Book Review: Museum Piece

By Michael Webb

Capital Culture: J. Carter Brown, the National Galllery of Art and the Reinvention of the Museum Experience. Neil Harris (University of Chicago Press, $35).

I had the good fortune to know Carter Brown during the 1970s when I lived in Washington DC, and this detailed account of his 23-year stewardship of the National Gallery brings back many fond memories—of wide-ranging conversations, ambitious exhibitions, and the excitement stirred by I.M.Pei’s East Building. Harris shares my hero worship of an extraordinary individual and his many successes, but this book is chiefly valuable as a critical appraisal of the achievement and its legacy. Brown could charm birds out of trees and, thanks to the support of Paul Mellon, he enormously enriched the NGA collections. But, along with Thomas Hoving, his arch-rival at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he focused too much of his attention on blockbuster exhibitions, borrowing pictures that should never have been allowed to travel, and assembling them as theatrical spectacles.

Other museums followed this lead, pursuing corporate grants, building atriums in which to entertain donors, and measuring their success in attendance figures. John Walker, Brown’s predecessor as director, protested misguided efforts to make museums more “democratic,” arguing that “some museums should exist for that vast audience of cultured and culturally aspiring people…Museums do not exist solely for the noise and turmoil of hordes of schoolchildren.” Anyone who has struggled through the mob scene at MoMA, the Tate Modern in London, or the Musée d’Orsay in Paris will echo his plea for quality over quantity.

Brown was a patrician scholar who was also a populist—probably because he realized that the world was changing and he had to run to keep up with it. “I believe in the arts and I have a sort of messianic zeal about broadening their audience,” he declared. As Harris observes, “major art museums operate under an expansionist compulsion. “Like sharks, they are always in motion, ceaselessly seeking nutriment, their institutional status measured in part through added trophies.” But reckless expansion has compromised the character of many beloved museums—the enlarged MoMA has all the appeal of an airport terminal—and its latest extension promises more of the same. As auto-fanatic Robert Moses discovered, building more freeways merely increases the volume of traffic, leaving roads as congested as they were before. The NGA is still a wonderful place with great treasures but I could wish it were as contemplative as when I first visited. 

Brown struggled to repeat his triumphs at the NGA, following his departure in 1992. Sadly, the last decade of his life was a letdown. His exhibition of renowned masterworks for the Atlanta Olympics was harshly criticized, his attempt to bring culture to cable television was doomed from the outset, and his last, inexcusable act as Chair of the DC Fine Arts Commission was to ensure that the Mall would be disfigured by Friedrich St. Florian’s reactionary WW2 Memorial. It was a sad finale for the head of the Pritzker Prize jury and an impassioned advocate for modern architecture. We can be glad that Harris has produced such a readable, fair-minded, and meticulously researched portrait of Brown and his turbulent career.

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