The Museum Macher

I am standing in front of a very fancy building at a very fancy address. The building is a 1914 Carrère & Hastings Louis XIII-style limestone mansion; the address is 1048 Fifth Avenue, at the corner of 86th Street – the old Vanderbilt mansion.

It’s the kind of self-consciously impressive art-filled space you tend to associate with rich people like Ronald Lauder, the cosmetics-empire heir, businessman, collector, and former U.S. ambassador to Austria. And for good reason: This is the site of Lauder’s new museum, the Neue Galerie New York, an opulent, jewel-box showcase for German and Austrian art, furniture, and design from 1890 to 1940. When the Neue Galerie opens on Friday, it will mark the realization of a decades-long dream for Lauder – and, in the opinion of some art-world figures, the beginning of a new era in New York’s cultural life.

A few months ago, I happened to be standing in front of a wildly different building 5,000 miles east of Museum Mile, in the Ukrainian city of L’viv, on a lonely-looking street whose uneven cobblestones are more irritating than quaint. This structure, with formidable steel gates and cracked Star-of-David windows, is the only active synagogue in L’viv. But the air of decay is misleading; inside the gates you hear the voices of children in what turns out to be a flourishing Jewish kindergarten. And then, from within the synagogue itself, the plaintive sounds of Jewish men at their prayers. It’s not a sound you’d have reasonably expected to hear: Nearly all of L’viv’s 110,000 Jews perished during the war, most of them at the infamous Janowska camp, leaving a ghostly few thousand there today.

The last night I was in L’viv, I had dinner with its young rabbi, a transplanted Brooklynite who made me look at hundreds of photos of the activities his growing flock was currently participating in. (Growing, I might add, in ways that are sometimes almost unbearably rich in historical ironies: Apparently, some Ukrainians in L’viv, having become aware of the quality of Jewish day care and kindergarten, are trying to pass their children off as Jewish in order to get them in.) As I left the rabbi’s house, he called after me: “Be sure to give my regards to Mr. Lauder and tell him ‘Thank you.’ “

Ronald Lauder is a complicated man with a paradoxical passion: His love for German and Austrian art, dating to his teenage years as the scion of a very wealthy family – his mother is Estée Lauder – is interwoven with a determination that came to him relatively late in life: to revive Jewish life in Eastern Europe. The connection between these two projects, the “new gallery” and the Old Country, is complex and suggestive.

Lauder himself stands at the nexus of Fifth Avenue and L’viv, a fitting juncture given the whole tortured twentieth-century story that indelibly connects Germans and Austrians and Jews. It’s only after you’ve grasped this point that you really begin to understand why the opening of the Neue Galerie is such a cultural watershed – and why it may be that the only person who could have made it happen was Lauder.

What makes the Neue Galerie unique is not only the world-class collection Lauder has assembled but the way in which it weaves disparate threads together. Scott Gutterman, the deputy director of the museum, calls it an attempt to re-create “the rich, extended cultural moment” of early-twentieth-century German-speaking culture; the word he uses to describe the museum is Gesamtkunstwerk – a “total work of art,” a complete aesthetic synthesis. And indeed, the Neue Galerie synthesizes not only Austrian and German art but art and decoration too: On the second, Austrian floor you’ll see paintings by Klimt, Schiele, and Kokoschka and furniture by Adolf Loos and Otto Wagner, as well as jewelry and objets d’art by Josef Hoffmann and Dagobert Peche; the third floor will offer canvases by Kandinsky, Klee, Otto Dix, and Marcel Breuer, as well as designs by Mies van der Rohe and many others.

And the viewing experience will be part of a larger experience for visitors as well. The first floor will contain a sumptuous little Viennese-style restaurant called the Café Sabarsky, which will be operated by Kurt Gutenbrunner, the owner and chef of the hot West Village Austrian restaurant Wallsé. Here, too, that total aesthetic synthesis: The café chairs are copies of Loos originals, the upholstery on the banquettes is Otto Wagner, and the sconces are copies of a Josef Hoffmann design.

When museum visitors stop at Café Sabarsky for a kaiser mélange, that little cup of dark coffee that fuels the Viennese in their native city, they might not get the significance of the café’s name. That would be a shame, because it’s Lauder’s homage to the man who taught him how to be, as he puts it, “a person living with art.” And, as it happens, the man behind Lauder’s double passion.

Serge Sabarsky was a charismatic and urbane Vienna-born dealer whose gallery at 987 Madison Avenue was, for nearly 30 years after it opened in 1968, the leading gallery for German and Austrian Expressionist art. “He was not an intellectual,” says Renée Price, the director of the museum and, like her mentor, a Viennese. “He just had an instinctual feeling for quality, for true work versus fake work.” In Lauder, who first met the dealer in the sixties, Sabarsky found an apt pupil. “Yes, he can afford it,” Gordon VeneKlasen, the president of the Michael Werner Gallery, says, referring to some “extraordinary” drawings in Lauder’s private collection. “But a lot of people can afford it and they don’t have that stuff. He knows the material.”

