National Gallery director has worked nowhere else


March 17, 1991|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- It's a recent Monday morning at the National Gallery of Art -- early, before the museum has opened, acutely quiet -- and a single figure is taking his own private tour of the lords and ladies, the naked nymphs, the winged cupids and saints of the Van Dyck show ready to be dismantled.

Tall, lanky, smartly dressed, the viewer climbs atop a lift in front of "Rinaldo and Armida," a large, lush mythological painting on loan from the Baltimore Museum of Art that was the centerpiece of the show. Visitors normally wouldn't get such an up-close and personal view of the higher reaches of this canvas, the art enthusiast explains.

It is one of the "fringe benefits" of his job.

Of course, there are many other fringe benefits for J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery for so many years that he and it are as linked as pen and ink; a jet-setting sophisticate often called the nation's top art impresario, or its ambassador of culture, or even, with his high, wide forehead, sculptured features and beaming blue eyes, an aristocratic demigod.

For him, there are invitations to White House dinners, opportunities to take presidents and princesses on private museum tours, almost nightly embassy gigs and travel so far-reaching and frequent that 11 briefcases, in various states of wear and tear, are lined up under his desk. All in all, lots of dealings in high places.

"I had the Italian ambassador come see me this morning and I had to keep him waiting because I had the Spanish ambassador on the phone to me," the director says, amused, sitting in his office with its floor-to-ceiling view of Capitol Hill, its large Mark Rothko painting, small Paul Klee and, on an easel, 1584 "Rubens school" painting of St. Peter.

He may have introduced Raisa Gorbachev to Georgia O'Keeffe, Barbara Bush to Titian, played host to the Prince and Princess of Wales, but it is the art that he calls his "reward."

"You need only see Carter in front of a painting and listen to him talk about it to see that real spark of love that's there," says fellow museum director Arnold Lehman of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the grand marble museum on the National Mall, founded in 1941 by industrialist and one-time secretary of the treasury Andrew Mellon with a $5 million endowment, funds for a building and a core of extraordinary artwork purchased from the Hermitage in Leningrad that included Rembrandts, Raphaels, Rubenses, even a Leonardo.

Remarkably, Mr. Brown, 56, a descendant of the fabulously wealthy Rhode Island family that founded Brown University and brother to Nicholas Brown, director of Baltimore's National Aquarium, has been at the National Gallery for 30 of those years, 22 of them as its director. It's hard to imagine either of them without the other.

"If a piece of paper drops in the farthest point in the West building, Carter can hear it [from his East Building office]," says Roger Mandle, deputy director since 1988. "He's become the institution."

"It's his entire life," says Pamela Harriman, wife of the late W Averell Harriman, who donated Vincent Van Gogh's "Roses" as a 50th birthday gift to the gallery. (It is one of more than 500 new works donated to the museum for this occasion, the majority of which are exhibited in its anniversary show, "Art for a Nation," which opens today.)

During Mr. Brown's tenure, the National Gallery's budget, most of it federally appropriated, has grown from about $3 million to $45 million, the staff from 250 to 1,000. Attendance has doubled (up to 7 million a year), as has the square footage, with another entire building, the East Building (also funded by the Mellon family), erected in 1978 to house the museum's increasing collection of modern art and its temporary exhibitions.

Through his connections, his deft diplomacy and the cachet of a national institution and audience in his pocket, he's persuaded such collectors as the late Armand Hammer to come into the fold. He's finagled collections, such as the one owned by Baltimore's Robert and Jane Meyerhoff, often upsetting local institutions to which the works might otherwise have been bequeathed. And he's negotiated purchases and loans with foreign governments, giving the institution an international sheen with such blockbuster shows as "Treasures of Tutankhamun," "Splendor of Dresden" and "Treasure Houses of Britain."

"I think he's the most important museum director in the history o this country," says Charles Stuckey, a former National Gallery curator now at the Art Institute of Chicago. "Carter Brown as a leader has helped fashion a finely tuned machine that is the envy of every other museum in the world."

If there has been any rivalry, it's been with the MetropolitaMuseum of Art in New York, which often competes with the National Gallery for international loan shows, and just last week beat it out for the priceless art collection of former U.S. ambassador Walter Annenberg.

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