations, even as their institutional agendas enhanced and galvanized the inherently boosterish spirit of the Empire City. Many board members were animated by the dual impulses of charity and obligation, and by their own lofty edifying ambitions for their philanthropies, their metropolis, and their country. Others also combined their cultural interests with more vain desires for social status.
Although cohesive, often overlapping social groups founded and led most elite institutions, important moments of change in leadership in the twentieth century often were precipitated by the breakdown of a social order once restricted to Protestant white males. By the 1920s and 1930s, the old culture of exclusion--of Jews, of women, of ethnic minorities in general--was no longer an accepted assumption, nor was it necessarily good business. In general, institutions that embraced the notion of diversity and adapted to forces of historical change tended to thrive. Those that held fast to the paradigms of the past did not.
Typically, when we consider the history and development of such major institutions, the focus often has been on the personalities and plans of the paid directors and curatorial programs. This study, however, redirects some of the attention towards those who created the institutions and hired and fired the leaders. While a common view is that membership on a board was coveted for social status, many persons who led these efforts had little abiding interest in Manhattan's social scene. Rather, they demanded more of their boards and expected their fellow-trustees to participate in more ways than financially. As the twentieth century beckoned, rising diversity in the population mirrored the emerging multiplicity in thought and culture; boards of trustees were hardly exempt from this progression.
This dissertation also examines the subtle interplay of the multi-valenced definition of "public" along with the contrasting notion of "private." In the early 1800s, a public institution was not typically government funded, and more often functioned independent of the state, supported by private individuals. "Public," instead, meant for the people. Long before the income tax and charitable deductions for donations, there was a full range of voluntary organizations supported by private contributions in the United States. This dissertation argues that in a privatist spirit, New York elites seized a leadership role, both individually and collectively, to become cultural arbiters for the city and the nation.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Jackson, Kenneth T.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
December 12, 2017