Lauder says German and Austrian art is something he started collecting almost by accident. A tall, fleshy man with a broad sense of humor, Lauder is likely to strike you at first as more Soprano than Medici; it’s only after you’ve spent a few minutes with him that you see how the hooded eyes are skittering around, taking everything in, sizing you and everything else up. “I became interested in German Expressionist art as a teenager,” he says as we sit in his art-filled office on the 42nd floor of the General Motors Building, “mainly because I was always interested in art in general.” One early purchase was a Schiele drawing, bought in 1957 with some bar mitzvah money.

But at least part of his interest in the Germans had to do with the fact that the French were too pricey. “It became very evident to me that I could not buy great French modern art, ” he says, “because I couldn’t afford it.” What he could afford was Austrians and Germans. His first significant purchase, he says, was a trio of drawings for which he paid $100,000.

Whatever else Lauder’s anecdote reveals, it certainly reminds you of the enormous resources he has had at his disposal. (How much did the French stuff cost, you wonder, if the “affordable stuff” was $100,000?) There’s no question that Lauder’s museum owes a great spiritual debt to Sabarsky, who had a showman’s proselytizing instincts; Lauder credits him with teaching that “art is important not only to collect but to show.” (In the late seventies, Sabarsky started organizing large-scale international exhibitions of his collections, and at one point he estimated that 10 million viewers had seen his beloved artworks.) But however much it owes to Sabarsky, the Neue Galerie has institutions like the Frick and the Morgan Library as its material models: public institutions made possible by vast private fortunes.

Sabarsky and his wealthy young friend and client may have shared a love for German and Austrian art, but there was something else they had in common: Both were Jews. “He sometimes used to go around wearing a button,” Gutterman says of Sabarsky, “that said kiss me, i’m a jewish art dealer. And – to go from the ridiculous to the horrifying – his mother died in Auschwitz. Here is a person whose mother died in Auschwitz and he’s dedicated himself to German art.”

Something of this paradox can be felt in Lauder’s life as well. Witness, a few floors above, the offices of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, which supports his efforts in Eastern Europe. Here we walk down corridors that display a collection you might call the other side of German and Austrian modernism: photos of the camps; carefully framed examples of the currency that was minted for use in the camps, back when there was a pretense to anything other than extermination; perfectly preserved yellow stars with jew printed in various languages; telegrams, from those same early years, announcing the deaths of inmates.

Suddenly Lauder stops in front of a door and knocks. “This you have to see,” he says, opening the door to reveal a kindly, white-bearded, black-suited rabbi. This is Chaskel Besser, a Holocaust survivor who advises Lauder on Jewish issues. I shake hands with the rabbi, and tell him what I’d seen in L’viv; he seems very pleased. So does Lauder. The only word to describe what he’s doing, as he watches his rabbi and a journalist meet and talk about Galicianer geography, is kvelling.

Rabbi Besser’s dark, book-crammed office is almost directly above Lauder’s, with its Schieles and Klimts. And yet, however distant the cultural ferment of early-twentieth-century Berlin and Vienna may be from the world of the shtetls, the two turn out to be connected.

There are any number of reasons why, for much of the latter half of the twentieth century, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French and English art was considered more palatable for the adornment of the homes of the city’s rich and powerful than was the more aesthetically and politically subversive art of Germany and Austria. But surely one of these reasons is that following World War II, it was impossible to look at anything German or Austrian without thinking of the war. The irony is that much of the latter art was denounced as “degenerate” by the Nazis, and many of the original patrons of the artists whose work appears in the Neue Galerie were Jewish – wealthy bourgeois supporters of the avant-garde.

Lauder has talked in the past about how his interest in reviving Eastern European Jewish life was born of his experiences as ambassador to Austria, where he came face-to-face with the infamous Viennese anti-Semitism. Before that, he says, his sense of his Jewish heritage was “zero”: “I always refer to myself as a three-day-a-year Jew.” Now the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation operates in fifteen countries, and is involved in projects as diverse as Jewish day schools and summer camps, funding for Jewish genealogical research in Polish archives, restoration of Jewish historical sites in Fez, Morocco, and the appointment of rabbis to posts in Eastern European cities where Jewish life has been all but extinguished.

This, in the end, is why, although the Neue Galerie may not have a lot in common with the old synagogue in L’viv, they’re connected after all. Perhaps only a Jew could have given an institution like the Neue Galerie a kind of moral legitimacy as a New York institution. “I saw that I could make a difference,” Lauder told me of his early efforts on behalf of Eastern European Jewry. “And once I made a difference there, then it was a question just of traveling from community to community, and in each place I could make a difference.”

It may be yet another pleasant and complex irony that a continent and an ocean away, here in New York City, he’s about to make a difference – but this time to the Germans and Austrians, for reviving their cultures, too.

The Museum Macher