William Paley, the mogul who transformed American television, plays a secondary role in Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix series “Feud: Capote vs. the Swans”, but his impact on American museums is anything but minor.
In the Netflix series, Paley lingers in the background while the spotlight focuses on the women author Truman Capote crafted into fictional subjects—who Capote called ‘swans’— among them Paley’s wife, Barbara ‘Babe’ Cushing Mortimer.
Beneath the show’s glitz is a more subtle story—the key role of the Paley name in the nascent years of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
“One of his associates told me, it was well known Mr. Paley always answered a call from The Museum of Modern Art, even when other matters required his immediate attention,” Richard E. Oldenberg, the museum’s director at the time, recalled in a 1992 catalog entry. In 1937, Paley joined the museum’s board as a trustee. By then, he’d grown a small radio network into the behemoth of Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) Inc. network, amassing enough wealth to make him valuable to the museum, which was only eight years old and still in need of financial support.
After rising through various high-level positions, Paley reached a position of immense influence: he deepened the museum’s pockets (which, by 2023, would boast $1.5 billion in assets), oversaw the committee that vetted art acquisitions, and helped build its permanent collection. Later, he assumed the museum presidency, and from 1982 to 1984, oversaw an expansion that effectively doubled the museum’s exhibition space.
While Paley gave large sums to the museum and valuable works, including Picasso’s The Architect’s Table (1912) and, posthumously, Picasso’s Boy leading a horse (1905-1906). The latter, which demonstrates Picasso’s shift from rose tones to the muted-blue palette, Paley hung in his Manhattan apartment entrance, noted in a MoMA catalogue as “the only room where people remained standing.”
His association with the museum helped bring prestige to Paley’s name, catapulting it near esteemed fellow New Yorkers, the Rockefeller and Whitney families. Upon the unveiling of the new building in 1984 under Paley’s direction, The New York Times noted, “It is not, to say the least, an institution of outsiders and never has been.”
Among Paley’s other notable gifts were works such as Francis Bacon’s Study for Three Heads, from 1953, a triptych Bacon created after the death of his partner, Peter Lacey. In it, two images of Lacey’s face flank one of the Bacon’s.
The works entered the museum’s holding following Paley’s death in 1990. In November 2022, Paley’s deep ties to the museum resurfaced again, when MoMA announced plans to part with $70 million worth of art from his collection at Sotheby’s, a bid to build an endowment for digital projects. It was a sign of changing times; the pandemic had forced even America’s oldest museums to attend to a growing viewership in online forums.
In a catalog note for a 1992 exhibition showcasing Paley’s collection two years after his death, MoMA’s then-curator William Rubin recalled that Paley’s acquisitions were personal, guided by “private taste rather than broader public considerations.” Rubin, who in 2006 Artforum cast as “arguably one of the most important postwar curator of twentieth-century art,” underscored how Paley was following these artists when “there was nothing chic about possessing.”