Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 9, 2018
Neil Harris Capital Culture: J. Carter Brown, the National Gallery of Art, and the Reinvention of the Museum Experience Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. 616 pp.; 43 b/w ills. Cloth $35.00 (9780226067704)

Near the end of Capital Culture: J. Carter Brown, the National Gallery of Art, and the Reinvention of the Museum Experience, Neil Harris concedes that “[i]nstitutions are much more than the sums of their staff and supporters. They change over time, effacing the impact and even the memory of their earlier leadership” (508). Nevertheless, he argues that the impact of an exceptional director can be profound. Such was the case with J. Carter Brown and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Harris identifies his book as an “institutional biography” of the gallery, neither a biography of Brown nor a complete history of the museum (4). A kind of hybrid, the book focuses on the institution’s defining decades, coinciding with Brown’s twenty-three-year tenure (1969–92), when the gallery evolved from being “a monument to established taste” (158) into a dominant force in the nation’s cultural life. The lengthy volume moves between an examination of the growth of the National Gallery and a study of Brown’s visionary leadership, which continues to stamp the institution in the present.

Harris begins by stating that the last third of the twentieth century was crucial to the development of museums as we now know them. The “museum age,” defined by new building construction, booming attendance, and, most important, the blockbuster exhibition, transformed American museums from cloistered, ivory tower institutions into venues of popular culture. No city was better positioned to capitalize on this trend, Harris contends, than Washington, DC (1–2). With the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Phillips Collection, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and, of course, the National Gallery of Art, the city so long in the shadow of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia had the requisite collections and expertise to jettison itself into the nation’s cultural consciousness. Harris effectively argues that the National Gallery of Art was the quintessential institution of the museum age, and he has scoured archives, manuscripts, exhibition catalogues, interviews, and newspaper accounts to construct a detailed history of how this came to be so.

In fifteen chapters, divided topically and roughly chronologically into the gallery’s major initiatives, such as the acquisition of Leonardo da Vinci’s Ginevra de’ Benci, the Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibition (1976–77), and a controversial audit of its conservation division, Harris closely examines Brown’s impact on the National Gallery. The first two chapters are devoted, in perhaps more detail than is justified, to Brown’s “impeccable” family descent, his social privilege, and the string of impressive contacts that landed him his first job as assistant director of the National Gallery at the age of twenty-five (9). Two other chapters help to put Brown’s leadership in context by contrasting the similar aims but different leadership style of S. Dillon Ripley, then the director of the Smithsonian Institution. A third chapter is devoted to Brown’s tenure on the US Commission of Fine Arts, where he played an important role in the construction of the Vietnam and World War II memorials. The bulk of the book, however, can be divided into two rough thematic areas: Brown’s administration of the National Gallery of Art, including chapters on his efforts to build the collection and to cultivate corporate sponsorship, and the evolution of the gallery’s blockbuster exhibitions.

“Reinventing the National Gallery” is one of the chapters devoted to Brown’s administration, covering the period in which he oversaw construction of the new East Building (1969–78). Among Brown’s lasting accomplishments was his plan for the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (CASVA), housed in the East Building. Harris explains how Brown, in a thirty-nine-page, assiduously researched internal report, laid out the structure of CASVA’s fellowship program and administration, as well as the nature of its art research library. CASVA’s senior, postdoctoral, and predoctoral fellowships; publications; lecture series; and graduate symposium established the gallery’s reputation for scholarship and continue to stimulate research and nurture programs today. In the same period that Brown oversaw construction of the East Building, he helped fundraise and he orchestrated commissions of contemporary artwork to reside in it. Harris notes that Brown’s ability to conceptualize in tandem a new building and an expanded role for the gallery in collecting contemporary art, anchoring the District of Columbia’s renovated downtown and fostering research, speaks to his capacity to plan on both grand and minute scales (134).

