Master showman. National Gallery director J. Carter Brown
Washington — HIS name is distinctive, John Carter Brown. And his life is of such a heady richness - dining with kings, queens, and presidents, negotiating like the Kissinger of the art world for priceless paintings, mounting shows as popular as Broadway hits, all with a patrician ease tinged with enigma - that he might have stepped from the pages of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. J. Carter Brown, as he is known, is director of the National Gallery of Art, whose spectacular ``Treasure Houses of Britain'' show, opened by the Prince of Wales, filled a 63/4-pound set of press clipping books. But Mr. Brown himself remains an unpublic story, as inscrutable as the ``Mona Lisa.''
``He is a very private person, and he is many-faceted, so that he turns the facet that is most appropriate to any given situation to whomever he is communicating with at a given moment,'' says his sister, Angela Fischer. If there is a painter whose work reminds her of her brother, she says, it is Picasso. ``Picasso painted people from many different directions at one time - maybe for the faceting you'd have to look towards a Cubist.''
The enigma, dressed in gray and blue with a scarlet French Legion of Honor ribbon in his lapel, sits for this profile in his office at the National Gallery. This summer the gallery was like some beautiful six-ring circus of art, with Carter Brown as ringmaster. At one point during the summer, some of the 7 million people who flock to this museum annually could see a dazzling array of international exhibits: ``The Art of Paul Gauguin,'' which some critics called the show of the century; ``Sweden: A Royal Treasury,'' opened by the King and Queen of Sweden; ``The Human Figure in Early Greek Art,'' introduced by Melina Mercouri, the film star and Greek minister of culture; and ``Masterworks from Munich''; as well as flag paintings by Childe Hassam and maritime paintings by Fitz Hugh Lane, both Americans.
This fall Brown has unfurled a huge, sumptuous tribute to Japanese art: ``Japan: The Shaping of Daimyo Culture 1185-1868.'' It's actually a multimedia festival, including Japanese No theater, a film festival, and traditional Japanese tea ceremonies open to the public.
Impresario Brown sits with his back to the wall of his large, sunny office. He faces a stunning blue-and-green painting by Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko, a Paul Klee, and an easel with a painting of St. Peter attributed to the Rubens school. ``The attribution is still under study,'' he says, eager to talk about it and the other paintings. When the reporter points out that he, not the art, is the subject of this profile, he laughs and says, ``The art is more interesting.''
For Carter Brown is the man who wants to know only one thing when he enters a gallery or museum: ``What do you have that's beautiful?''
At the National he is sometimes called ``The Sun King,'' after Louis XIV, the royal patron of the arts. Tall, elegant looking, as finely boned as a racehorse, he canters through conversations and the marble halls of the gallery with such enthusiasm that there always seems to be a faint breeze around him. His severely chiseled features are frequently softened by a wide smile, which disarms as it charms. His eyes are his most prominent feature - large, Delft blue, with long, pale lashes under blond eyebrows. His wavy brown hair is stippled with gray above a wide, high forehead. But there is a boyish zest about him. When he speaks, in the braced-jaw tones of Groton and Newport, his voice has the sound of money as surely as Daisy's in ``The Great Gatsby.'' BROWN comes from a world that makes ``Dynasty'' look like ``The Dukes of Hazzard.'' He is one of the Browns of Brown University and the fabulous mansions of Newport. His father, John Richard Brown, became heir at birth to such a fortune that he was nicknamed ``the wealthiest baby in the world.'' Brown traces his family back to Roger Williams, the clergyman who founded Rhode Island: ``I come from a long line of priests and bishops, too, in the Protestant world, so the spiritual aspect of art has always appealed to me a great deal.''
Brown was raised on art and music by parents who took him to the great museums of the world. His father, famous for his collections of Old Master drawings and early C'ezannes, was a philanthropist and preservationist. His mother, a music critic and historian, filled their homes with music and musicians.
Carter was a brilliant, studious child, something of a loner after bouts of illness kept him off school teams. He graduated head of his class at Groton at 16 and studied for a year at the Stowe School in England. Next he graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa with an AB from Harvard. At Harvard Business School, he pioneered a degree, an MBA in administrative arts.
Then his life as a student prince in Europe began: He studied art at the University of Munich, the Netherlands Institute for Art History, and the Louvre. He had an informal master class with celebrated art critic Bernard Berenson at his Italian villa. ``I used Europe as my laboratory when I was learning the trade [art], spending 9-to-5 days in the great collections,'' he says.
