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J. Carter Brown and Capital Culture


Neil Harris’s Capital Culture: J. Carter Brown, the National Gallery of Art, and the Reinvention of the Museum Experience tells the story of J. Carter Brown, an aesthetic impresario whose tenure as director of the National Gallery of Art from 1969 to 1992 transformed twentieth-century museum culture and left a legacy of flashy showmanship, global clout, and unprecedented growth. Below follows an excerpt from the book, taken from the chapter “Minister of Culture: Shaping Washington,” which finds Brown positioning his roles at the National Gallery and the Commission of Fine Arts into something akin to an unofficial minster of culture.


Writing to Carter Brown in 1960, in response to the news of his planned move to Washington, his friend Tony Athos ventured a prediction. The presidential campaign was still going on, but Athos prophesied that when “we get a President who can provide moral, intellectual as well as economic leadership, I have no doubt that you will be the youngest cabinet member in history & the first for culture.” Despite John F. Kennedy’s election, the United States would not create a cabinet position for culture. But beginning in the 1970s, Brown was able to translate his various positions into an important sounding board for the arts in America, acting, in some ways, and in many minds, like an unofficial minister of culture. Nowhere was this more apparent than in his own city, Washington, DC.

Aside from his Gallery directorship, the single most important element underwriting this status was Brown’s thirty-year chairmanship of the Commission of Fine Arts, a uniquely influential body charged with important responsibilities for the physical appearance of the national capital. First appointed to a four-year term on the commission by Richard Nixon in September 1971, Brown became its chairman two months later, retaining that post until just before his death in June 2002. in those three decades, the commission would become embroiled with a number of emotionally charged and highly controversial decisions, as well as many judgments that were more mundane but nonetheless consequential—at least to developers and neighborhoods. Because of his prominence in Washington, Brown brought visibility to the commission among constituencies that until then had barely known of its existence. At the same time, his work on commission matters contributed to his already considerable networking skills, associating the National Gallery with the larger cause of protecting the historic fabric of the national capital, and the quest for excellence in design.

The US Commission of Fine Arts had been established in 1910, part of an effort to recover the original planning goals that Pierre L’Enfant had set for the capital city a century earlier. All over the country, planners and architects were seeking to counter industrial blight and uncontrolled growth with new principles for urban expansion. Labeled by historians as the City Beautiful Movement, and energized by a string of American world’s fairs, most notably Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, this effort has been associated particularly with the creation of majestic city centers, complete with landscaped boulevards, fountains, heroic statuary, and neoclassical city halls. These were complemented by imposing railroad stations, museums, and carefully controlled systems of lighting, signage, and street furniture. For most cities these were new interventions in what had been explosive and spatially chaotic expansions. Growth was usually governed only by gridlike street plans meant to encourage real estate development. Economic appetite went largely unregulated. America’s first zoning ordinances did not come until the World War I era.

Washington was different. Its early twentieth-century efforts were meant to reclaim a lost inheritance rather than to steer an entirely new course. Monumental avenues and grand vistas lay at the very heart of the capital’s legacy. They were, to be sure, incompletely realized. The “city of magnificent distances” created by L’Enfant’s 1791 plan represented the triumph of ambition over reality. For decades, on either side of the Civil War, the contrasts between magnificent public buildings and the muddy squalor of surrounding spaces drew acerbic comments from visitors. As American architects and artists became increasingly professionalized by century’s end, as international travel grew, as world’s fairs demonstrated the possibilities of coordinated design, demands were heard to redeem the city from the haphazard and inconsistent decision making that had mangled its boulevards and allowed the construction of grotesque monuments.

Congress had the power to change the system, although it guarded its authority jealously. Beginning about 1901, however, just after the capital’s centennial, the Senate Park Commission invited a quartet of prominent artists and architects to serve on a special commission. They met, toured European cities, and produced a report endorsing the L’Enfant plan and urging a coordinated park system for the District of Columbia. The report, known as the Plan of 1901, was followed by the dissolution of the commission, but is recommendations were widely praised.

After some false starts, in 1910 Elihu Root, a senator from New York, introduced a bill calling for the appointment of a fine arts commission to offer advice on public art matters in the District of Columbia; the legislation proposed a seven-member board of qualified experts to “advise upon the location of statues, fountains and monuments in the public squares, streets and parks,” and on other matters of art as required by the president or any congressional committee. With its usual insistence upon its own prerogatives, Congress exempted itself fromthe commission’s deliberations. Approval quickly followed, and Daniel Burnham of Chicago, the chief of works of the celebrated Columbian Exposition and an influential architect and city planner, became its first chair. And so began a process of reviewing proposals that continues to the present day. Subsequent legislation, including the Shipstead-Luce Act of 1930, enlarged the commission’s portfolio to include municipal as well as federal buildings, along with almost all of Georgetown and the land adjoining federal facilities. The commission could only recommend approval or disapproval of projects, but its prestige over the years was such that few authorities—from the military to the FBI to highway departments—refused to make the changes it proposed.

Prestige flowed from the fact that the commission’s members were presidential appointees and included many figures of distinction. Commission members were unpaid, usually architects, supplemented by painters, sculptors, landscape architects, and a small number of nonprofessionals, among whom were government officials, writers, and museum directors. Both David Finley and John Walker, Brown’s two predecessors at the National Gallery, had been members of the commission, Finley serving for some twenty years, the last thirteen as chairman, and Walker for only four. Their appointments emphasized the symbolic and substantive cultural role some hoped the Gallery would play in Washington more generally. Finley, who was deeply interested in historic preservation, a founder of the National Trust, and the owner of a great plantation house not far from Washington, was a formidable presence as chairman in the 1950s and 1960s. However, even Finley could not match the length of service and the degree of celebrity that Carter Brown would bring to the commission.

In many ways, Brown was born to the role he would play here. He had been fascinated by architecture since boyhood, for it was one of his father’s passions, and acquired easy control over its historical vocabulary as part of his broader liberal education. Since coming to Washington and coordinating planning efforts for the East Building, he had become even more familiar with the work of contemporary architects, and gotten to know quite a number of them. He had also spent time interacting with the many administrative bodies that were concerned with building plans. Rarely without opinions on almost any subject, Brown was especially vocal on design—graphic or architectural—and as a museum director was continually evaluating the merits of specific judgments offered by others. Personally fastidious, alarmingly articulate, and an omnivorous observer, he combined an antiquarian’s love of tradition with an openness to innovation and a sympathy for modernism. Unintimidated by professional jargon, he possessed a facility at exposition that gave him easy entry into professional conversations, allowing him to hold his own with architects twenty and thirty years his senior. He was still in his thirties when he assumed the chairmanship.

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