German and Austrian art in a 5th Avenue mansion

But only with continued funding from cosmetics tycoon Ronald Lauder


New York

The dealer Serge Sabarsky used to tell a story about his protégé and friend, Ronald Lauder: one day, Mr Lauder arrived at the older man’s Madison Avenue gallery with a Schiele drawing that Mr Sabarsky had sold him. “Tell me, Serge,” asked Mr Lauder: “Hundreds of chic people come to your openings, but how many clients do you actually have who are buying Schiele?” “Just two,” replied Mr Sabarsky. “Make sure you count me and my brother,” said Ronald Lauder. “I already did,” the dealer told him. The Neue Galerie opening this month in a building on Fifth Avenue fulfills the late Sabarsky’s long-held ambition to create a memorial to himself and the art he collected.

The inaugural exhibition in the mansion that once housed the the wealthy Vanderbilt family and then the Yiddish Institute (YIVO) is “New Worlds: German and Austrian art 1890-1940”. Nearly 200 drawings, paintings and decorative objects are installed in galleries on two floors, and accompanied by a 600-page catalogue. All the explanatory panels on the walls are in German and English.

Sabarsky, who died in 1996, was a charmer and womaniser who entered the art trade relatively late in life after careers as a circus clown and architectural designer. He set up his gallery in the 1960s, specialising in German and Austrian art.

His collection has not been bequeathed to the Neue Galerie; the works are on loan to the new museum from a trust operated on behalf of his wife, Vally and if Sabarsky’s dream got his museum off the ground, it is Ronald Lauder’s money that has kept it there.

The building was acquired in 1994 by Sabarsky and Lauder. Neue Galerie employees would not disclose the museum’s annual budget, nor would Ronald Lauder respond to a request for an interview, but it is assumed that most of the museum’s operating funds come from the cosmetics scion. Asked to estimate the size of the Neue Galerie’s collection, Renee Price, the museum’s director, speculated that there might be 100 works. A museum spokesman stressed that the Neue Galerie does have an acquisition budget. Its most conspicuous purchase to date, Max Beckman’s Self Portrait with Horn (1938), bought at Sotheby’s earlier this year for $20.5 million, was paid for by the Neue Galerie and the collector Leon Black, according to the spokesman.

Any museum that has grown out of the vanity of one collector has certain problems, said an insider who has witnessed the slow process from the building’s acquisition to its much delayed opening.

The museum’s future depends on Mr Lauder’s willingness to support it. “People may have the assumption that we have unlimited funds but that’s definitely not true,” said Ms Price. “We have an endowment that maybe will last us for the next two years, but we are definitely going to be seeking other funding.”

Mr Lauder is also chairman of the Museum of Modern Art, president of the Egon Schiele Center in the Czech Republic, and founder of the Commission for Art Recovery of the World Jewish Congress.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘German and Austrian art on 5th Avenue'