Making the Modern Museum

By Ed SchadDecember 9, 2013

Capital Culture by Neil Harris

IN 1948, NATIONAL Gallery of Art (NGA) Chief Curator John Walker wrote the historian and connoisseur Bernard Berenson: “I have almost come to the conclusion that interest in the arts in America is overstimulated.”

It’s a wonderful quote, especially the use of the word “overstimulated,” as if employed with a particularly flat Victorian flourish. Walker was writing to inform Berenson at his Italian villa outside of Florence, Villa I Tatti, of the 964,000 visitors that had jammed the NGA’s John Russell Pope’s west building to see an exhibition of the treasures of German art.

Walker, in many ways, is the foil from which J. Carter Brown, the NGA's third director, emerges in Neil Harris’s new book, with the mouthful title Capital Culture: J. Carter Brown, the National Gallery of Art, and the Reinvention of the Museum Experience. Formally trained by Berenson, Walker saw the NGA, established in 1937, mainly as a treasure house concentrated most of all on “maintaining the Pope building’s splendor, acquiring new collections, and, above all, staying out of trouble.” Under Walker, the exhibitions of the NGA were quiet and uncluttered, and even special exhibitions were designed with the intent of looking permanent. There was little push to actively engage relationships with comparable museums around the world, mostly because Walker did not favor lending the NGA’s artwork, built on the magisterial collections of Andrew W. Mellon, Samuel H. Kress, and the Widener family. Ultimately, Walker lamented the growing size and activism of other American art museums and “protested misguided efforts to make museums more democratic.”

It is no surprise that Walker would find the fervor of a sardine-packed exhibition to be a sign of American “overstimulation.” He came from a world were art was enjoyed in relative silence in elite, most of the time, private circumstances. The NGA under his tenure, at least according Harris’ book, strived to keep these privileged viewings privileged.


J. Carter Brown was an unlikely candidate to change these conditions, to invite a more populist and open approach to showing and, importantly, marketing art. Often mistaken for the pianist Van Cliburn, he was as old-world as an American could be: from an intensely connected wealthy family, lavished with extensive world travels and the best education. He attended Groton, Harvard, and Harvard Business School, and had a personal recommendation from legendary art historian Kenneth Clark to attend the Courtauld Institute of Art in London (a privilege he was, amazingly, in the social position to turn down). He finished his studies at the Institute of Fine Arts after a brief tutelage under Berenson. His arrival at the National Gallery thus almost seemed predestined; he was handpicked at the age of 26 by Walker, who modified the job of his assistant to adjust for Brown’s lack of experience. It was a patrician ascension via connections though Brown’s talents were obvious.

Harris aims to use Brown’s life as a window into the machinations which redefined the role of the art museum and, perhaps more interestingly, the rise of the NGA as a centralized force in art in the United States. That the NGA feels so substantial in 2013, a competitor in grandeur to institutions in other cities including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is largely a product of Brown’s efforts, whether from unique, personal innovations or as a result of competition with other museum directors, namely Thomas Hoving of the Met and S. Dillon Ripley of the Smithsonian. Brown was director of the NGA from 1969 to 1992, and Harris makes a compelling case for Brown’s importance to the cultural life of the United States. It is a large book that can feel dutiful and plodding and often as though it attempts to cover too much ground. Still, it proves an insightful context for art insiders, though perhaps tedious for a general audience.

J. Carter Brown’s career pivoted on two great, and in some circles infamous, achievements: the construction of I.M. Pei’s much lauded East Building on the National Mall in Washington, DC, and the last exhibition of America’s bicentennial year, Treasures of Tutankhamun, often considered the symbol of the new reality of art museums — the move towards highly attended, highly hyped, and often unwieldy experiences of what has been labeled the age of the blockbuster. This new reality is so pervasive that the contemporary visitor to a museum, for better or worse, does not realize the changed waters in which they swim when they view art. For example, if one thinks of a museum visit as the full arc of long lines, nice restaurants, audio guides with the director of the museum speaking, and a visit to a shop instead of a series of single moments of contemplation in front of masterpieces, one is directly impacted by Brown and his generation of museum directors.


In the late 1960s and early ’70s, the nature of Washington’s cultural life — specifically the interest of then Secretary S. Dillon Ripley in expanding the Smithsonian — increased the pressure on the NGA, making Walker anxious about his institution's relevance. The NGA, technically, is part of the Smithsonian, though the rules of that relationship are vague and their respective interests murkily defined. Under the original terms of its conception, the NGA’s collection consisted of artists dead for at least 20 years, focused solely on the United States and Europe, and was limited to paintings, sculptures, and the graphic arts. Ripley, who sat on the NGA’s board, saw an opportunity for the Smithsonian to greatly expand its art exhibition and collecting habits, due to the limitations and the passivity of the NGA. Construction of the Hirshhorn Museum, the Smithsonian’s venture into modern and contemporary art, began in 1969: The National Portrait Gallery would push and succeed in expanding its territory into collecting and showing photography by the mid-1970s and The Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York became the Smithsonian’s first outpost outside of Washington in 1967. Also, under Ripley, the still enormously popular Smithsonian Magazine was launched, giving the institution even greater appeal and casting a long shadow on the sleepy NGA.

