Our Man in Washington

Our Man in Washington

Capital Culture, J. Carter Brown, the National Gallery of Art, and the Reinvention of the Museum Experience
By Neil Harris
The University of Chicago Press, $35

In Capital Culture, J. Carter Brown, the National Gallery of Art, and the Reinvention of the Museum Experience, Neil Harris tells the story of the National Gallery of Art (NG)—briefly from its inauguration in 1941, and in fascinating detail through the directorship from 1969 to 1992 of J. Carter Brown. Under his leadership, the NG was transformed from a marginal institution with 800,000 annual visitors to a precursor of today’s popularized art museum. Attendance for 2013 was estimated at 4,200,000.

Unsurprisingly, given the author’s reputation, Harris uses the story of Brown’s years at the NG to provide a social history of the period that traces the gradual loosening of control by the entrenched patricians (a recurring description) who dominated the capital’s cultural institutions to a more meritocratic command. Even greater than the role of the Rockefeller family in founding and supporting New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, was that of Andrew Mellon and his son, Paul, for the NG.

It is a measure of Washington’s former provincialism that the original NG came into existence only in 1941, more than half a century after New York City’s Metropolitan Museum, among others. Only in the 1970s did the success of the Kennedy Center (inaugurated in 1971), a revived theater and art scene, planning for the bicentennial, and new construction, restaurants, and hotels begin to put the city on a cultural par with New York.

Technically in charge of the NG and as important for the city, the Smithsonian Institution and the museums spun off from it (including the Renwick Gallery in Washington and the Cooper-Hewitt in New York) are also referred to. The similar social background and passionate entrepreneurship of the Smithsonian’s most famous Secretary, Dr. Sidney Dillon Ripley II (from 1964 to 1984), make him an ideal counterpart to Brown. However the scant two chapters of the fifteen total that are devoted to this outstanding scholar and extraordinarily colorful personality hardly do him justice.

The book begins with a brief biography of Brown and his fabulously wealthy family: the eponymous university is among the many distinguished institutions they founded. The Browns are presented as American aristocrats whose wide-ranging social and political connections were the key to Carter’s success in an era when what mattered most was who rather than what you knew. As Harris succinctly states, “Carter’s most important special talents were the results of heredity and upbringing rather than higher education.”

It is all the more intriguing that this ultimate elitist “reinvented the museum experience,” transforming protected havens of scholarship into the entertainment destinations that were spawned around the globe by his blockbuster exhibitions.

Two of the director’s most stunning successes in this respect, and richest in the author’s behind-the-scene details and conclusions, were the King Tut exhibition (1976) and Treasure Houses of Britain (1985). Both were occasions for the “opulent entertaining”—elaborately catered for and often with mandatory white tie and honorary decorations—that Brown made into a hallmark of the Gallery.

Tut was museologically a landmark exhibition, inaugurating what Harris calls “one of the first truly imperial ventures in museum marketing” that has become a staple of museums worldwide. Thomas Hoving, then-director of the Metropolitan Museum, was in charge of merchandising that offered 450 saleable objects from postcards to full-scale replicas priced as high as $1,500. The Met’s second place in the six-museum lineup for the show pointed up the growing rivalry between the two institutions (although the NG never attempted to achieve the universal status of the New York institution). Furthermore, repeatedly described as a “détente show,” Tut was also among several museum exhibitions at this time that were criticized as American propaganda efforts.

Of all the spectacular exhibitions Brown organized, Treasure Houses of Britain was most perfectly attuned to his personality. No matter that many of the aristocrats with whom he dealt for loans haggled like fishmongers over what they would be given in return, he reveled in his dealings with the greatest names of the United Kingdom’s former ruling class. Harris obviously had a field day researching these dealings. He discovered a letter from Brown to his dying mom in which he punctiliously included the exact titles of the lenders.

Full credit is given to Brown’s ability to think up and doggedly pursue successful shows, as well as his keen instinct for promotion. The director’s phenomenally successful screening at the NG of the 13 episodes of Kenneth Clark’s “Civilization” television series is a striking example. The author doesn’t stint however on the downside of these and Brown’s other achievements.

From the beginning, the blockbusters were descried as “intellectually vacuous”, and certainly many got higher marks as crowd pleasers than as scholarly accomplishments. Brown oversaw I. M. Pei’s East Wing expansion of the museum (1978), but a measure of the Gallery’s priorities under him is the ungenerous exhibition spaces in the addition compared with the huge atrium in which elaborate fund-raising events fare better than the mediocre art commissioned for it. The atrium set an unfortunate precedent for many subsequent museums.

Harris also notes that Brown was never very successful at acquisitions despite his efforts at what he called “stalking the prey.” And finally, Brown’s thirty years as chairman of the capital’s Fine Arts Commission (1971–2002) saw mixed results. While his role in enabling the construction of Maya Lin’s controversial Vietnam War Memorial is laudable, a great many mediocre buildings were built under his tenure (among them the Rayburn Building, the Watergate complex, and the D.C. Convention Center).

The author skillfully exploits the personalities of those involved with the NG in addition to Brown to evoke its history. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in “Trouble in Paradise,” a chapter describing Paul Mellon’s summary embargo on conservation in 1977. Reputed to be self-effacing, Mellon reveals a very different side of his nature and his relationship to the museum in this story. Thanks to similar episodes, the book is constantly revealing, entertaining, and often very amusing.