ATLANTA -- Deep within the High Museum of Art, in a small room with no windows, the indefatigable J. Carter Brown is once again ringmaster extraordinaire. Dressed in forest-green camp shirt and khakis that heighten the blue of his eyes and the brown of his tan, he looks ready to lead an archaeological adventure through dark and exciting lands.
At the moment, though, he is discussing script changes with the producer of the audio tour for his newest venture -- a controversial art exhibit that opened July Fourth to coincide with the 1996 Summer Olympics.
He also is fielding questions from a curator.
He also is talking to a reporter.
He also is autographing 1,700 exhibition catalogs.
The books are arranged on four tables that themselves form a circle. When the catalogs on one table are signed, Brown, seated in a chair with wheels, rolls to the next.
Behind him, the audio producer, also seated, scoots in his wake. Behind her, a museum employee scurries on foot, picking up signed catalogs and replacing them with fresh ones.
Scribble. Scoot. Scribble. Scoot. Around and around, faster and faster they go. There's little time to lose: Two weeks from this day, Brown's exhibit, "Rings: Five Passions in the Art World," will open.
Though 3 1/2 years have passed since he retired as the director of the National Gallery of Art, Brown seems as influential, involved and as in love with the world of art as ever.
Somehow aristocratic and impish at once, he waves long, graceful fingers with airy enthusiasm as he describes his latest ideas.
His ebullience bubbles like a wave: boyish, catching, overwhelming. Workdays may begin at 8 a.m. in his Washington office and may end after late dinner meetings and museum openings in New York, Paris, L.A. or Providence, R.I.
He name-drops shamelessly and with glee -- as though he just can't help it. Who could? The list is impressive: Katharine Graham, James Earl Jones, Pierre Rosenberg of the Musee du Louvre. While signing catalogs, he asks for a copy to take home. "I had one, the first off the press," he says. "But I gave it to Clinton."
At 61, Brown is the presidentially appointed head of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which oversees public art and architecture in the District of Columbia. He is chairman of the Pritzker Architectural Prize jury.
He's senior adviser for Corbis Corp., founded by Microsoft head Bill Gates to develop, among other things, a colossal digital archive filled with images from the art collections held by major museums.
He also sits on a dozen boards, including those of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Brown University, which is named for his family.
But all this is not enough. Brown, whose 23-year tenure at the National Gallery was peppered with both successes and controversy, recently has launched what may be his riskiest venture yet: He is the co-chairman of Ovation, a cable television channel devoted solely to the arts, that began airing in April.
At times his schedule becomes so hectic that everyone around him can seem simply swept along, like inflatable toys caught in a current. A few weeks ago, Brown met with the other board members of the fledgling Doris Duke Charitable Foundation:
"I was in New York for a few hours -- why was I in New York?" he wonders aloud. "Oh yes, the "Charlie Rose" show. I suggested [the board] meet me at the airport and drive with me as I came into the city from Rhode Island, and we got so much done on the ride we didn't have to meet later. It was great."
And now he's in Atlanta to put the finishing touches on "Rings," an exhibition that will include 130 artworks spanning myriad cultures and 75 centuries.
Commissioned by High Museum director Ned Rifken, the exhibition is the centerpiece of the Cultural Olympiad being held in conjunction with the 1996 Summer Olympics -- and will run though Sept. 29.
The High, Atlanta's largest art institution, is prepared for the hordes: Timed tickets are being sold for $10 to ensure that a steady stream of up to 5,400 visitors daily will have a chance to view the art. In the gift shop, there are posters and postcards, T-shirts and cloisonne-like lapel pins, multimedia CD ROMs and address books all stamped or embossed with images from "Rings." The exhibition catalog already is a Book of the Month Club selection.
And like many Brown projects, "Rings" is causing comment.
"Carter was looking for a fresh way to do things -- partly out of faith and partly to be the enfant terrible -- to show that the purpose of art is to evoke emotion," says his older brother, Nicholas Brown.
In some ways, the show is a themed greatest hits of the art world: It includes Auguste Rodin's "The Kiss," Mary Cassatt's "Mother and Child," Edvard Munch's "The Scream" and Henri Matisse's "The Dance." But there are lesser-known works as well: a ceramic Mexican "Amorous Couple" from 200 B.C., a maternity figure ("Mother With Dead Child") from Zaire, and an eighth-century statue of Ganesha from Uttar Pradesh, India.
