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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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.