You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Man Who Corporatized Our National Museums

How J. Carter Brown transformed the American art world

Associated Press

The Corcoran Gallery of Art, the District of Columbia’s oldest privately held museum, announced last February its entry into a collaboration agreement with the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University—a “collaboration” that effectively terminated the Corcoran, which ceded its rich collection of 17,000 artworks and its landmark Beaux-Arts building in the deal. By and large, the press treated this development as the final chapter in the Corcoran’s long history, bemoaning its loss and tut-tutting its board for perceived financial missteps. Few raised the question of how this event fit into the ongoing history of the National Gallery. But readers of Neil Harris’s book, Capital Culture, would have seen this “collaboration” coming, knowing that as far back as 1989 the National Gallery’s then-director, J. Carter Brown, was said to be measuring the Corcoran for drapes.

How did the National Gallery of Art—a relative newcomer, founded in 1937 and opening its massive doors in 1941—come to assume the role of “have” to the Corcoran’s “have-not”? If we accept the premise of Harris’s book, the credit (or the blame, depending on your point of view) goes to Brown. Carter Brown, as he was called, devoted his entire career to the Gallery, starting in 1961 as personal assistant to its then-director, John Walker, and assuming the directorship from 1969–1992, just less than half of the museum’s lifespan at that time. During those years, as Harris would have it, Brown transformed not only the National Gallery but also the American museum writ large. Along with his contemporaries S. Dillon Ripley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution from 1964–1984, and Thomas Hoving, the Metropolitan Museum’s controversial director from 1967–1977, both of whom feature prominently in this narrative, Brown introduced a series of activities and features that now serve as the industry standard: “blockbuster” exhibitions with timed-entry tickets, acquisitions of works by blue-chip artists, continuous physical expansion and renovation, the proliferation of shops, and the introduction of aggressive marketing campaigns. In other words, Brown helped to create the paradoxical identity of the late-twentieth-century museum, suspended uncomfortably between money and ideals, between exclusionary elitism and crass commercialism. 

In his introduction, Harris ties these developments in museum management to larger trends. The rising tides of postwar affluence and leisure time, the exponential growth of the federal government, and the increasing desire to match America’s geopolitical might with cultural majesty all played a part in making the National Gallery what it is today. But Capital Culture never fully capitalizes on the sorts of broad insights we might expect from a historian of Harris’s stature. The book is long (sometimes interminably long) on details but surprisingly short on analysis. Full of amusing anecdotes, insider scoops from long-forgotten memos, and biting critical reviews, it is often entertaining. But the further one wades into the book, the clearer it becomes that the onus is on the reader to piece together the larger stakes of this history. We should come away from this book feeling not just that we know more about the museum, but also that we understand it differently, especially given the enormous effort that Harris put into researching this genuinely significant theme. Capital Culture lacks the passion and the trenchancy that many art historians bring to the subject of the museum, the institution they both love and love to hate. More problematically, its central premise—that the National Gallery served as a model for the sweeping changes in museums everywhere—may underestimate the anomalous character of a “national” gallery, both here and abroad.

Harris calls his book an institutional biography of the National Gallery of Art, but he is clearly fascinated by Brown, whom he describes as “simultaneously well-born and self-made.” The more one learns about Brown, though, the more apparent is the mileage he got from the “well-born” part. Born in 1934 into one of the most privileged situations imaginable, Brown was one of those Browns—the ones who founded a school in Rhode Island, where Carter was raised. His family background makes his appointment to the directorship of the National Gallery seem like almost a foregone conclusion. His father, John Nicholas Brown, studied art history at Harvard, joined the Museum of Modern Art’s Junior Advisory Committee at the ripe age of twenty-nine, and worked with the now-famous “Monuments Men” while serving as assistant secretary of the Navy during the Truman administration. Though Carter Brown followed his father to Harvard, he chose to study history and literature and, with seeming prescience, then acquired an MBA—a degree that connotes the business savvy now prized in museum directors, but was rarely seen in those ranks at that time. Though Brown subsequently enrolled in New York University’s prestigious Institute of Fine Arts to study art history, John Walker almost immediately plucked him from the academy and installed him in the museum world.

