WASHINGTON -- It's a recent Monday morning at the National Gallery of Art -- early, before the museum has opened, acutely quiet -- and a single figure is taking his own private tour of the lords and ladies, the naked nymphs, the winged cupids and saints of the Van Dyck show ready to be dismantled.
Tall, lanky, smartly dressed, the viewer climbs atop a lift in front of "Rinaldo and Armida," a large, lush mythological painting on loan from the Baltimore Museum of Art that was the centerpiece of the show. Visitors normally wouldn't get such an up-close and personal view of the higher reaches of this canvas, the art enthusiast explains.
It is one of the "fringe benefits" of his job.
Of course, there are many other fringe benefits for J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery for so many years that he and it are as linked as pen and ink; a jet-setting sophisticate often called the nation's top art impresario, or its ambassador of culture, or even, with his high, wide forehead, sculptured features and beaming blue eyes, an aristocratic demigod.
For him, there are invitations to White House dinners, opportunities to take presidents and princesses on private museum tours, almost nightly embassy gigs and travel so far-reaching and frequent that 11 briefcases, in various states of wear and tear, are lined up under his desk. All in all, lots of dealings in high places.
"I had the Italian ambassador come see me this morning and I had to keep him waiting because I had the Spanish ambassador on the phone to me," the director says, amused, sitting in his office with its floor-to-ceiling view of Capitol Hill, its large Mark Rothko painting, small Paul Klee and, on an easel, 1584 "Rubens school" painting of St. Peter.
He may have introduced Raisa Gorbachev to Georgia O'Keeffe, Barbara Bush to Titian, played host to the Prince and Princess of Wales, but it is the art that he calls his "reward."
"You need only see Carter in front of a painting and listen to him talk about it to see that real spark of love that's there," says fellow museum director Arnold Lehman of the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the grand marble museum on the National Mall, founded in 1941 by industrialist and one-time secretary of the treasury Andrew Mellon with a $5 million endowment, funds for a building and a core of extraordinary artwork purchased from the Hermitage in Leningrad that included Rembrandts, Raphaels, Rubenses, even a Leonardo.
Remarkably, Mr. Brown, 56, a descendant of the fabulously wealthy Rhode Island family that founded Brown University and brother to Nicholas Brown, director of Baltimore's National Aquarium, has been at the National Gallery for 30 of those years, 22 of them as its director. It's hard to imagine either of them without the other.
"If a piece of paper drops in the farthest point in the West building, Carter can hear it [from his East Building office]," says Roger Mandle, deputy director since 1988. "He's become the institution."
"It's his entire life," says Pamela Harriman, wife of the late W Averell Harriman, who donated Vincent Van Gogh's "Roses" as a 50th birthday gift to the gallery. (It is one of more than 500 new works donated to the museum for this occasion, the majority of which are exhibited in its anniversary show, "Art for a Nation," which opens today.)
During Mr. Brown's tenure, the National Gallery's budget, most of it federally appropriated, has grown from about $3 million to $45 million, the staff from 250 to 1,000. Attendance has doubled (up to 7 million a year), as has the square footage, with another entire building, the East Building (also funded by the Mellon family), erected in 1978 to house the museum's increasing collection of modern art and its temporary exhibitions.
Through his connections, his deft diplomacy and the cachet of a national institution and audience in his pocket, he's persuaded such collectors as the late Armand Hammer to come into the fold. He's finagled collections, such as the one owned by Baltimore's Robert and Jane Meyerhoff, often upsetting local institutions to which the works might otherwise have been bequeathed. And he's negotiated purchases and loans with foreign governments, giving the institution an international sheen with such blockbuster shows as "Treasures of Tutankhamun," "Splendor of Dresden" and "Treasure Houses of Britain."
"I think he's the most important museum director in the history o this country," says Charles Stuckey, a former National Gallery curator now at the Art Institute of Chicago. "Carter Brown as a leader has helped fashion a finely tuned machine that is the envy of every other museum in the world."
If there has been any rivalry, it's been with the MetropolitaMuseum of Art in New York, which often competes with the National Gallery for international loan shows, and just last week beat it out for the priceless art collection of former U.S. ambassador Walter Annenberg.
And if there has been any criticism of Mr. Brown's leadership, it often could double as praise. There is some sentiment that he "pays as much attention to the sizzle as to the steak," says one museum official, referring to his showmanlike flair and the dazzling nature and presentation of some of the exhibitions.
And nearly everyone describes Mr. Brown, a father of two who's separated from his second wife, as a perfectionist, the first in and the last out of the office when he's in town.
