The man is like his monument. The lean angularity of his face, the precise geometry of his mind, find their reflection in the soaring lines, the defined universe of the East Building. There, on the seventh floor, Carter Brown surveys his world.
He is Washington's arbiter of excellence, the director of the National Gallery and chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts. He is, according to his colleagues, one of the five most powerful and influential museum directors in the country. And yet, his power is elusive, depending not on votes or vetoes, but upon the vigilant exercise of good taste and a vision that admits to few compromises. It is a curious place to occupy in political Washington, where compromise is a virtue and the ability to yield often necessary for survival.
"You have to have the right touch," says Walter Hopps, director of the Menil Collection in Houston, and former director of the Corcoran Gallery. "Carter is famous for a kind of grace and style and approach, a manner of excellence and quality. He didn't come up through the sweaty ranks of art historians, the saddle tramp professionals. He has a special aura, a special place, not being part of that. His background has given him an extraordinary range. His power is pervasive; it's just not conspicuous."
"Part of the fun of a job like this," says Carter Brown, "is laboring in a vineyard that you really believe in and that you enjoy being associated with. It seemed to me that I wanted to put my life someplace where it could be of maximum service."
After decades in the cultural backwater, Washington has emerged as a showcase for world class art, and much of the change has centered around the National Gallery. Brown ushered in the era of the blockbuster shows, competing fiercely and successfully with the Metropolitan Museum of Art to be the first to exhibit such international extravaganzas as the Chinese archeological finds, the Dresden show, and most recently the El Greco show. During his 13-year stewardship, attendance has soared, reaching a record-breaking 6.7 million visitors in 1981 -- at times abetted by such show biz touches as the strolling musicians Brown hired to keep the long lines entertained through the night as they waited to see the treasures of Tutankhamen.
His colleagues praise him for the way in which he walks the razor's edge between eloquent style and an ardent but inarticulate presentation. "When Carter became the director of the National Gallery, he addressed the question, 'How does the National Gallery address the 20th century?" says Hopps. "The shine and stature he has given modern art was very graceful and very brilliantly done. In fact it was done in such a graceful way that it was almost taken for granted. The East Building didn't turn into a big toy store like the Hirshhorn."
The East Building stands today as Carter Brown's most imposing accomplishment. "To have been around when this was possible, and at this level of quality, scale and national significance, is just a fabulous privilege," he says, "a brass ring that doesn't come around very often." Designed by I. M. Pei, it was a critical success when it opened in 1978, a trumpet voluntary of a building planned to house the gallery's modern art collection as well as its center for scholarly study.
Brown's pride in the East Building reflects his attitude toward history as well. It is not the repetitive chronicle of human errors that interests him, but the monumental achievements, the testimony to what's best in men. "I had a terrible time with the architects when designing the East Building, trying to let them in on our vision which is on a very different time frame than most people out in the world of commerce," he recalls. "I think the average life of office buildings in Manhattan is 20, 25 years. Cities are constantly going up and down. But when you think that N.otre Dame is still fulfilling the function for which it was built around 1200, there is no reason why these two buildings of the National Gallery . . . won't be around for a long time."
He is 48 now, a tall lean man dressed
impeccably in dark
suits and silk ties,
with just the proper portion of a silk handkerchief cresting the pocket, and a small speck of a ribbon denoting the L,egion d'Honneur attached to his lapel. The bones of his face are finely honed, dominated by pale blue eyes, that stare out in cool assessment beneath bushy reddish eyebrows. The eyelids descend when he ponders a point; it is the only mannerism he permits himself. The graceful hands are rarely raised in gesture.
He is not a man given to the current school of emotional expressionism. He provides few clues to the nature of his engagement with the art whose protection, acquisiton and promotion is the focus of his life. Excellence, he says, "is a subject that interests me. That is what is satisfying -- being in a position where one makes a difference in that regard. Others might enjoy a broader scale and scope and to touch a lot of things superficially, but I'm not built that way. I'd rather see it done well. I'd rather build one East Building than a lot of housing projects where compromises might have been made."
He was still an adolescent when he drove by the National
Gallery with his father and watched from the windows of a limousine how the pink marble of the massive, muted building glowed against the gray mist of a rainy Washington morning. "That is the sort of job I should like to have one day," he told his father.
He is the son of an old family of great wealth -- the Browns of Newport, the Browns of Brown University. Childhood invested him with an enduring sense of duty and responsibility. "I grew up in a family that put a strong emphasis on culture and tradition and on the fact that one had a reponsibility to pass them on," he says.