After a final trip, to the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad, Brown began work on an MA at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts, where he focused on early-17th-century Dutch painting. Brown seems to have gone through life summa cum laude. Even before picking up his NYU diploma, he was hired for the job that carved out his future: assistant to the National Gallery of Art director, John Walker. Walker, a family friend, spotted Brown's talent early and handpicked his successor. BY 1969 Brown had been named director of the National Gallery - at 34, the youngest director of a major museum in the United States. Since then he has become a national arts baron, as chairman of the US Commission of Fine Arts, and trustee of a dozen other organizations, including the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the American Academy in Rome, and the American Federation of Arts.
As museum director, Brown is like the Shuberts of Broadway, drawing SRO crowds with his flair for showmanship. More than a million people lined up, some of them camping overnight in the cold, to see the Tutankhamen show (1976-77); three quarters of a million for ``Treasure Houses'' (1985-86), with its 800 objects; half a million for the Andrew Wyeth ``Helga'' show (1987), which some viewed as Pop Art. Will tea for 2 million for ``Daimyo'' be next on the Brown hit parade?
But it is the tantalizing grouping of major shows that is Brown's special technique. ``What we have discovered is that there's a kind of critical mass which will bring people to Washington. We are a national gallery, and we serve this national and international audience.'' He says a yearly summer straw poll indicates that visitors come from 50 states and 55 other countries.
Samuel Sachs II, director of the Detroit Institute of Art, says Brown is a formidable competitor. He ``has done a job that, in my estimation, defies superlatives. He has been a visionary and energetic leader of the nation's great museum, bringing to it collections, exhibitions, staff, and new construction of world-class caliber.''
Earl (Rusty) Powell, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, credits Brown with ``presiding over a vastly expanded institution,'' which includes being responsible for the building of the East Building, designed by I.M. Pei, with its Center for the Advanced Study of the Visual Arts. With ``a vast repertoire of changing exhibitions,'' says Dr. Powell, ``he's branched into areas that represent all aspects of the visual heritage of world culture. He's made the National Gallery a very important player in the world scene.''
Brown winces at the word ``blockbuster,'' which is frequently applied to his most popular shows, and doesn't use it himself. But the huge crowds, the publicity, the social and diplomatic panache of Brown's blockbusters, are not lost on other directors of Washington's thriving museum industry. Not all approve: Roger Kennedy of the National Museum of American History says, ``We are not an art museum interested in blockbuster shows like the Gauguin. I couldn't care less whether there are long black limos in front of the place.''
Thomas Hoving, who was Brown's fiercest rival when Mr. Hoving was director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, says Brown's weakness is in collecting. ``After John Walker and that period, it just stopped'' with the great collections of its founding families: Andrew Mellon, his son Paul Mellon, and daughter Ailsa Mellon Bruce; the Widener family, the Kress Foundation, Chester Dale.
Hoving, now editor of Connoisseur magazine, says of Brown, ``I like the guy very much,'' but adds: ``His talent resides in other areas than an eye for [collecting]. And he has prodigious talents, class. He's a great humanist; he's a protector - not of the status quo [but] of things going to be handed down generation after generation. But he's not a Dillon Ripley [retired secretary of the Smithsonian Institution], a boiling pot of wide acquisitions, an aggres-sive hardball player.'' (Brown says, ``I had a shot at that [Smithsonian job] once, but wasn't interested.'')
Hoving's riveting art thriller, ``Masterpiece,'' has as its fictional hero one Andrew Foster, the boyishly charming and manipulative director of the National Gallery. The 1986 novel's Foster ``brings a sense of tasteful populism to the National Gallery without having to cater to the mobs.'' Hoving says, ``Andrew Foster is definitely not patterned after J. Carter Brown at all,'' and adds that he borrowed from the British in giving the fictional Foster secret intelligence-agency ties.
Brown smiles, says he ``enjoyed the book tremendously,'' calls it fanciful, and says there's no resemblance between him and Hoving's museum director. ``Tom Hoving has said that what he did was put everybody in a Cuisinart; so there's a bit of everybody in all those characters, which makes it a lot of fun.'' Hoving's new sequel, ``Discovery,'' is in the works, and there's talk of a movie version.