However, it was Ripley’s idea for a sculpture garden to traverse the length of the Mall into a space long assumed destined for the NGA’s own garden that spurred Paul Mellon (whose family’s wealth, in a sense, made the NGA and whose name and prestige was tied to its success) into action. He began to fear, with ample cause, that Smithsonian would eclipse the NGA completely. Though, eventually, the NGA would win the battle over the sculpture garden, the worry was that the Smithsonian’s next affront would be an attempt to take the NGA's strange triangular parcel of land near the Capitol for its own designs. The Pope building, almost 30 years old, begged for expansion and the forces were in place. The new wing (called the East Building) would begin with Walker and Mellon and end (after the seamless but perhaps bruising exit of Walker) with Mellon and new director Brown.

Brown’s impact on the East Building was philosophical. The arguments made by the young Director for I.M. Pei’s design and his selling of it to the country centered on one concept: the experience of the viewer. “Experience” is found all over the Harris’s chapter on the East Building, claiming its importance in evolving the NGA's role in American cultural life from storehouse and steward of a permanent collection into an exhibition and meeting hall, a place where experiences are formed and consumed, pitched and sold, and where political and social imperatives can be demonstrated. Technology, media, entertainment, consumerism, any impulse of the spectacle of contemporary life, in Brown’s view, could and should be employed in service experiencing the best that culture had to offer. “If the main building provided 'a sense of place directly related to the uniqueness and irreproducibility of great works of art,'” Harris writes, “the East building 'would symbolize the activities of the gallery, and its dissemination of information at every level.'”

The centerpiece of the Pei building, a large scissoring atrium, was seen as the nation's new agora, a democratic meeting place for the exchange of ideas, an opening up of the NGA's austere and classic Pope building. The architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote that, “it emphasized 'spatial and pedestrian' movement 'at the social and spectator level,' acknowledging the logical connection 'between the consumerism of culture and commerce.'” The East Building would rhyme with a generation of art museums to be constructed in its wake, designed with the motivation to move the viewer through their activities (from the street to the viewing of art to eating and shopping) in a way that makes art a seamless part of their life rather than a moment of elite opportunity.

This change, however, was not without controversy. For many, the I.M. Pei building took into consideration everything but the viewing of art, with galleries that feel like afterthoughts and strange towers that can be hard to access. Even now, more than a few visitors wonder if they have found all the art there is to see in the East Building; signs point to special exhibitions yet the permanent collection seems overshadowed. The contrast between the East Building’s openness and the rest of the Capitol is striking, but one can sympathize with Walker, who on the completion of the building, regretted having anything to do with it. The East Building presents a puzzle that every museum designed today is trying to solve: how does one balance timelessness with the active speed of contemporary life? Is it a matter of speeding up the timeless or slowing down life?


The East Building’s focus on experience — specifically the dynamism of the viewer’s experience — gets to the heart of what Harris wants to say about Brown; the spirit of the book is Brown's long distinguished record of often controversial exhibitions, developed in conjunction with exhibition designer Gil Ravenel. Just a few of the litany of these show-stopping exhibitions include The Splendor of Dresden, Archaeological Finds of the People's Republic of China, and The Treasure Houses of Britain: Five Hundred Years of Private Patronage, and Art Collecting. Circa 1492, which opened in 1992, and is now considered a perhaps misguided effort to present the finest of the world’s art (all of it, from Cathay to Mexico to Spain) at the time of Columbus. Thanks to the efforts of Brown and others, the Arts and Artifacts Indemnity Act made loans from all over the world possible through government subsidies for insurance (this key piece of museum history gets painfully short shrift in Capital Culture), and exhibitions like these were not only about scholarship, but also diplomacy, jet setting, and sophisticated negotiations that could have the appearance of horse trading.

Brown’s deal making was legendary. The quest for the only Leonardo da Vinci painting in the United States, Ginevra de' Benci, 1474–1478, carefully extracted through much effort and negotiation, subtle displays of manners, and various intrigues from Liechtenstein’s Prince Franz Josef II, reads, at times, like an art heist movie. Brown actually wanted two separate couriers and two identical suitcases flying out, respectively, from Zurich and Geneva to throw off any underworld scent that might threaten theft (this was a little bit much for Walker, who didn't allow it). Also, the loan negotiations between the NGA and Poland over another da Vinci, Lady with an Ermine, 1489–1490, fascinatingly navigated post-Soviet Polish politics and internal tensions in the Polish government in a way that is thrilling to read about. Brown pulled out every trick he could muster, from securing an endorsement from Secretary of State James Baker at a party to a personal entreaty to Pope John Paul II.