He carved his career out of the living stone of his own ambition. He graduated first in his class at Groton, and summa cum laude from Harvard. He received his MBA from the Harvard Business School, one of the first museum directors to do so. Afterwards, he studied with the legendary Bernard Berenson, and earned a Master of Arts degree from New York University's Institute of Fine Arts.
When he became the head of the National Gallery in 1969, he was the youngest museum director in the country. The job is lashed to the man as tightly as muscle to bone; it is impossible to imagine Carter Brown in any other role.
His day begins early.
Often the dawn
finds him on the
telephone to Europe, in order to keep pace with the time difference. In his beige-toned office, he sits at the gleaming round burled-walnut desk designed by I. M. Pei. On the wall above the couch is a Rothko; on the easel is a portrait of St. Peter from the Rubens School which he keeps there on the theory that "it's very hard to get a museum director into heaven. I hope St. Peter will lend a hand."
He proceeds through the mundane details, the small flags that unfurl later in the brass band exhibitions, the profound perfection of the recently acquired masterpiece. Would Norton Simon like to lend his Raphaels? "Might there be a possible way to include your beautiful pictures in our show? . . . If there were a possible exception to be made, this would be the one . . ."
The answer is no. "Understood, Norton, I just wanted to see if it were possible; and you won't be lending the Manets either, then, to the Manet show?"
There is a call to London about the Naples exhibition. There is a "begging letter" to write to a donor with a million dollars to spend, letting him know that a painting has come on the market that he might like to buy and donate later to the gallery. A foundation grant slipped by, perhaps they asked for too much, he tells John Stevenson, the president of the gallery. On the desk are a stack of fat manila folders: staff reports on possible acquisitions.
"He adores his work, he adores the business of art and architecture," says his wife, the former Pamela Braga Drexel, whom Carter married in Westminister Abbey in 1976 after a brief marriage to Constance Mellon Byers ended in divorce. Pamela is tall, darkly beautiful; her charm is suspended between the counterweights of her self-possession and her poise. "Carter comes from a long line of bishops," says Pamela Brown. He always knows what to say. He does know his show business, he can put it on when he wants to."
Thursday night, there is a reception for the departing Spanish ambassador. From the windows of the black Mercedes limousine, the city looks graceful, eminently rational, untouched by the ragged human tide washing through it. Carter Brown looks with satisfaction at the progress of Pennsylvania Avenue's Western Plaza -- "That's coming along quite nicely" -- and mentions enthusiastically that more people go to museums than attend sporting events. "Oh, lovey, surely not more than go to horse races," says Pamela Brown.
Rep. Millicent Fenwick is off to the Italian Embassy as they arrive at the Spanish Embassy; the Browns greet her affectionately as they go in. In the hallway, the departing Spanish ambassador who has known Pam and her family since she studied at the Prado as a young woman, stands in the reception line. "We had dinner with them the second night we were in town, the ambassador recalls. "Carter tried to talk me out of one of the paintings on the wall."
They plunge into the crowded reception, where the conversation is already at an excited drone, the noise of the great social hive amassed for the moment before moving off once more. They say hello to former senator William Fulbright; they greet the Chinese ambassador. Brown heads for the canape table. "Remember, this is all there will be in the way of dinner tonight," he tells his wife. They circle the party on the same axis, proceeding swiftly through the high-ceilinged rooms, meeting and separating and smiling goodbye to a dozen conversations conducted in rapid Spanish. "I really don't want to get into a Spanish gear -- I have to be in an Italian gear next week," Brown says ruefully. Within a half an hour they are gone, off to a screening at the Air and Space Museum.
Brown tries to spend most of his weekends on a 75-acre farm near Middleburg with his wife and their five-year- old son, Jay. Although he was an avid sailor in his youth, he has become a determined horseman in order to keep up with his accomplished wife. "We ride for hours," she says. "Carter will do whatever he has to do to get to the next view."
The National Gallery was not yet 30 years
old when Carter
Brown became its director. The gift of the millionaire industrialist Andrew Mellon, the gallery still huddles under the protective wing of the Mellon millions. Andrew's son Paul contributed the funds for the East Building, while money for multimillion dollar acquisitions like da Vinci's "Ginevra de' Benci," and the "Repentant Magdalen" by George de La Tour, came from a general fund established by Paul Mellon and his late sister, Ailsa Mellon Bruce.