One of the most engaging chapters, “‘Treasure Houses of Britain’: The Anatomy of an Exhibition,” narrates the harrowing preparations, which took five years (1980–85), for a blockbuster exhibition of British aristocratic collecting. We learn how Brown accepted the exhibition idea proffered by the British Council, refined its concept, found a coordinating curator, negotiated loans, and secured funding for it. Two years into the planning, the show narrowly escaped cancellation when the coordinating curator had to withdraw, leaving Brown and his team to hire a replacement and initiate negotiations on about seven hundred loans in just eleven months (375). Two years later, while in Britain to arrange logistics, Brown was in a serious automobile accident and spent the remainder of the project in a wheelchair, on a scooter, and finally on crutches. Despite these obstacles, the exhibition opened to tremendous enthusiasm and overall success. Over the course of twelve weeks, nearly one million people attended. The press was lavish in its attentions, particularly around one of the show’s major coups, a visit from Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

Although the exhibition received positive reviews in the press, within the academy it invited a scathing critique of its blockbuster format. Academic art historians criticized the show for being intellectually vacuous, for imperiling collection objects with little scholarly justification, and for distracting curators from more serious research on permanent collections. Harris’s airing of the academic viewpoint, which later precipitated the attack in the popular press of the gallery’s blockbuster Circa 1492 (1991–92) as well as the devastating, wide-scale critique of Brown’s exhibition for the Atlanta Olympics, Rings: Five Passions in World Art (1996), makes this chapter essential reading for scholars and students of museum studies.

Indeed, with shows such as Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors, which opened at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in the spring of 2017, arguably ushering in the era of the blockbuster 2.0, it is worth taking stock of the value of social-media-driven marketing, which successfully promoted an intellectually serious exhibition of fewer than one hundred artworks by a single artist for what must have been a fraction of the advertising budget for Treasures of Tutankhamun. That the smaller, less expensive Infinity Mirrors succeeded in drawing 160,000 people, during a period when 475,000 visited the institution, raises more questions about the social and political motivations behind late-twentieth-century blockbusters (“Hirshhorn’s ‘Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors’ Breaks Records,” Smithsonian Institution, press release, May 15, 2017, Were the enormous resources expended on blockbusters simply a means (or the only means) of creating the kind of lavish show that would attract the public, or did such rare and exclusive content also serve to distinguish art museums from institutions like the Smithsonian, which sought to diversify both its offerings and its audience?

A larger issue animating Capital Culture is that of a director’s impact on an institution. Although we are invited to marvel at the tireless energy and impressive achievements of J. Carter Brown, the focus on his administrative effectiveness prompts questions about what personal experiences and qualities of judgment informed his success. How, for instance, did Brown select the exhibitions that became blockbusters, many of which only peripherally related to the National Gallery’s collections and some of which were conceived of by individuals outside its staff? We learn that Brown wanted to improve the museum experience and did so by investing in his installation team, particularly the talented Gaillard Ravenel and Mark Leithauser. Brown’s decision to focus on visual pageantry achieved through rich installations as well as beautiful and unique objects still does not explain how he was able to identify those shows that would resonate with the public so effectively. Perhaps an inquiry into Brown’s thinking would be, as Harris claims, better left to a personal biographer (501). But such insights would be of value for contextualizing the history of other institutions that have suffered under weak leadership. One wonders also about the roles of the gallery’s curators and administrative staff. They are mentioned in places, but discussion of their support or criticism of or contributions to Brown’s initiatives appears only occasionally. Some expansion in these areas would have enriched the book.

These concerns do not subtract from the substantial achievement of Capital Culture. A thorough study of a key period in museum history, enlivened by fascinating anecdotes about collection purchases, exhibition openings, and fundraising coups, this book is essential reading for anyone interested in curating, exhibition design, museum history and administration, or formative debates about corporate funding and blockbuster exhibitions within the field of art history and museum studies.

Lisa Strong
Director, Art and Museum Studies MA Program, Georgetown University

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