When Carter Brown arrived in Washington for his apprenticeship, the National Gallery of Art was only twenty years old, its distinctive identity still in the process of forming. Like the National Gallery in London, after which it was modeled, it was founded on the transformation of a private hoard into a public collection. The Gallery’s core holdings were given to the nation by Andrew Mellon in exchange for congressional funds to maintain the grand marble structure on the National Mall whose construction he had funded. While many American art museums originated as private collections, the National Gallery is unique insofar as it remains umbilically connected to the federal government, which still has a hand in its financing and its oversight. (Perhaps the strangest aspect of the Gallery’s founding charter, as Harris informs us, is the stipulation that its board of trustees be chaired by the chief justice of the United States.) The other distinctive aspect of the Gallery, of course, is its name—a name that, like its placement on the National Mall, connotes both a special status and a symbolic obligation. Though Harris raises this issue from time to time, he never fully grapples with the question of what a “national” gallery means in the American context, including the complexities of its reception in a country with such great skepticism about the merits of a public sphere.

John Walker, the gallery’s director from 1956–1969, interpreted the institution’s public duty primarily in terms of the care of its collection. Under his watch, the Gallery was deeply conservative by today’s standards; it comes as little surprise when Harris informs us that Walker’s favorite museum was the mausolean Frick Collection. Though Walker himself collected modern (that is, twentieth-century) art, the Gallery did not acquire works by living artists: this was Walker’s way of holding the museum aloof from the hot culture wars of the cold war era. He also favored the Gallery’s permanent collection of holdings over temporary loan exhibitions. “If we began lending our great masterpieces,” he later wrote in defense of this practice, visitors to the Gallery “might often discover that their favorite painting or piece of sculpture was not on view.” Walker envisioned the museum, in other words, as an island of stasis in aworld of change. Though Walker supported educational programming, pioneering the use of “lectours” (now called “acoustiguides”), he was stubbornly resistant to the suggestion that museums should cater to a wide audience. One can almost hear the contemptuous sniff in passages from his autobiography—tellingly titled Self-Portrait with Donors—such as “museums do not exist solely for the noise and turmoil of hordes of schoolchildren,” and history museums, not art museums, are “the logical places to cater to our ethnic groups.”

Brown’s leadership style certainly provides some contrast to Walker’s, particularly in his pursuit of flashy exhibitions that brought long queues of visitors to the Gallery. As Harris shows, Brown understood the importance of making the Gallery appear more open, more responsive to public taste, though Harris does not ask whether the activities Brown sponsored actually served a public good. Brown was certainly not alone in his desire to give museums greater popular appeal. His strategies for doing so developed both in response to and in tandem with the models set by peer institutions, particularly the Smithsonian and the Met. Harris tracks the avid competition between these three behemoths for power, prestige, and prizes. Indeed, Brown’s role in besting the charismatic and ruthless Hoving provides the impetus for the book’s most gripping chapter, which recounts the Gallery’s pursuit and purchase of Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait Ginevra de’ Benci—at that time, the only Leonardo still in private hands, and afterward the only Leonardo owned by an American museum.

Around 1960, Franz Josef II of Liechtenstein quietly began to sell select works from the princely collection, and made known his willingness to part with Ginevra, a work in that collection dating back at least to the eighteenth century. How could the monetary worth of such a rare commodity be assessed? Clearly, even a deteriorating painting of a “pallid, slightly-cross-eyed lady” (as John Walker purportedly described her) by Leonardo would require millions—and deft negotiation. In 1966, Walker deputized Brown, who had by then been promoted to assistant director of the Gallery, to start digging with his silver spoon. Brown was tasked with sending Ginevra de’ Benci for secret x-ray examination to authenticate its authorship, checking its surface to assess its current condition, and dining with the prince without ever being so coarse as to address the matter at hand. Successfully outmaneuvering Hoving, who was also in the hunt, Brown helped arrange for the Gallery to purchase the painting for a price unknown to this day, but estimated at around five to six million dollars.

