ATLANTA -- Deep within the High Museum of Art, in a small room with no windows, the indefatigable J. Carter Brown is once again ringmaster extraordinaire. Dressed in forest-green camp shirt and khakis that heighten the blue of his eyes and the brown of his tan, he looks ready to lead an archaeological adventure through dark and exciting lands.
At the moment, though, he is discussing script changes with the producer of the audio tour for his newest venture -- a controversial art exhibit that opened July Fourth to coincide with the 1996 Summer Olympics.
He also is fielding questions from a curator.
He also is talking to a reporter.
He also is autographing 1,700 exhibition catalogs.
The books are arranged on four tables that themselves form a circle. When the catalogs on one table are signed, Brown, seated in a chair with wheels, rolls to the next.
Behind him, the audio producer, also seated, scoots in his wake. Behind her, a museum employee scurries on foot, picking up signed catalogs and replacing them with fresh ones.
Scribble. Scoot. Scribble. Scoot. Around and around, faster and faster they go. There's little time to lose: Two weeks from this day, Brown's exhibit, "Rings: Five Passions in the Art World," will open.
Though 3 1/2 years have passed since he retired as the director of the National Gallery of Art, Brown seems as influential, involved and as in love with the world of art as ever.
Somehow aristocratic and impish at once, he waves long, graceful fingers with airy enthusiasm as he describes his latest ideas.
His ebullience bubbles like a wave: boyish, catching, overwhelming. Workdays may begin at 8 a.m. in his Washington office and may end after late dinner meetings and museum openings in New York, Paris, L.A. or Providence, R.I.
He name-drops shamelessly and with glee -- as though he just can't help it. Who could? The list is impressive: Katharine Graham, James Earl Jones, Pierre Rosenberg of the Musee du Louvre. While signing catalogs, he asks for a copy to take home. "I had one, the first off the press," he says. "But I gave it to Clinton."
At 61, Brown is the presidentially appointed head of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which oversees public art and architecture in the District of Columbia. He is chairman of the Pritzker Architectural Prize jury.
He's senior adviser for Corbis Corp., founded by Microsoft head Bill Gates to develop, among other things, a colossal digital archive filled with images from the art collections held by major museums.
He also sits on a dozen boards, including those of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Brown University, which is named for his family.
But all this is not enough. Brown, whose 23-year tenure at the National Gallery was peppered with both successes and controversy, recently has launched what may be his riskiest venture yet: He is the co-chairman of Ovation, a cable television channel devoted solely to the arts, that began airing in April.
At times his schedule becomes so hectic that everyone around him can seem simply swept along, like inflatable toys caught in a current. A few weeks ago, Brown met with the other board members of the fledgling Doris Duke Charitable Foundation:
"I was in New York for a few hours -- why was I in New York?" he wonders aloud. "Oh yes, the "Charlie Rose" show. I suggested [the board] meet me at the airport and drive with me as I came into the city from Rhode Island, and we got so much done on the ride we didn't have to meet later. It was great."
And now he's in Atlanta to put the finishing touches on "Rings," an exhibition that will include 130 artworks spanning myriad cultures and 75 centuries.
Commissioned by High Museum director Ned Rifken, the exhibition is the centerpiece of the Cultural Olympiad being held in conjunction with the 1996 Summer Olympics -- and will run though Sept. 29.
The High, Atlanta's largest art institution, is prepared for the hordes: Timed tickets are being sold for $10 to ensure that a steady stream of up to 5,400 visitors daily will have a chance to view the art. In the gift shop, there are posters and postcards, T-shirts and cloisonne-like lapel pins, multimedia CD ROMs and address books all stamped or embossed with images from "Rings." The exhibition catalog already is a Book of the Month Club selection.
And like many Brown projects, "Rings" is causing comment.
"Carter was looking for a fresh way to do things -- partly out of faith and partly to be the enfant terrible -- to show that the purpose of art is to evoke emotion," says his older brother, Nicholas Brown.
In some ways, the show is a themed greatest hits of the art world: It includes Auguste Rodin's "The Kiss," Mary Cassatt's "Mother and Child," Edvard Munch's "The Scream" and Henri Matisse's "The Dance." But there are lesser-known works as well: a ceramic Mexican "Amorous Couple" from 200 B.C., a maternity figure ("Mother With Dead Child") from Zaire, and an eighth-century statue of Ganesha from Uttar Pradesh, India.