Iris Cantor has been a Trustee of The Metropolitan Museum of Art since 1990, but her legacy of philanthropy to the Museum, along with her late husband Bernie, spans over forty years. The Cantors have left a lasting mark on The Met, which can be seen in the galleries (The Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden, The Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Exhibition Hall), numerous acquisitions, and a generous endowment fund that supports everything from exhibitions to publications.
Here Clyde Jones, The Met’s Senior Vice President for Institutional Advancement, speaks to Iris about her deep history of philanthropy at the Museum and the importance of supporting its mission.
Your support of The Metropolitan Museum of Art is decades-long and has enabled the Museum to transform in multiple directions. Why choose The Met as the beneficiary of your philanthropic support?
The Met holds special significance for me and for the Cantor Foundation. It was at The Met in 1945 that a young Bernie Cantor first encountered a work by Auguste Rodin, the sculptor’s marble rendering of The Hand of God. This experience inspired my late husband’s “magnificent obsession” with Rodin, a lifelong passion that encompassed collecting as well as support of exhibitions and scholarship.
Over the years Bernie and I personally, as well as our Foundation, took pleasure in enabling the creation or reopening of indoor and outdoor exhibit spaces at The Met; nourishing its Rodin collections by gifting a number of major works; and presenting exhibitions on Rodin and other artists. Today The Met remains a treasured partner.
We want to thank you for your generosity in supporting The Met’s 150th anniversary, which among other activities was to support a gala for the anniversary. Unfortunately, the pandemic caused the cancellation of this event. You kindly shifted your support to the exhibition Fictions of Emancipation: Carpeaux Recast. What piqued your interest in this show?
While the art of Rodin is still a cornerstone of the Cantor Foundation, it has long been our tradition to support exhibitions featuring the work of other significant artists. Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux is a perfect example. Rodin admired Carpeaux and was influenced by his techniques. They emerged from similar working-class backgrounds in France. This exhibition sheds light on Carpeaux’s creative process as well as the broader historical and societal context in which he worked.
This exhibition enables a conversation about race and representation through an iconic piece from our European Sculpture and Decorative Arts collection. We’d love to hear your reflections on why you’ve chosen to support this type of scholarship and presentation.
A museum should be more than a place to see works of art—it should be a place to explore, through art, the universal issues we all face as human beings. Supporting the Carpeaux exhibition is a reflection of that commitment. Art is not created in a vacuum; it is impacted by a multitude of factors—some unique to the artist, others informed or inspired by what is going on in the world at the time. Similarly, one’s interpretation and enjoyment of art are subject to any number of influences. With this exhibition, we view Carpeaux’s 1868 Why Born Enslaved! through the lens of history and that of today. This is both fascinating and important. The exhibition can be appreciated on multiple levels, and there is much to be learned from it.
Your support for the Museum literally runs from the ground floor to the Roof Garden, and reflects The Met’s efforts to continually invest in new generations of visitors. Talk for a bit on why you think museums are critical for our cultural landscape, notwithstanding all the virtual access provided by digital devices.
One of the guiding principles I embraced alongside Bernie is that fine art should be accessible to the public and, to the greatest extent possible, part of our daily lives. Enabling others to marvel at great works of art, just as we did, became a driving force. Beyond this, art should contribute in a meaningful way to the life of a community and to our collective understanding of who we are, where we came from, and even where we might be headed. And there is still no better place for all of this to happen than at museums, which preserve and showcase the results of human creativity.
Finally, you’re a New Yorker, and I’m sure it has been challenging to watch our city struggle through the pandemic. Yet you have the benefit of having seen New York through the lens of many decades. What if any reflections do you have on the future of New York, and how the Museum and our city’s leaders can bring renewal again?
I am a proud New Yorker. I was born in Brooklyn and worked on Wall Street when few women had that opportunity. Today I enthusiastically support iconic New York institutions at the forefront of healthcare, education, and the visual and performing arts. Like these world-class institutions that grace our city, the people of New York are strong and enduring. We know how to rise to a challenge, overcome adversity, and emerge even stronger than before. And we are doing it again.