There are five parts, based on the Olympic symbol of five interlocked rings. And the thread weaving it all together is emotion: love, anguish, awe, triumph and joy.
The objects have arrived -- after what Brown calls "a lot of personal diplomacy" -- on loan from the Louvre, the Asia Society of New York, the Vatican, a private collection in Lisbon, Portugal, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Wellington Museum in London, Oberlin College and so on. The audio tour, which Brown himself narrates in English, French, German and Spanish, is carefully orchestrated so museum-goers will hear music selected evoke the same emotion as the art object they are examining.
" 'Rings' is not addressed to the cognitive side of the brain. It is designed to key into the affective way of reacting," says Brown. "We are searching for the underlying human emotions that are present in all art."
But some scholars -- a few of whom privately refer to the art show as the "five-ring circus" -- say that's bunk. "The intellectual purpose of this show is not very strong to me," says James Beck, a Columbia University art history professor and head of ArtWatch, an international organization founded to protect works art.
"It is not a benefit to society or to art to commercialize art to the extent of making a circus out of it. Consequently, I am always worried when art is used in a way that seems solely for publicity purposes."
Other art professionals argue that any show that will draw in large crowds of people, whether first-time museum-goers or connoisseurs, is good. "This is really an exhibition for the museum visitor as opposed to being for the art historian," says Lynn Federle Orr, a curator at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, which lent Dieric Bouts' "Virgin and Child" (c. 1475) to the exhibit.
"I can imagine these objects placed together in this new way will evoke strong emotions -- and that's what the artists wanted. And I don't see anything wrong with simply enjoying masterpieces."
Brown's enthusiasm is not dimmed by the criticism. "They will get it when they see it," he says.
Whether the comments are rooted in authentic scholarly doubts, genuine enthusiasm or just plain envy, one thing is clear: The exhibit -- big, splashy, controversial and guaranteed to get a lot of press -- is vintage Brown.
"When I heard about Carter's idea for the exhibition, I knew the only way it could work was if each piece was a masterpiece -- and that was going to be hard to pull off," says Samuel Sachs II, director of the Detroit Institute of the Arts, which lent Jacob van Ruisdael's "The Jewish Cemetery" (1655-1660), to the show.
"I thought it was less a radical idea than I don't want to say 'rash,' but that is close, because this kind of thing can only work in the hands of someone like Carter Brown."
Quantity of qualities
In a world in which connections matter and many museums find directors and curators with a high-society aura desirable, Brown is, of course, uniquely qualified.
Born the second eldest in a family of extreme wealth, learning and public spirit, Brown inherited, among other things, the acquaintances and pull of which many museum heads can only dream.
His family traces its roots in America to 1638, when Chad Brown arrived in Boston, and promptly moved to Providence. There, the Browns built their fortunes in banking, shipping and manufacturing. In 1764, J. Carter Brown's great-great-great-grandfather, Nicholas Brown, founded Rhode Island College, which was later renamed Brown University.
In 1900, the infant John Nicholas Brown was nicknamed the "world's richest baby" by the popular press when he inherited $10 million after two male relatives died of typhoid within weeks of each other. (At age 21, he inherited $20 million more.)
John Nicholas -- the father of J. Carter Brown -- was the first Brown in generations to eschew the family's namesake university and attend Harvard instead, where he became fascinated with the classics, art history and Byzantine studies.
At age 30, John Nicholas married Anne Kinsolving, the daughter of the rector of Baltimore's Old St. Paul's Church. Before her marriage, she was a reporter for the Baltimore News, and played the the violin for the Baltimore Symphony. She was also an expert in British military uniforms, an interest she had developed when as children she and her brother collected toy soldiers.
The couple had three children, Nicholas (director of Baltimore's National Aquarium from 1984 through 1994), John Carter and Angela. In 1943, at the age of 9, J. Carter Brown joined Nicholas at a boarding school in Arizona. Later, he attended Groton, the Stowe School in England and Harvard University.
