The Idea Man's Secret Treasures
Gopnik, Blake, Newsweek
Byline: Blake Gopnik
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen-the world's first masterpiece-collecting, Jimi Hendrix-worshiping philanthropist.
Sit with Paul Allen in his office in Seattle and you might take him for the head of a middling actuarial firm. He is 59 and pear-shaped, in black slacks, a white shirt, and blue tie, with his hair cut short above nondescript glasses. His aggressive banality comes as a shock, given his outsize resume.
He's the "Idea Man" (self-styled, as per his autobiography) who helped Bill Gates found Microsoft and walked away with billions early on. He's the man who had such a passion for Jimi Hendrix that he built a Frank Gehry museum to house his Hendrixiana. He funded the first commercial manned flight into space, has owned sports teams, cavorted with athletes, and jammed with rockers on his various estates and yachts.
But in his office in Seattle, you might need to be an art critic to get a whiff of his status and wealth. Look around and you spot two gorgeous Calders on a table nearby. Glance through a door and you see one of Rodin's casts of The Thinker; walk through it and you take in Giacometti's bronze Femme de Venise, worth maybe $5 million, as well as a lovely Monet landscape that could have cost several times that. You might also recall the glorious Rothko, glowing in orange and yellow, that you passed on the way to the interview. It has been brought in from Allen's home as the backdrop for this story's portrait shoot--a canvas now worth something like $80 million, protected from stray elbows by a row of $12 pylons in safety orange. (They go rather well with the Rothko.) There's more wealth here, in these few square feet, than many millionaires amass in a lifetime, and the artworks in sight are only a small part of Allen's hoard.
This legendary nerd (although Allen bridles at a "pocket protector" image) is also an artsy who spends a fair part of his $15 billion fortune on cultural goods--both as treats for himself and for others. "Some of these things you're so taken with that you find it pretty amazing that you could have something like that in your home, and enjoy it every day," says Allen. "That's a pretty amazing thing. On the other hand, you feel that it's better to loan these things out."
With no great fanfare, the secretive collector has started to circulate his treasures to the public--a philanthropic morsel that is part of a larger program of kindness to the arts that so far has stretched to more than $100 million. On Oct. 15, at the National Arts Awards gala in New York, the group called Americans for the Arts is honoring Allen with its philanthropy prize.
Last year, the Chronicle of Philanthropy named Allen the nation's most generous living donor; he beat George Soros and Michael Bloomberg and has been on its top 50 list for a decade. Speaking from his Washington office, Robert Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts, talks about Allen as the kind of honoree "who can inspire others to do more."
In 2010, Allen pledged to give away at least half his fortune, after a nudge from his school pal Bill Gates. Most of the money is likely to go to his many science causes, which have already sucked up something like a billion Allen dollars. But if even a sliver of his pledge ends up spent on the arts, AFA will feel its award was well given. Arts centers across the Northwest are crowded with plaques thanking the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, and more will no doubt have to be carved.
And then there's the part of Allen's wealth that has been transmuted into art, which, in a classic philanthropic move, could get passed on to museums. Allen is on all the "great collector" lists, but the details of what he owns are murky. "I know nothing," says a New York art adviser normally in the know. "It's locked up tight. I haven't seen a level of privacy so intense, and so maniacal." Allen is known for his nondisclosure agreements; his employees should have "No comment" tattooed on their foreheads, to save journalists time. …