Paul Mellon gave to share his loves

Giants who shaped American arts

Paul Mellon defined philanthropy in the 20th century, not just because of how much he gave - more than $600 million in his lifetime and well over $1 billion including posthumous bequests - but because of his motive for giving it: to share pleasure in what he loved.

People need "a good five-cent reverie," he said, and the galleries he built and filled with works of art helped provide it. Mellon family money built the National Gallery of Art in Washington: Mr. Mellon presided over construction of the West Wing after his father's death in 1937 and financed the East Wing with his sister, Ailsa.

Mellon, who died Feb. 1, also made Yale University the No. 1 center for British art in the world outside of London.

"That's the clue to Paul Mellon's philanthropy: The things that stirred him deeply, he wished to make as widely available to everyone as possible," says Patrick McCaughey, director of Yale's British Arts Center. Mellon's only condition for the more than $240 million he gave to the center was that admission fees never be charged to view the collection, even voluntary fees. "It was a condition we were happy to accept."

After his parents' divorce, Mellon split an unhappy childhood between British country houses and industrial Pittsburgh, where his father had made a fortune in investment banking. He later opted out of the "dreary routine" of business and took up life in the countryside, close to horses and great art. He started collecting British art at a time when it was neglected and undervalued, even in Britain.

"My object in giving these collections to Yale was largely to give young men and women an opportunity to enjoy them at a period in their lives before age and familiarity dulled the immediacy of their visual impact," he wrote in his 1992 autobiography, "Reflections in a Silver Spoon."

Mellon's name rarely appears on the buildings he funded or in connection with his other philanthropy. For example, he quietly covered the operating deficits, including faculty salaries, for two decades at St. John's College in Annapolis, which he attended only briefly in 1941.

"Mellon's benefactions to the arts, learning, and scholarship are found throughout the United States and abroad. The Commonwealth will never see his like again," reads a new memorial to Mellon at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, where he was a trustee and the No. 1 benefactor for 40 years.

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