Brown inherited a well- run, unabashedly elitist institution under the elegant care of the aristocratic and charming John Walker, childhood friend of Paul Mellon, who had come to the Gallery as chief curator before the building even existed. "Some museums should exist for that vast audience of cultured and culturally aspiring people who have rights as well . . . Museums do not exist solely for the noise and turmoil of hordes of school children!" he wrote in his book, "Self-Portrait With Donors." The director's training, he wrote, "should be as much in diplomacy as in art history. His major objective is to keep peace with everyone. His major task is to colerhaps they aslect collectors. These, their quantity and quality, are in my opinion a measure of his success."
Brown listens to this description somewhat impatiently. His has been a determinedly populist rule, intent on a preserving a careful balance between sparking scholarship and dazzling crowds. "Beyond a certain amount of peace there should be creativity and movement," he says. "It's hard to get a boat to move very far without rocking it a little bit. But the collecting of donors is a very different scene from those heady early days when there was a lot of them around and the income tax law was different. There're very few collections out there on the loose."
Still, some of his fellow directors say that the major flaw in Brown's glittering performance is his failure to collect collectors, to secure the bequests his predecessor did. "I think at times he is underrated because of the government funding and the support of the Mellon family," says Peter Marzio, former director of the Corcoran Gallery. "They don't realize that that makes his job all the more difficult. The expectations are enormous. But it's much harder to spend money well than to raise it."
When Brown leaves
the East Building to preside over the meetings of the Commission of Fine Arts the small world of the Washington cultural hierarchy produces odd and occasionally irksome shiftings of roles and power. At the head of the list of petitioners before the commission one early autumn morning is S. Dillon Ripley, secretary of the Smithsonian, lord of the castle, the Hirshhorn, the Air and Space Museum and all the other dominions, territories and principalities therein, "the grand emperor of museological affairs in this city," as one museum director calls him.
Ripley is there to seek the commission's approval on what he hopes are the final touches to the landscaping designs for the two gardens that will sit atop the underground Oriental and African museums Ripley hopes to build near the Freer Gallery of Art. With him is a television crew which is filming the moment for possible inclusion in a documentary and the bright lights serve to heighten the irony and the difficulty of the Ripley- Brown pas de deux.
Ripley, after all is a trustee of the National Gallery, and the gallery's official overlord, but in this situation the roles are reversed, and it is Ripley who must do the deferring.
"The question of more or less landscaping is an extremely difficult one to analyze as I'm sure you all realize even better than I do," Ripley intones. "Nothing is constant in nature." He goes on to show them the changes made in the plan, the hawthorns, the bonsai trees, but there is trouble brewing.
"I'm not sure four bonsai trees do a Japanese garden make," says Carter Brown.
"I think of it as a little more mainland, Eurasian," Ripley offers, but it is too late.
"I don't think we should kid ourselves that there is anything Oriental about this garden," Brown says flatly and then proceeds to give a brief lecture on the form and content of the Oriental garden, concluding finally, "We could leave it blank for awhile until we have a design that everyone is throwing their caps in the air about. I just think it's so sad to miss out on that splendid opportunity to create a Japanese garden."
Ripley rallies to his garden's defense, but the plans seem to evaporate under the polite scorn that is heaped upon them. The cameras are still rolling as Ripley prepares to go back to the drawing board, assuring the commission that "we will continue to take your advice with deep seriousness."
"I bet that's one scene that ends up on the cutting room floor," Brown says laughing as he and several commission members crowd into the National Gallery limousine.
"I remember when I testified that I wanted to build an Air and Space Museum," Ripley says
later. "One of the senators said, 'You couldn't possibly want to have that museum with all that junk in it next to our temple, our holy of holies, the National Gallery!' As if there was some terrible stigma attached to making something beautiful that can also fly!"
Although the competition between Ripley and Brown has been known to be intense at times, Ripley will upon request dole out a carefully measured compliment. "I think he's extremely effective in his job. This in itself is the highest praise I can extend," is Ripley's assessment of the gallery's director. "He has accomplished an extraordinary amount. He is totally confident; not too many can speak with his assurance and confidence."
On the other hand, S. Dillon Ripley has not maintained his own hegemony in the Washington cultural kingdom over the decades without a firm sense of turf, and so it is not surprising that Ripley is somewhat ambivalent about Brown's dual reponsibilities as director of the National Gallery and the chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts. "It was fine, of course, when the whole place was so much smaller, when the decisions being made were so less far-reaching. I'm not sure there might not be a conflict of interest there. In effect, this has become a position of real power. There's been a great deal of downtown building, you're talking about billions of dollars. Isn't it wise to be a little bit more timid about these things?"
"I think it's so important
for there somewhere to be in the community a conscience from the visual point of view," says Brown of the Commission of Fine Arts. "Somewhere in this society there sho
There are times however when Brown's sense of history strikes some of his colleagues as arrogant. The proposed Georgetown waterfront development, which the commission disapproved but which the District, in an abrupt departure from its normal pattern of compliance, authorized nonetheless, was an example.
"Carter was looking down the eons of time -- he has this sense of the shape of history; it didn't matter how long the cement plant was sitting there, he wanted to be remembered 100 years later for the park he wanted to put there. That's arrogant," said one participant in the controversy. "As is the case with any institution without a militia or the power to tax, the commission's power is hortatory. There has rarely been a case where the commission has been ignored, and once it has been you risk the loss of what power you have. It's almost a question of pitch -- you really have to know where you're coming out. They lost an important pitch on that one."
He is most visible
through the telescope of the traveling exhibitions. It is here that the heady combination of Brown's erudite learning and the exquisite perfection of his social position comes most powerfully into play. He is unintimidated, quick to capture confidence, secure enough to go one to one on the court of international prestige.
"It's like big game hunting, I suppose," he says. "You never know what you're bag is going to be." Still, he admits to an undoubted advantage. "Often the lenders prefer to come here," he says. "They read their newspapers and the dateline on most of the news that gets them is Washington. This is an audience they are very eager to be noticed by. It's not lost on them that the next building over is the Capitol and that the White House is down the street."
"He knows so many people, heads of state, kings and queens," says Gaillard Ravenel, the gallery's chief of design and installation. "He has an extraordinary personal prestige." The Munch exhibition was a good example, he says. It was to be the most important exhibition of Edvard Munch's work ever hung, but there were certain paintings they needed, paintings that some of the Norwegian museum directors were unwilling to lend. The prospects for the exhibition died and were revived several times.
Brown flew to Norway. "He talked to each of the museum directors and to the royal family, and he got everyone so excited that he got everything he wanted," Ravenel remembers. "It was Carter's personal contacts with the crown that made the difference."
"To feel comfortable with the most powerful people in the world," Ravenel muses. "Most people don't have that ease of exchange. If there were a minister of culture in this country, Carter Brown would be it."
Carter Brown's real test
may come in the post-Mellon era. "You know what with the prices of masterpieces being what they are these days, we have very little in the way of purchase funds," observes Paul Mellon, the chairman of the board. "Obviously the family can't go on forever doing everything for the gallery. We must interest people of means throughout the country to make it truly a national gallery."
"Carter will have to face a different world than the one he entered into," observes Walter Hopps. In fact the establishment last year of the "Patron's Permanent Fund" geared toward the accumulation of $50 million made up of contributions of at least $1 million each represents the gallery's initial attempts to plan for life after the Mellons.
It is when Brown talks about the role of the museum in today's world that one gets a sense of the moral fervor that invests his work, the Puritan ethic behind the aesthetic. "I often think of the analogy of a kind of gelatin that is inside of all of us that is enormously sensitive to impulses and which each of us have to protect in order to keep it from being irrevocably bruised and mutilated. But inside of each one of us is also an element that cries out for communication with concerns that don't have to be fighting these battles all the time.
"In order to allow this transaction to take place, one has to create artificial aids, one of which is a museum, which walls out the forces of deterioration in a physical sense, but also of concern with daily survival and problems. It allows people to enter into a very special place that makes possible these bridgings, these arcings across, between artist and viewer."
What sparks such arcings for one of the city's more accomplished viewers? Pressed for a favorite painting, Brown at first demurs, as if reluctant to give offense to the rest of the collection. Finally he chooses "Woman Holding a Balance" by the Dutch painter Jan Vermeer.
"What moves me so much about this picture is its recession through a very different world," he says in precise tones. "She is holding balances which are, in fact, empty. Here are her worldly possessions, pearls and gold and weights which give you the measure of what your worth is by one scale. But behind her is this picture where the Last Judgment is taking place, and where the Creator is holding in the balance the souls of everyone who's ever lived on earth.
"So, in a sense, it is a commentary on the Last Judgment and on the balance that must be applied morally to people who get too involved in objects of adornment, in their own image. Therefore it has to do with the vanity of human life," says Carter Brown, "with the evanescence of it and how the eternal values are the ones that last."