Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, in recognition of the importance of the arts and the emergence of New York as the home of many of America's most innovative and talented artists, began plans for the Empire State Plaza Art Collection in 1961 and the first purchases were made in 1966. This collection features the work of artists who practiced in New York during the 1960s and 70s, and is the most important State collection of modern art in the country. In its embrace of abstract art, the collection positioned the State as a forward-thinking patron and its government as enlightened and advanced. The architect Wallace K. Harrison worked closely with Governor Rockefeller, who cared deeply about architecture, to create the bold design for the Empire State Plaza complex. No stronger statement could have been made about New York's past and present commitment to the future, and its belief that the arts were essential to the State's vision of itself.
The formation of the Empire State Plaza Art Collection has strong connections to the Museum of Modern Art. Governor Rockefeller (whose mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, founded the Museum of Modern Art along with two other remarkable women in 1929) was one of the young institution's staunchest supporters and one of its leading trustees and donors. Governor Rockefeller once quipped that everything he had ever learned about politics, he learned at the Museum of Modern Art! In order to help select the works of art for the Empire State Plaza Art Collection, Governor Rockefeller assembled a small advisory committee that included Rene d'Harnoncourt, then director of the Museum of Modern Art. Upon d'Harnoncourt's untimely death in 1968, Dorothy Miller, one of the Museum's most respected curators, succeeded him on the committee. At the Museum, Miller introduced the work in her well-known Americans shows which highlighted many emerging and young artists who later became significant figures. For Albany she was able to champion many abstract artists at mid-career, and her keen eye undoubtedly helped strengthen the quality of the collection that the Governor was assembling.
Since its inception in the late 1960s, the Empire State Plaza Art Collection has attained a new importance. In addition to being one of upstate New York's greatest art treasures, it also serves as a remarkable example of the power and importance of Abstract Expressionist art. Governor Rockefeller's vision of the arts as a vital component of the State of New York's identity continues, as New York continues to be the preeminent state in the union for the arts.