Decoration and education
In college, Brown studied history and literature and roomed with a schoolmate from his Arizona days, Paul Matisse, the artist's grandson. To decorate his dorm-room walls, Brown hung a watercolor by Cezanne, which had come from his father's art collection. "My father very kindly said, 'Listen, we have this thing and it's part of your education.' And it was," Brown says. "When I started living with it, and it just kept on yielding and yielding I really began to understand about what great art was."
Then he adds, "Paul brought some good stuff, too."
After college, Brown earned an M.B.A. at Harvard and then studied in Italy with the renowned Bernard Berenson. At 26, he became assistant to John Walker, then director of the National Gallery of Art. In 1969, when Walker retired, Brown became director. He was 34.
Curating an art show to coincide with the Olympics has turned out to be vastly different from running the nation's art museum. And far more work than Brown envisioned.
At the National Gallery, Brown says, "It was [like] driving a Rolls-Royce with power steering and brakes. I thought the ideas out and worked very closely with curators and worked on the loans, but it wasn't like the opportunity I have here to really work on all levels."
But as the day wears on, he adds: "I'm not going to do any more of these. This is my swan song."
In Washington, Brown reigned in splendor from a seventh-floor office in the National Gallery's East Wing that was decorated with paintings by artists like Mark Rothko and Paul Klee. Designed by I. M. Pei and completed in 1978, the East Wing was a Brown project. One of his first and perhaps greatest accomplishments as director, it is considered one of the greatest modern buildings in Washington.
Thomas Hoving, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is generally credited with inventing the "blockbuster" art exhibit. Certainly, he and Brown changed museums forever. Under them, the institutions that were once hushed havens for scholars became entertainment centers -- places in which art scholars have to make their way through crowds of visitors.
The nation's museum
And under Brown, the National Gallery, founded 67 years after the Met, became truly the nation's museum. From a quiet gallery, it grew into a tourist attraction, an originator of exhibitions -- often beating out the Met when competing for huge international shows.
Making good use of his social finesse and connections, Brown successfully appealed to the patriotism of potential donors to the National Gallery, to the annoyance of directors of some regional museums. (He was director when Maryland's Robert and Jane Meyerhoff announced in 1987 that their massive collection of contemporary art would be eventually given to that museum and not the Baltimore Museum of Art.)
During his tenure, the physical size of the National Gallery doubled, its educational programs expanded and its allocation from Congress grew from $3 million to $52 million. And there were blockbusters galore. The National Gallery's biggest show to date, "Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration," which included 600 objects from four continents, was Brown's last.
In Atlanta, Brown has been curating the "Rings" exhibit from a tiny, borrowed office with collapsible, white metal walls. By 9 o'clock on a Sunday morning two weeks before the exhibit opened, he is poring over the wall labels.
Between appointments throughout the day, Brown rushes to the small room to autograph catalogs as fast as he can, or to return phone calls or faxes from nervous curators in distant lands. He works relentlessly, checking and rechecking minute details. Lunch is Spartan: cold rice salad and cappuccino gobbled during a round-table discussion with the audio producers. Twice during the afternoon, he is stopped by concerned museum guards who want to check his I.D.
"In the Homer show in New York, virtually all the people lending to that show were American, spoke English and were in the [same] time zone. I don't mean to detract from that show, but compared to a global show like this one -- Whew! It's nothing," he says. "With this one we're dealing with different languages, different time zones and different cultural interpretations of what emotions are and what deadlines are."
As evening turns to night, Brown and three audio producers are still polishing the audio tour. Over and over, they count the steps between each work of art and rehearse every word, determined to make the artwork, the music, the emotion in "Rings" come out right. Though his eyes are shadowed with fatigue, Brown can still summon enthusiasm; passing Jean-Leon Gerome's "Pygmalion and Galatea," he points and says, "I love the Cupid. Poing!"
And a few minutes later, he adds in an increasingly husky voice, "You're never going to sky dive if you don't jump out of the plane."
What: "Rings: Five Passions in World Art"
Where: High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St., Northeast, Atlanta, Ga. (corner of Peachtree and 16th streets in midtown Atlanta)
When: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily through Aug. 4; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, Aug. 5 through Sept. 29. Admission: $10
Call: (404) 733-5000, advance ticket sales; (404) 522-8603, group ticket sales
Pub Date: 7/14/96