Ginevra de’ Benci flew to America on a first-class window seat, packaged in a Styrofoam-lined metal container made waterproof in case of a plane crash. Though Gallery acquisitions never drew from taxpayer funds, some staff voiced concerns about how such a high expenditure on a single painting would be perceived. In the event, Ginevra, billed as the “world’s costliest painting,” was unveiled on the Gallery’s twenty-sixth anniversary to huge crowds of adoring fans; its arrival was perceived as raising the Gallery to the status of its name. Harris rightly treats the story of Ginevra as a parable of museum directors’ compulsive drive to acquire ever more splashy “gets”—in Hoving’s own words, “the most basic duty of the Metropolitan was to seize such treasures”—but the book never fully reckons with the distorting effects of such power plays on museums’ budgets and priorities.

If the tale of Ginevra de’ Benci supplies the book’s most satisfying segment, the subsequent chapters in the story, which document the National Gallery’s ambitious plan for expansion and the appointment of Brown as director, provide some of its most frustrating moments. Strangely, given that Brown’s tenure is the book’s focus, Harris spends little time discussing the circumstances under which he got the job. One imagines that the trustees’ decision in 1969 to oust Walker and hand the position to Brown without interviewing anyone else might allow some fruitful discussion of the board’s flabbergasting, and possibly willful, ignorance of the implications of that era’s civil and women’s rights movements. Likewise, we hear little about the process by which I. M. Pei was selected in 1968 to design a new building adjacent to John Russell Pope’s original Pantheon-like structure. Harris usefully reminds us that the decade of the East Building’s construction—it was finally completed, behind schedule, in 1978—was a time of strong anti-urban sentiment, stoked by thinly veiled racism. This chapter brings to mind the New York Daily News’s famous headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead,” but Harris also notes that this was a moment of major growth for Washington, in which tourism tripled, and a rapid transit system, opened in 1976, finally made it a real metropolis. Harris provides some analysis of the urban-planning challenges presented by the new wing, and broadly contrasts the West Building’s empty, hushed spaces with the East Building’s circus-like atmosphere. But we don’t get a clear picture of the building as a physical and an ideological space. (Harris does quote The New Republic’s assessment of Pei’s building, which compares it unfavorably with Albert Speer’s stadium designs for the Third Reich.) One wishes, for example, that Harris had taken the opportunity to link the East Building with Pei’s Louvre Pyramid, built from 1983–1989, which also added an underground passageway-cum–shopping mall to an austere palatial structure. Such stylistically modernist, openly commercial additions fundamentally reshaped the visitor’s journey through the museum, and thereby altered her understanding of the institution. Built primarily to house the temporary exhibitions that Walker resisted, Pei’s monumental, imposing East Building lends grandeur, legitimacy, and a veneer of stability to this constant succession of flashy shows.

No book on the late-capitalist museum would be complete without a discussion of the coming-to-prominence of such major loan exhibitions, often termed “blockbusters.” Brown approached the planning of such popular spectacles with gusto, reversing the priorities of Walker’s directorship. For many museums, blockbusters responded to a financial imperative: with public subsidies drying up, budgets were balanced by income from sources including merchandising, memberships, and ticket fees. But why would the National Gallery, which continued to receive handsome disbursements from the government and charged no admission, need to stage such shows? Rather than provide an answer to this question, Harris simply traces Brown’s seemingly unquenchable desire to increase the Gallery’s attendance, hosting a string of exhibitions carefully calibrated to have both scholarly value and broad appeal. The most famous of these exhibitions was “King Tut” (officially, The Treasures of Tutankhamun), which opened at the Gallery in late 1976 before touring the rest of the country. Harris focuses primarily on “Tutmania”—the endless stream of visitors, many of whom purchased one of the 450 related commodities produced for the show’s elaborate marketing campaign. Indirectly, by citing the irascible art critic Hilton Kramer, he also asks, “Has Success Spoiled American Museums?” Writing just after the opening of The Splendor of Dresden, in 1978, Kramer mused about whether such glitzy exhibitions make the American museum “a more conservative and less creative and innovative force in our culture than it was only a few years ago.”