"He is something else to work for," says Mr. Stuckey. "He sets an absolutely driving pace. His commitment and energy set an example that transmits an incredible amount of pressure to his staff. It's a unique experience."
Mr. Mandle, director of the Toledo Museum for 11 years, says working with Mr. Brown is "one of the most inspiring things I've ever done."
In Washington, Mr. Brown's polished, patrician profile extends way beyond that of museum chief. He sits on boards, speaks at graduations, chairs an architectural review agency and often shows up in society columns. "He's one of the fixtures of Washington life," says Mrs. Harriman, one of his social companions.
"He loves social situations and being with people," says Mr. Stuckey. "And he's so good at it. So many people avoid situations where you get 20 seconds with someone because they don't know what to do with the 20 seconds. He does."
But for all his social grace and charm, Mr. Brown is often described as exceedingly private, formal and reserved. Even his staff knows little about his personal life.
"I'm not particularly heart on sleeve," he admits.
His older brother, Nicholas Brown, says he and his brother differ in that regard. "Carter I think is a little more distant from people. He gets around a lot and socializes a lot, but I let people get into my heart and into my life more than he does. Of course, he's had two unlucky marriages and I've had one lucky one."
J. Carter Brown's first marriage in the early '70s, to Constance Mellon, a distant relative of the gallery's benefactor, was brief. (She died in 1983). He married Pamela Drexel in 1976, but they've been estranged since 1988, although she lived in the Browns' Georgetown home until recently, and shares custody of their two children.
The older Mr. Brown says his brother is extremely devoted to his children, John Carter Brown IV, 13, and Elissa Lucinda Rionda Brown, 7.
"To him, the greatest thing that happened this past year wathat the children's nanny was named 'Nanny of the Year' [by the International Nanny Association]," says Nicholas Brown. "He was busting buttons over that. It meant much more to him than any overseas order of merit or invitation to the White House. Despite the fact that he's a jet-setter, a social butterfly, he's extremely interested in family."
Carter Brown's own family life, after all, was a major influence in his life, he admits, delighted to talk about his parents, now both deceased, and his childhood of privilege and culture.
"You do pick a lot of it up through the pores," says Mr. Brown, whose father, John Nicholas Brown, was touted at birth as "the world's richest baby," because of the great family fortune into which he was born.
For John Carter Brown, the middle of three children, there were prep schools, summer chateaux, an ancestral home in Providence filled with antiques, chamber music -- live -- and artwork. There were chauffeurs, piano and clarinet lessons, operas, sailing.
There was an intellectual father, passionate about the visual world, who collected Old Master drawings, was fluent in Latin and Greek and adored architecture. And a "live wire" of a mother, Anne Kinsolving Brown, daughter of a former rector of Old St. Paul's Church in Baltimore, who was a reporter and music critic for the Baltimore News and a violinist with the Baltimore Symphony.
"Having had a wonderful childhood, the chance to travel with my parents, visit museums and have chamber music in the house and a lot of good conversation goes a long way," he says. The two brothers attended the Arizona Desert School and then the Groton School in Massachusetts, from which Carter graduated at the head of his class at age 16. He spent a year at the Stowe School in England before heading for Harvard, where he earned a B.A. in history and literature, and then an MBA.
After Harvard, he went off to Europe for several years to immerse himself in art history, studying for a time with renowned art critic Bernard Berenson at his Florence, Italy, villa. Upon returning to the States he pursued advanced fine arts degrees at New York University, until John Walker, then director of the National Gallery, offered him a job as his assistant. It was a perfect fit.
He supposes that one day he'll want to do something else, feel himself going stale or yearn for a new challenge.
But here on the Mall, with the Capitol to his right, the Washington Monument to his left, with Rembrandt, Leonardo and company all around, he readily admits, "it hasn't happened yet."
THE BROWN FILE
Born: Oct. 8, 1934, Providence, R.I.
Home: Georgetown in Washington.
Family: Separated from second wife, Pamela Drexel Brown. Children: John Carter Brown IV, 13, and Elissa Lucinda Rionda Brown, 7.
Education: B.A., Harvard, 1956; M.B.A., Harvard, 1958; European studies, 1958-1960; M.A., New York University, 1961.
Professional: National Gallery of Art, assistant to the director, 1961-'63; assistant director, 1964-'68; deputy director, 1968-'69; director, 1969-present.
His favorite painting at the gallery: "I will quote a Baltimore relation, a great-uncle, who used to say about women, 'I love them all, but I adore the one I'm with.' It's very hard to choose between your children."