Brown himself wrote, directed, and produced ``The American Vision,'' a lively and perceptive documentary that focuses on great American painters. The film, his studies here and in Europe, and his life as a Brown, all together, serve as a Baedeker of where he's taken the National Gallery as director. For he has apparently, to some degree, cast the National Gallery's exhibitions in his own image, reflected in shows ranging from Munich to French Impressionism to the Soviet Union.
Brown says, ``Well, I don't see it that way. I think that this institution would probably have evolved in much the same way whether I was here or not. He adds, ``You draw on what you know and love, obviously. But one hopes it's not just that.'' Conversely, he says, ``The fun of this job has been widening my horizons.'' He ticks off examples like ``Art of the Pacific Islands,'' ``African Sculpture,'' the daimyo show, and a ``zinger'' of an Indonesian show he's lined up for 1990.
Perhaps the best example of Brown's imprint is the phenomenally successful ``Treasure Houses of Britain.'' It is his favorite show, one inspired by his year in such a ``country house'' at Stowe, and he refused to hear that this kind of exhibition had never been done and couldn't be done. He cajoled its treasures, ranging from historic paintings to silver furniture, from 226 reluctant lenders and mounted a successful exhibition that won enormous critical acclaim.
Brown says his biggest flop was one of the shows he's most proud of, an exhibition on the Woodland Indians. ``People stayed away in droves,'' he says with a rueful smile.
Brown points out that the National Gallery is a team effort. One longtime specialist there, who asked to be anonymous, says, ``Carter's very exciting to work for. ... He doesn't like to hear the word `no,' likes to know how it can be done to get the best [everything]. He's something of a perfectionist, and that trickles down to the rest of us.''
Brown is sometimes viewed as aloof, and, as his sister says, ``he does not suffer fools gladly.'' The specialist says, ``He has a New England reserve, is not palsy-walsy with his staff,'' but is sensitive to people's feelings and ``never hurtful.'' On a monstrously demanding show like the ``Daimyo,'' a loyal staff goes all out for him.
During his tenure as director, Brown says, ``We have attempted to do two mutually contradictory things at once, which is to be an Old Master gallery and still not get left at the post without any of the pictures that will become Old Masters by the time we have a century of perspective to look at.'' So Brown has acquired modern works such as Pollock's ``Lavender Mist''; 285 paintings and other works by Mark Rothko; eight Georgia O'Keeffe paintings; Barnett Newman's ``Stations of the Cross''; and other 20th-century modern art that will appear in a December ``reinstallation'' celebration of the East Building's 10th anniversary. Brown has also strengthened the gallery's collections of Old Master drawings and of graphic arts, in addition to bringing in exhibits like the magnificent new one, ``Michelangelo: Drafstman/Architect.''
Brown's ambitious exhibitions take money. And, at the National Gallery (which charges no admission), much of that support is corporate. Brown says the support is invaluable, but he also gives sponsors a stringent list of guidelines. He admits that unsponsored shows often draw a smaller viewership. ``We can only get away with so many of them before we go broke,'' he says.
Going broke is something John Carter Brown is in no danger of doing. ``I don't think he worries about money at all,'' says his sister, Angela Fischer. ``He's like politicians who put their money in a trust and let someone else run it all. As long as he doesn't have to beg for his next meal, he's happy.''
Sculptor Paul Matisse, grandson of the painter, was Brown's roommate as a boy at the Arizona Desert School in Phoenix and at Harvard. He speaks of Brown's great ``mental horsepower'' and commitment. ``Behind Carter is this long [family] history of responsibility in public affairs, which has been a very serious one.'' Brown does take time out to sail, sing Bach in the Choral Arts Society, and ride his chestnut horse, Rake's Progress.
His sister says, ``He takes most tremendous pains over his children, makes every minute count.'' Brown's first marriage, to Constance Mellon, ended in divorce (and she died in 1983). He has two children, John Carter Brown IV and Elissa Lucinda Brown, by his second marriage, to Pamela Braga Drexel. Brown says he and his wife are now ``estranged.''
He smiles at his children's paintings behind the desk: ``They love bragging to their classmates that they have works of art in the National Gallery.''
Mr. Matisse, summing up, says, ``Carter, much less than most people, gives the sense you really know him when you look at him. But Carter has always struck me as operating under much higher pressure, higher internal demands for excellence, the kind of things most people are quite free of. We won't really know everything there is to know about Carter until he's lived his life.''
Third in an occasional series of profiles of influential figures in the arts. Earlier articles were published Aug. 29 and May 23.