Kramer’s question deserves more consideration than it receives in Harris’s narrative Museums act on, and are shaped by, the cultures in which they are situated, and it is this sense of the museum as a political and social actor that Capital Culture lacks. Harris briefly mentions high-level negotiation between Richard Nixon and Anwar Sadat about The Treasures of Tutankhamun, but we need to know what that show tells us about, and how it functioned in, Middle East politics at a very turbulent moment. Puzzlingly, Harris claims that The Splendor of Dresden “served no obvious political objective”—but how could an exhibition with dazzling recreations of settings no longer extant be discussed without some invocation of the city’s firebombing in World War II? Harris presents us with another fascinating case, Treasure Houses of Britain: Five Hundred Years of Private Patronage and Art Collecting, which opened at the Gallery in 1985. Brown cultivated his contacts in the British peerage for this massive show—comprising 680 works from 182 separate lenders, costing four million dollars (one hundred dollars a square foot, Harris calculates)—which prefigured the current fad for “Downton Abbey.” We hear about the involvement of the American secretary of defense in negotiations with the British government to transport objects by means of Royal Air Force planes, and about a visit to the Gallery by the Prince and Princess of Wales. Yet Harris stops short of addressing the political utility of an exhibition that unabashedly celebrated social hierarchy and the lavish lifestyle it underwrote in the Reagan-Thatcher era, with its booming stock markets. Similarly, in his discussion of the exhibition Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration, which was mounted in 1991, Harris notes that the show’s title pointedly omitted Columbus, and that the Gulf War complicated its execution by straining American relations with some lending nations. The important question of museum shows as tools of cultural diplomacy is elided. Wouldn’t a comparison with the Smithsonian’s controversial exhibition The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820–1920—designed, also in 1991, to lay bare American art’s role in validating American imperialism—have thrown Circa 1492 into interesting relief?

The National Gallery of Art
J. Carter Brown shows Princess Diana the National Gallery of Art, 1985

Harris’s book offers a peek into the Gallery’s infrastructure and procedures that readers, particularly those unfamiliar with a museum’s day-to-day operations, will find instructive. Brown, along with many of his contemporaries, changed the museum from the inside out. In 1970, for example, he hired Gaillard (Gill) Ravenel, who went on to create an entire department devoted to installation design. This attention to the layout of gallery spaces, wall colors, lighting, and much more demonstrates increased awareness of the ways in which each of these choices subtly shapes the viewer experience. Brown also hired several conservators trained to utilize technology (such as microscopic and x-ray analysis) to aid in the preservation of artworks. As Harris recounts, this situation caused a scandal at the Gallery in 1978, when Brown’s staff was accused of stripping off original layers of paint or patina along with accumulated dirt. Paul Mellon, a trustee of the Gallery, became so concerned that he effected a coup of sorts, ordering immediate cessation of all conservation projects, an action that raised ethical questions about the proper relationship between a museum’s trustees and its director.

How much power, in other words, did big donors wield over the Gallery? That question extends to Brown’s dogged pursuit of corporate sponsorship from the likes of IBM, Mobil, and Philip Morris. An MBA to the core, Brown characterized these business agreements as “a hallmark of American enterprise.” Brown not only accepted and participated in the corporatization of the museum, he also justified and even celebrated it. Arguably, all of the innovations that he oversaw—new ways of displaying and caring for works of art—did not in the end serve the public interest, but rather the “one percent” who paid for it. Should we, nominally members of the public for whom it stands, support the alliance of big business with our “national” gallery? How much influence should the wealthy board members of museums have on their aesthetic and cultural directions? These questions get lost in this big and breathless book, but they are no less pertinent now than they were in Carter Brown’s glitzy day.