Iris Cantor: Sharing Rodin with the World

By Ava Roosevelt

Iris Cantor

Iris Cantor

Brooklyn born and fiercely proud of it, Iris Cantor, a statuesque 
former model and stockbroker, is cited among the 50 top philanthropists in the United States and is head of the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation since 1978. With primary interests in medicine and the arts, the foundation has 
donated several hundreds of millions to museums and hospitals.

Low-key and known for her no-nonsense style, Iris has received the National Medal of Arts awarded by President Clinton in 1995 and the rank of Chevalier in the French National Order of the Legion of Honour in 2000; but you’ll never know it meeting her.

Over the years, the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation has donated approximately 450 Rodin pieces to New York’s Metropolitan Museum, Brooklyn Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Stanford University. In addition, New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts: Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Film Center, Faye’s Café in honor of Iris’s mother, the College of the Holy Cross-The Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Art Gallery were created. Since 1995, Iris has been a Trustee of the Metropolitan Museum. She is an Honorary Trustee of the North Carolina Museum of Art and a former Trustee of the Brooklyn Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The scope of Iris and B. Gerald Cantor’s generosity truly hit home when I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art with an ultra-sophisticated Francophile friend this spring. A serious art collector herself, who lives steps away from the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsey, she was awed by the span of the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor exhibit. Basking in the soft light, Rodin’s sculptures mesmerize thousands of the museum’s visitors each and every year.

Iris’s late husband, B. Gerald Cantor, Bernie to his friends, was the pioneering founder of Cantor Fitzgerald L.P., one of the largest government bond brokers in the country with a blue-chip institutional customer list that includes the nation’s biggest banks, pension funds, mutual fund managers and corporate treasurers. Iris and Bernie were married nearly 20 years until his death in 1996.

Bernie Cantor’s love-at-first-sight encounter in 1945 with Rodin’s sculpture The Hand of God in marble, at the Met, inspired what was to become the largest and most comprehensive private collection of the works by Auguste Rodin in the world.

Legend has it Bernie was strolling one day on Madison Avenue and saw The Hand of God, in bronze, displayed in a gallery window and immediately walked in. “I was just at the Met and saw one in marble, is this one authentic?” Bernie inquired. “Yes, it is. Rodin worked in many mediums and he did enlargements, as well as reductions, of his works. This is the bronze reduction of the marble Hand of God. If you’re interested in Rodin, you must visit the Musée Rodin in France,” the dealer responded.  “One day I will. For now, how much is The Hand?”
“Ninety five dollars.”
“I’ll take it.” Bernie said, and then he thought about it.
“I just spent two months rent.”

Auguste Rodin

Auguste Rodin

The Sculptor: Auguste Rodin
In 1880, Auguste Rodin was commissioned to create his most ambitious endeavor, 20 years in the making: an entrance portal for a new decorative arts museum, which was never built. A set of doors was later named The Gates of Hell. In 1978, more than 100 years later, Iris’s and Bernie’s foresight and their iron will saw The Gates of Hell, nearly 21 feet high, cast in bronze. The large-scale commission took more than three years to complete and achieved a lasting legacy of one of the most celebrated artists of the turn of the century. It made Auguste Rodin, the progenitor of modern sculpture, a household name worldwide. At Iris’s suggestion, the project inspired an award-winning documentary called Rodin, the Gates of Hell.

Q: Tell us about the process; what inspired this project?
Iris Cantor: “Foremost, it was Bernie’s love and passion for 
Rodin, and the enormous challenge it presented. Our commission, the fifth such undertaking, turned out to be a very historic event 
because it was the first time in more than a century that a pain-
staking lost-wax process to cast The Gates of Hell in bronze was successfully completed. All other versions were made in sandcasting. Bernie was once asked why he waited so long. ‘Simply, I didn’t 
have the money,’ he said.”


Newly installed Rodin exhibit courtesy of the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation at the North Carolina Museum of Art.

Q: What do you feel when you visit Stanford University’s exhibit? 
Iris Cantor: “I feel a sense of accomplishment that my late husband, Bernie, resurrected Rodin. Because of his passion for Rodin’s works, Bernie’s goal was always to share it with the public, and he did. 
And so do I.”

Q: Spreading the gospel of Rodin’s greatness and funding 
numerous museums and universities and hospital expansions clearly has been the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor foundation’s 
mantra. How do you determine who will become a recipient?
Iris Cantor:  “Before I become personally involved in a project, I look for two essential qualities. First, the cause must be something I feel passionate about. And second, I want to make a real difference by supporting that cause – and by encouraging others to do 
the same.”

Q: From where do you draw the inspiration to foresee the impact your generosity will have on the future generations?
Iris Cantor: “My excitement about the project inspires me. I know when I finish, the impact will be there for everyone to see and share. Generosity lives on and there will always be generous people. Hopefully my generation will ignite a spark in the generations to come to share their good fortunes with others.”

Q: The part of the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor collection that was removed from the World Trade Center Cantor Fitzgerald headquarters prior to 9/11 miraculously survived. What prompted this move? Was it fate?
Iris Cantor: “When Bernie was alive, we actually had a museum there at one time, by appointment only. With numerous visitors, it became disturbing to the day-to-day functions of the firm. The collection then was moved and was divided between the Met and the Brooklyn Museum. Fate, I don’t know, perhaps.”

Q: And what message or advice would you give to a ‘budding’ collector today?             .
Iris Cantor: “Buy what you love, that’s what I would tell them.”

Q: What more do you aspire to achieve personally in the years to come?
Iris Cantor: “As much as I can do! I would love to be the inspiration to the young people around me. I believe one person can make a difference.”  More about the philanthropy of Iris Cantor: Mrs. Cantor was instrumental in the creation of the UCLA Women’s Health Center, and the New-York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Iris Cantor Women’s and Men’s Health Centers, the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Ambulatory Surgery Center and B. Gerald Cantor Laboratory for Immunological Research in Diabetes, has funded a Senior Chair at Memorial Sloan-
Kettering Cancer Center and serves on the Board of Trustees 
of the New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

Iris Cantor: Sharing Rodin with the World