The evolution of the National Gallery, and a glimpse of the man behind it

November 8, 2013

J.Carter Brown, who died 11 years ago, was the golden boy of the Washington cultural scene for decades. Tall, lean, with an irresistible, boyish grin, he had it all: breeding, talent, charm and a well-disguised driving ambition.

As director of the National Gallery of Art from 1969 to 1992 and longtime chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts, he transformed the first into a venue for crowd-pleasing exhibitions while benevolently steering the latter so as to preserve the unique character of the nation’s capital. His enlightened approach brought high ideas (and ideals) to the masses, of the kind personified by Kenneth Clark’s “Civilisation” series. And he did it with a quip, an eager intelligence and an unassuming manner. He was almost too good to be true.

One of his virtues was his refusal to put on airs, although with an ancestry like his, he could have been forgiven for a certain hauteur. Those who knew him — I had the pleasure of interviewing him and was his dinner partner on occasion — knew that his profound love of art was equaled only by his enthusiasm for sailing. He came by both naturally. His father, John Nicholas Brown, was a descendant of the Browns of Rhode Island, who had been prominent since the 17th century; among other accomplishments, they endowed Brown University.

John Carter Brown, that charmed youth, was born in 1934 and grew up in splendid surroundings. He went to the best schools, took up music and painting and became an avid yachtsman. While at Harvard, he joined the Glee Club and became its president. My husband, Thomas Beveridge, who also sang in the Glee Club, remembered Carter as someone everyone looked up to because he had such poise and charm and an enviable command of several languages.

A full biography of Brown is very much needed, and this one is fascinating as far as it goes. Neil Harris, professor of history emeritus at the University of Chicago, is more interested in an “institutional biography.” We are given a clear description of the way the National Gallery’s emphasis shifted from being a kind of a gentlemen’s club to a venue for enlightened taste, from the King Tut show and unveiling of a new Leonardo to the monumental Treasure Houses of Britain exhibition.


Book jacket for "Capital Culture: J. Carter Brown, the National Gallery of Art, and the Reinvention of the Museum Experience" by Neil Harris. (Univ. of Chicago)

“Capital Culture” focuses on the public facade of decisions made and programs launched, while personalities remain in the background. And the author does not help his cause by his heavy reliance on newspaper accounts, which are bound to be superficial. In any case, we arts reporters would not have dreamed of digging up the inside story at the National Gallery — we were too much in awe.

There are, however, plenty of people who remember Brown, even some who worked with him for decades. Harris interviewed a few. But, as he said, he was not writing a full biography. He withheld from his narrative the sparkle and zest that would have brought the main character to life. And so the book falls between two stools, a quandary implicit in its title and its muddled jacket design.

There is a lengthy chapter on S. Dillon Ripley, longtime secretary of the Smithsonian, that seems out of place. And there are strange omissions. John Walker, the patrician art connoisseur who preceded Brown as director of the gallery, had polio as an adolescent. Like Franklin Roosevelt, he stood for photographs but zipped down the halls in a wheelchair. As those of us not worthy of his time knew well, he would whizz past with a wave of his hand, intent on a likelier target. This important detail about his manner is never mentioned.

Perhaps the most troubling omission is the brief space given to Brown’s two marriages (and none to what would have been his third, had he not died first, in 2002). His first, to Constance Mellon Byers, the foster child of a Mellon (distantly related to Andrew Mellon, founder of the National Gallery), lasted only two years. She was wealthy, socially prominent and scintillating. What happened? His second marriage, to Pamela Braga Drexel, lasted longer, but eventually ended. A discreet veil is drawn over the reasons why.

In short, there is a clear split between the outward veneer of success and the inner conflicts of this immensely engaging, complicated personality that may one day lead to a probing biographical study. In the meantime, we have the next best thing for those of us who enjoy an account of old battles fought and obstacles overcome — and look askance at the arrival of museums turned into amusement parks.

Carter certainly would not have approved.

Secrest is a former arts writer for The Washington Post. Her biography of Elsa Schiaparelli, the surrealist dress designer, will be published next year.

CAPITAL CULTURE

J. Carter Brown, the National Gallery of Art, and the Reinvention of the Museum Experience

By Neil Harris

Univ. of Chicago. 608 pp. $35

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