Brown, unlike Walker, actively lent work, a quid pro quo approach that, with the help of powerful board members with extensive political influence, gave the NGA unmatched leverage. It was hard to compete with the argument that the NGA was at the center of US culture, making its pitches to donors and lenders of art almost patriotic in tone. Brown was aware of this power and used it deftly. Thomas Hoving of the Metropolitan reflected of the time: “I watched, grinding my teeth, as Carter Brown plucked show after show away from me. I screamed about his behavior in private with my staff but had to admire his talent for deal making.” Brown's deal making constitutes the most thrilling parts of Capital Culture, and perhaps the biggest deal of all was King Tut.


Ancient Egypt has long entranced the American mind, from symbols on our money to our reflections on the nature of lasting empire. Herbert Hoover had two dogs names King Tut, and the first Tut exhibition in America was not the infamous one Brown organized in 1976, but an exhibition in 1961 that started at the NGA and traveled to 17 venues, most of which broke attendance records. The 1961 exhibition was organized with the intent of diplomatically drawing attention to Egyptian history, hoping to appeal to the hearts of both Egypt’s politicians and its public, for the purpose of preventing the damming of the Nile, which would flood the Aswan Valley’s many ancient temples. John F. Kennedy personally asked Congress for funds for the Tut exhibition and it was matched by private donor support.

Harris, however, is careful to mark the differences between the original Tut and the later one, noting the effects of inflation and shrinking of institutional endowments. The possibility of a new Tut exhibition, which both Brown and Hoving coveted, came about through Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger's diplomatic trip to Cairo in 1974 and decision of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to permit the display of the objects in the United States. Though the Met was trusted with the selection of the objects and the catalog, much to Hoving’s dismay, the first venue would be the NGA. This new exhibition’s funding difficulties opened museums up in ways never before to the influence of corporate donors and commercialism. “Tut constituted one of the first truly imperial venues in museum marketing,” Harris writes, “setting a pattern that would be repeated and expanded immeasurably in decades to come.” Even with “its lack of […] aesthetic importance […] [i]t reflected […] that perfect storm of museum need, foreign policy aims, arresting installation, and show business promotion that together would sustain many of the blockbuster exhibitions of this area.”

The results of Tut were astonishing. Though the exhibition, technically, did not break attendance records in the NGA, it would subsequently break records at almost every other venue it traveled to. Some waited as long as 10 hours to see the show, and the NGA, though it did not succeed, for the first time in its history, issued special exhibition tickets by computer to help organize the crowds. In a gesture as charming as it is silly, Brown hired a string quartet to keep the crowd calm in its wait, and the last visitor still waited almost two hours to get in. When the show came to New Orleans, memberships to the New Orleans Museum of Art increased from 3,000 to 20,000, and its store (which did $75,000 in business annually) brought in $1 million just in the four-month run of Tut. Walker spoke of “over-stimulation,” but Tut was a full-blown frenzy.

Opinions over Tut still vary, and versions of the show still continue to tour even today, right now at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. Harris points out that “a columnist in the Norfolk Ledger’s Star claimed that interest in Tut reflected a deep human longing to know more about the past.” At the same time, Hilton Kramer of The New York Times, who could always be counted on for a rim shot, said that enthusiasm on the scale of Tut, “belongs more properly to the province of social pathology than to the realm of art criticism.”

In hindsight, the issues today are the same. One could be optimistic and hold on to the idea of deep human longing or instead just write Tut off as a pop culture phenomenon, something akin to how everyone has to see Wicked at least once, if not for any other reason than to see what the fuss is about. The deeper issue, however, is that the fuss changes the object’s meaning and the origin of the longing (when and if it existed) is hard to find amongst the hype. The why of objects should be the reason for their importance rather than the spectacle of their display, and the spectacle of the display makes the reasons for our behavior towards cultural objects unclear. Even with the best intentions, the spectacle can make one feel conflicted.

Even Brown lamented Tut. Harris relates that he felt “that we as a profession must do everything to keep a handle on this activity, and keep it in the museums — as opposed to arenas, armories, convention centers, you name it,” but that said, the ability for museums to keep a handle on the Pandora’s box continues to come into question. There will always be a tension between what Harris considers “commitments to serious scholarship and connoisseurship in favor of crowd appeal,” and the controversies over blockbusters never cease. It is not that the contents of these exhibitions are thin, it is that they are full of temptations, full of distractions that can lure one away from the traditional viewing of art, which is a single person or a handful of persons admiring a product of culture in an appropriate setting, able to keep their counsel without intrusion.

In many ways, the ethics of Tut and the ethics of The East Building work together to become Brown’s legacy, a legacy of a changed museum culture, a place where the fundamental relationship between a viewer, an exhibition and discrete objects within that exhibition have a new dynamic. A relative new comer in the museum world (the Met, for instance, is 65 years older, the MFA Boston is 67 years the NGA’s senior), the NGA made ground through Brown’s tenure that left an indelible mark. It is the museum world we live in today.


Ed Schad is a writer and curator living in Los Angeles. He writes for Art Review, Art Slant, and The Brooklyn Rail, among other publications.

LARB Contributor

Ed Schad is a writer and curator living in Los Angeles. He writes for Art Review, Art Slant, and The Brooklyn Rail, among other publications. Most of his writing can be found on his blog,


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