Estée Lauder billionaire donates $131m to Whitney Museum

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The Independent US

The pockets of the Whitney Museum on the Upper East Side of New York, renowned for its works by contemporary and living artists, have been significantly deepened with a gift of $131m (£66m) from the chairman of its board, the cosmetics tycoon Leonard Lauder.

Officials at the museum said the donation was the largest ever received in its 77-year history and one of the most generous ever given to any arts institution in the United States. It comes with one condition, however: for the foreseeable future at least, the museum must retain its chunky Marcel Breuer-designed building on Madison Avenue as its principal home.

It is no secret that the Whitney has been exploring for some time the establishment of a satellite facility in the red-hot Meatpacking District in the lower climes of Manhattan. Rumours have been circulating, however, that its trustees were considering moving lock, stock and barrel and abandoning the Madison Avenue location.

While to some the 1966 Breuer building may have the air of a fortress penitentiary, it clearly holds the affection of Mr Lauder at least. "Like so many architecture lovers, I believe the Whitney and the Breuer building are one," he told The New York Times in announcing his donation. Just how long the museum would be required to remain in situ he did not make clear.

So strings are attached, but none among the Whitney trustees are likely to complain. Nearly all the Lauder money will go to bolstering the institution's endowment. In fact it will multiply its current value by almost three times to a healthy $195m. (That, however, still seems like crumbs beside the endowment of the Museum of Modern Art, MoMA, which is currently estimated at $850m.)

It comes at a time of healthy business for Estée Lauder, the cosmetics giant where Mr Lauder is also chairman. Mr Lauder, who turned 75 yesterday, joined the family firm in 1958, since which time it has expanded in giant leaps, earning revenue just in the last quarter of last year of $2.31bn. Mr Lauder himself is personally worth $3.2bn, according to 2007 rankings in Forbes magazine.

The Whitney, known for its broad collection of works by the likes of Edward Hopper, Georgia O'Keefe, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Alexander Calder, abandoned plans two years ago to build a nine-storey extension to its Madison Avenue site to have been designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano.

It is Mr Piano, meanwhile, who is now slated to help develop the blueprints for the putative satellite facility in the Meatpacking District, an area that has recently caught alight with new arts-related and also retail and hotel developments. It is a once seedy area of town cut through by the elevated, and defunct, Highline railway currently being transformed into a ribbon of park.

The infusion of cash from Mr Lauder means that raising funds for the construction of that building may now be considerably easier. It is not his first donation to the museum. Six years ago he helped fund an important expansion of its permanent collection, purchasing works by Warhol, Johns and Jackson Pollock.

The gift will also reinforce the legacy of the Lauders as pre-eminent patrons of the arts in New York. Ronald Lauder – brother to Leonard – is a former board chairman of MoMA who has funded his own museum, the Neue Galerie on Fifth Avenue, a boutique museum of Austrian and German works most noted for a Gustav Klimt portrait bought in 2006 for a record-breaking $135m.