Lampy's Limpert Funds Art World

John H. Limpert, Jr. ’55 was not much of a patron of the arts in his student days, opting instead to spend his time at the Harvard Lampoon, where he nurtured his talents as a humorist and writer.

His favorite Lampoon prank took place at the Fogg Art Museum.

A precocious Poonster purchased a cheap vase from a local dime store, then headed into the museum and casually dropped the “sculpture” over the railing into the museum’s great hall. The vase smashed, and a cohort cried out, “My God! The Ming vase!”

“It was pandemonium,” Limpert recalls, laughing. “I think if you tried it today you’d be suspended, expelled, put on probation.”

Limpert’s attitude toward art, or at least toward museums, has changed over the years, as he found his niche in fundraising for cultural institutions in New York City. Most prominently, he served as the director of development for the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in the 1970s and 1980s, raising over $50 million in donations and increasing membership to more than 50,000, without dropping any of the artwork in the process.

While he admits that he entered the field knowing little about art history, Limpert says that by now he’s become a proponent of modern painting.

“I do believe that modern art is one of the great contributions of the 20th century. Now, having said that, I also feel that the 20th century is the worst since the 14th,” he says with a laugh.

In his 30-year career—during which he moved from the MoMA to the New York Botanical Garden to Lincoln Center—Limpert worked to strengthen ties between the corporate and cultural worlds, pursuing major sponsorship deals with some of the country’s most powerful businesses.

The move to fundraising and publicity as a career may have had little to do with his undergraduate literary aspirations, but Limpert says that he looks back fondly at his years at Harvard, when the “gentle days” of the 1950s still inflected the campus with a New England sense of reverence.


Limpert’s freshman roommate recalls that Limpert was a young man passionate about writing, if not his academics.

“I remember one thing Jack said when I first met him,” says William J. Cowperthwaite ’55, who lived with Limpert in Wigglesworth I-31. “He said when you go to Harvard, no one’s going to ask you what rank you were in your class.”

Indeed, Limpert never pursued the honors track in the classroom. An English concentrator, he later regretted not switching to History and Literature.

“The Harvard English department of my day was not good, and I’m told by those who are in the know that it’s still not good,” Limpert says.

His one scholastic triumph came when famed literary scholar Douglas Bush awarded him an “A” on a term paper, “The Language of Commerce in the Love Poetry of John Donne.”

“The comment was worth everything,” Limpert says. “‘You have taken a very small subject and handled it very well.’”