What’s Left Out — Art or Accommodation? NYT on Mitchell Rales

I started out to comment on the joys of living next to Princeton University, but this is turning into a wry comment on big-time journalism.

photo by Christopher Gregory/NYT

An article in tomorrow’s New York Times features a billionaire and his wife standing in front of an instantly recognizable sculpture, recognizable that is, if you wander on the Princeton University campus. Just east of Washington Road, behind Frank Gehry’s Lewis Library, is the humongous Richard Serra sculpture, The Hedgehog and the Fox, three giant rusty curving walls. In the NYT photo, Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell P. Rales stand in front of it something that looks just like it, a Serra sculpture entitled Sylvester.

Wikipedia photo
(I can’t find the U.S. 1 photo
from the August 2000 installation story)

My first reaction is an appreciation of the privilege of living in Princeton. If you have a habit of walking on the campus, you are getting an unwitting education in contemporary art. See one Serra, you’ll recognize the next. See one Lipchitz, you will spot another.

Song of the Vowels by Jacques Lipchitz
at Kykuit (my photo)

We discovered this when we toured Kykuit, the Rockefeller estate near West Point, New York. Almost every sculpture that the Rockefellers owned, the Princeton campus has one by the same sculptor. Both the Rockefellers and the Putnam collection own a copy of Song of the Vowels by the Cubist sculptor, Jacques Lipchitz. 

My second observation is what the Times left out. The article tells of a 56-year old man, married to an art curator who is 36 years old, and all it says about that — seven paragraphs from the bottom — is, “The couple, who married in 2008, work very much as a team.” It leaves out the public record of the First Wife (with whom he had two children) and the Second Wife (who was the first curator of the private/public museum).

The article also omits what is important to business reporters, like how Mitchell Rales’ father was raised in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, and that he and his older brother Steven made their fortune in junk bonds. It’s all in the public record.

That sounds very much like a publicist saying “you get to write this story only if you omit x y and z.” I’ve had similar requests, some I honored, some I didn’t.

Rales was “weaned on the the family real estate business,” according to an article written on him in his younger days,  and rightfully averse to publicity. But like the Barnes Collection of yore, he has this mammoth collection of art and is trying to share it with the public. To do that well, he needed the “right” article in the “right” paper, i.e. the New York Times.

OK, I’ll admit that the bio has nothing to do with the focus of this article, entitled “Like Half a National Gallery in Your Backyard.” The curtailed bio includes the brothers founding Danaher corporation as a science and technology firm that grew into a publicly traded company valued at $40 Billion. It tells of his life changing experience in 1998 when he almost died. After that he began to found a museum that is open to the public by appointment (so as to give everyone plenty of room, does this sound like Barnes?) and pays for area schoolkids to visit on field trips (Barnes again).

So leaving important parts of the biography out of this story could have been the reporter’s independent decision.

illustration by Heather Lovett
from P.U. Communications

But I would have wanted to include how Mitchell’s father — when one of his sons got a paper route — required the boy to give 10 percent of his earnings to the housekeeper. Maybe that didn’t fit the story, but how could I leave that out?

You can see the Song of the Vowels in the plaza between Firestone Library and Princeton University Chapel. As you view it, you can see that the skill of the artist is represented by — what’s left out.

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