When J. Carter Brown joined the National Gallery of Art in 1961, he was six years older than the museum itself. Just eight years later, at age 34, he would be appointed its director. His accession may strike readers as meteoric, but after reading Neil Harris' commanding new study, "Capital Culture: J. Carter Brown, the National Gallery of Art and the Reinvention of the Museum Experience," one will see that it was simply inevitable.
Brown was a scion of high pedigree and privilege. He was the second of three children born to John Nicholas and Anne Kinsolving Brown, and his ancestors founded Brown University. The family was among the toniest in Providence and Newport, R.I.
On a family drive past Washington's National Gallery of Art in 1946, Carter, then 12, reportedly told his parents that it was the kind of place where he would like to work when he grew up. His wish came true. From 1969 to 1992, this elegant, energetic, shrewd and highly competitive individual led the National Gallery with distinction and drive, raising its artistic profile and prominence internationally.
The museum he took charge of was a retro, neoclassical marble palace with an entry lobby dominated by a large rotunda and a long row of Grecian columns. It opened in 1941 with a gift of 115 paintings and 23 sculptures from financier and former Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon. The National Gallery soon joined the ranks of major art museums with the addition of several of America's most important private collections, including those of five-and-dime store tycoon Samuel Kress and banker Chester Dale.
By the time of Brown's arrival, a news report called the building "a magnificent anachronism" of high culture. Plans for a new building were already underway; Brown was intent on reinventing the museum to better fit his expansive vision. During his illustrious tenure, he cajoled Congress into increasing its annual operating appropriation from $3 million to more than $52 million, the endowment rose from $34 million to $186 million, and attendance skyrocketed from 1 million to almost 7 million, a figure that remains unsurpassed.
Due to Mellon's earlier stipulations, the museum had no postwar contemporary art — a glaring omission Brown soon remedied. Among the 20,000 works of art added to the permanent collection during his directorship were Cézanne's "The Artist's Father," Auguste Rodin's "The Age of Bronze," Jackson Pollock's "Lavender Mist" and Henri Matisse's paper cutouts. Brown also planned and supervised construction of the East Wing by architect I.M. Pei.
Brown, along with his sometime rival, Thomas Hoving at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, introduced innovative practices that revolutionized their profession, ushering in what Harris calls "a museum age." That era kicked off in 1976 with a wildly successful Gallery exhibition "Treasures of Tutankhamun," followed by "The Splendor of Dresden: Five Centuries of Art Collecting" in 1978. Those shows gave rise over the next quarter-century to the museum phenomenon dubbed the "blockbuster exhibit," which filled leading American museums with an endless parade of exhibits showcasing masterworks of world art.
Such exhibitions led to a frenzy of museum construction across the land as cities sought to capitalize on the public's newfound appetite for museum-going. What once was seen as an effete and elite pursuit morphed into a favorite weekend outing and a bedrock of cultural tourism. The Association of American Museums counted 1,150 art museums in the country in 1970. By 1990, two years short of Brown's retirement, the figure had climbed to nearly 2,000 and was a whisker above 2,300 by 2010. Many cultural researchers claim the figures underestimate the true totals by at least 20 percent.
It's ironic that Brown and Hoving, two scions of blueblood background, became vociferous, patrician populists. They crafted the blueprint — dazzling installations, street banners, lavish opening parties, mass merchandising, corporate underwriting and media hype — that museums follow to this day. Today's museum directors, by and large, shun the public spotlight. Only Thomas Krens, who headed the Guggenheim Museum until 2008, has since matched their flair for dramatic gestures and outsize ambition.
Harris, a social historian at the University of Chicago with a strong interest in museums and the artist's role in American life, has given this seismic shift in cultural history the extended, scholarly treatment it merits. "Capital Culture" impresses on several counts. Harris has conducted a deep dive into the papers of Carter Brown and the Brown family; National Gallery of Art records; newspapers and magazine accounts of the period; and numerous interviews with friends and museum colleagues (as the book's more than 1,500 citations attest). His organizational skill is praiseworthy: He has shaped this mountain of material into a highly readable, nimble narrative that skillfully segues from one topic to the next.
My expectations tempered my enjoyment of the study. When I read several years ago that Harris had gained the Brown family's permission to write an official biography and then previewed the cover title, I surmised that Brown would be the focus. Harris seems to have had a different purpose. Though Harris credits Brown as epitomizing "the changing character of the American art museum," he uses his career more as a backdrop to history and crafts an institutional biography suggesting how "one life story intersected with museum policies and programs and by extension professional practices and reputations more generally."
Though Brown is present on most pages, he shares the spotlight with Paul Mellon, the equally powerful Gallery chairman (and founder's son), and S. Dillon Ripley, the ambitious secretary of The Smithsonian Institution. The result is an account focused more on process — meetings and memos, dinner parties, the hunt for exhibit treasures — that at times robs the narrative of momentum.
Rather than a fully fleshed-out portrait of one of the museum world's great 20th century leaders, we are offered a highly skilled, yet incomplete, sketch of Brown, one refracted solely through Harris' authorial lens. We never hear Brown's actual words or gain a window into his inner thoughts and life away from the museum. He remains an elusive and enigmatic figure.
Only in the closing chapters, which detail Brown's total immersion in designing and assembling the monumental exhibition "The Treasure Houses of Britain: Five Hundred Years of Private Patronage and Art Collecting" as well as his full-throated, unsuccessful pursuit of Walter Annenberg's collection, does Brown come alive. Here we glimpse the qualities that made him a larger-than-life leader. Harris acknowledges having interviewed nearly 15 former gallery curators and fellow museum heads who knew Brown, including the Met's Hoving and Philippe de Montebello plus his successor, Earl "Rusty" Powell, but he misses the opportunity to share their memories and assessments.
"Capital Culture" is a satisfying read for those seeking to understand the history and inner workings of one of America's great museums as well as Washington's cultural ascent. Harris' account of Brown's life and details about his key role as reinventor of the museum experience, however, feel skimpy. A personally focused, probing account of this polished, deeply cultured leader remains to be written.
Tom Mullaney is a freelance journalist in Chicago with a special interest in art museums.
By Neil Harris, University of Chicago, 608 pages, $35Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun