The Magazine

Blockbuster Brown

The man who made museums what they are today.

Nov 25, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 11 • By AMY HENDERSON
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In the 1970s and ’80s, American museums reinvented themselves as dazzling arenas of art and culture. Sacred temples of tradition suddenly heard the siren call of show business: Spectacular exhibitions took center stage, and museums became the most exciting sites in town, with visitors flocking (and often waiting in line for hours) to glimpse the wonders within. In his hefty new study of this transformation, Neil Harris credits the rise of a “museum age” to the huge spurt in attendance, large-scale media interest, and new funding sources sparked by this ballyhoo.  

J. Carter Brown, 1985

J. Carter Brown, 1985

Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

The chief impresario of this new era was J. Carter Brown (1934-2002). As director of the National Gallery from 1969 to 1992, Brown not only suited the cultural moment, he helped create it. He made the gallery an internationally respected institution by embracing the idea of art as a public right. In Capital Culture, Harris argues that Brown’s blend of “glamour, intellectuality, social privilege, and high-mindedness” made him the perfect personality to lead museums into a wonderland of glitz, glamour, and enterprise.

Harris, the Preston and Sterling Morton professor emeritus of history and art history at the University of Chicago, writes from a highly informed position. His scholarship has ranged from a biography of P. T. Barnum to a study of cultural taste in modern America; but he is also well-acquainted with behind-the-scenes Washington museum life. A member of an important Smithsonian advisory council from 1978 to 1991, Harris capitalizes on his connection to illustrate how the rivalry between Brown’s National Gallery and S. Dillon Ripley’s Smithsonian Institution helped propel the age of the blockbuster exhibition.

“Treasures of Tutankhamun” (1976-77) was the first exhibition to be deemed a “blockbuster,” and its arrival at the National Gallery was a stunning proclamation that a new day had arrived in museum life. It was also a signal to other high-on-the-radar museums that the National Gallery was now a significant cultural force. That it beat out Thomas Hoving’s Metropolitan Museum for the Tut extravaganza speaks to Brown’s ability as a cultural diplomat—he involved both President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in landing the exhibition—and his fierce ambition. Brown happily admitted that he loved “the chase” as well as the spectacle, and Hoving later confessed that he had “watched, grinding my teeth, as Carter Brown plucked show after show away from me.” 

By sending a shock wave into modern museum life, the Tut exhibition elevated the National Gallery into the cultural stratosphere. And the wow factor radiated from every stage of the exhibition’s life, beginning with the press preview, where Brown dramatically revealed Tut’s stunning golden burial mask. Later, the star-studded opening-night gala glowed with the gallery’s new stature as a cultural megaplayer: Effusive reviews extolled the exhibition’s “captivating and bedazzling” installation and design. Harris points out that the amount of attention paid to design reflected two themes essential in the new age of museums:  “A growing sensitivity to the aesthetics of display and the increasing centrality of the museum experience to a broader public.”  

One of the Tut exhibition designers who is now the gallery’s chief of design, Mark Leithauser, has told me that size had very little to do with Tut being a blockbuster, as there were only 55 objects in the show. Rather, excitement was generated both by the wondrous spectacle of the objects themselves and by Brown’s extraordinary showmanship. 

Brown enthused about “the sheer visual quality of the objects” and their “breathtaking age.” He also credited the remarkable installation, which captured “the treasure-hunt aspect” of the Tut tomb’s discovery. He enjoyed “the pageantry and excitement of the great exhibition” and increasingly poured his energies and imagination into shows that would increase the gallery’s attendance. To a publicity-savvy director, soaring attendance meant increased national publicity and international prestige. In the high-stakes cultural world, status counts big time.

Tut was also a financial phenomenon, and Harris believes that its high-profit profile “helped transform operational planning at major American museums and established levels of excitement .  .  . rarely associated with any but the most exceptional events.” Ultimately, he argues, Tut reflected “that perfect storm of museum need, foreign policy aims, arresting installation, and show business promotion.” Tut was not a one-hit wonder, but a model of modern museology, and the National Gallery’s fame grew at ever-greater levels in such subsequent exhibitions as “The Splendor of Dresden” (1978), the monumental “Treasure Houses of Britain” (1985), and “Circa 1492” (1991), the last major exhibition organized during Brown’s tenure.

Harris includes one other major Washington cultural figure as a key player in the reinvention of national museums in these years. S. Dillon Ripley, secretary of the Smithsonian during 1964-84, greatly expanded that institution’s commitment to the arts and humanities and often challenged the National Gallery for primacy in the cultural spotlight. Ripley rolled out new museums with regularity: The National Portrait Gallery, the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of African Art, the Renwick Gallery, the Hirshhorn Museum, and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery all opened under his stewardship. Harris attributes Ripley’s embrace of grand expansion to his desire to both “emphasize the educational roles museums played” and broaden the audiences museums served. In tandem with Brown, Ripley helped elevate Washington as a center of culture.

For both Ripley and Brown, the reinvention of museums also ushered in vast changes in how museums funded their public initiatives. Carter Brown used blockbuster exhibitions to pursue marketing strategies that would draw large crowds and spark international attention—and donors. A superb fundraiser himself, Brown focused on product development and private-sector funding in a way that proved crucial to achieving his large-scale vision. Today, of course, the nexus of art and money is a fact of life, with earned income and private funding essential resources that increasingly rule the museum world.

When Brown retired in 1992, he left behind an extraordinary record: In addition to orchestrating the blockbuster age, he had overseen the design and construction of the museum’s East Wing, whose New Age architecture by I. M. Pei was a perfect showcase for Brown’s own sense of spectacle. In his last years at the National Gallery, Brown led a $50 million endowment campaign for the museum’s 50th anniversary celebration in 1991, a boffo finale to his determination to make the gallery the nation’s premier museum.

Brown, however, was only 58 when he left the gallery and turned his attention to the U.S. Fine Arts Commission, which was primarily responsible for overseeing memorials proposed for the National Mall. He was chairman during feisty public debates over designs for the Vietnam Memorial and, later, for the World War II Memorial; but he guided each to completion. Brown also organized a major art exhibition for the 1996 Olympics and was involved in the formative days of Ovation TV. In 2000, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, which would kill him two years later.

Neil Harris has produced a thoroughly researched and well-written study of Brown as a remarkable cultural figure, but he has purposely left the intricacies of Brown’s private life to others. The glamorous and dynamic figure who emerges here is one who inspired many of us when we first joined the museum world. The joy of discovery was essential to J. Carter Brown’s being, and his ability to transmit that passion is a legacy that remains unmatched. 

Amy Henderson is a cultural historian and curator in Washington. Her exhibition “Dancing the Dream” will be at the National Portrait Gallery until July 2014.