In honor of this week’s American Alliance of Museums’ conference in Washington DC, below is an abbreviated version of USF Museum Studies Faculty member Marjorie Schwarzer’s review of Neil Harris’ latest book Capital Culture: J. Carter Brown, the National Gallery of Art, and the Reinvention of the Museum Experience: (The University of Chicago Press, 2013). The review was recently published in the Reviews in American History, (June 2015), ably edited by Denise Thompson-Slaughter.
To read the longer piece, click here.
“Institutions of culture ha(ve) their own histories, … develop in unexpected directions and with unanticipated consequences, and … reveal traces of local experience as well as cosmopolitan ambitions.” –Neil Harris
So writes the distinguished historian Neil Harris in the introduction to Cultural Excursions: Marketing Appetites and Cultural Tastes in Modern America, his 1990 collection of essays on the confluence between high culture, popular culture and the marketplace.
Harris’ newest book, Capital Culture: J. Carter Brown, the National Gallery of Art, and the Reinvention of the Museum Experience inserts another critical element into the history of America’s cultural institutions: leaders who possess a prodigious work ethic. Melding his trademark skills of in-depth archival research, adroit storytelling, and an encyclopedic knowledge of American museum history, Harris has written a sweeping book about the ambitious museum director J. Carter Brown and his leadership of Washington DC’s National Gallery of Art from 1969 to 1992. Harris interweaves Brown’s achievements with those of his two chief competitors: S. Dillon Ripley of the Smithsonian Institution and Thomas Hoving of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The result is a fascinating page-turner that centers on the professional rivalry between three blue-blooded men who muscled the museum field forward through their contemporaneous leadership of three marque institutions. The book’s fifteen chapters can be read separately as articles about different aspects of Brown’s influence on the museum world, from acquiring art to commissioning architecture to organizing exhibitions. When read together, the stories told in Capital Culture contribute only to our understanding of these important institutions’ place in American history but to the disciplines of museology, business history, urban studies, and cultural geography.
In Chapter One we meet J. Carter Brown, born in 1934 into one of New England’s most prominent families. Perhaps best known for their eponymous university, the Browns were connected by “family, taste, money and cultivation to a chain of intellectual and artistic circles” from opera star Enrico Caruso to modern architect Richard Neutra (p. 13). Carter was groomed to continue his family’s legacy in art patronage, education and national affairs. During World War II, while his father served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and an influential member of the Roberts Commission, Carter attended exclusive boarding schools, hobnobbing with the sons of other elites. After the war, with Europe in ruins, New York City grabbed center stage in the art world. America’s cultural aspirations bloomed as civic leaders were no longer content with their museums’ dusty hodge-podges of collections. Energetic dealers, intellectuals and artists allied with America’s patrician families to upgrade museums as part of the nation’s newfound superpower status. Stating that he craved the “weighty permanence of museums in society,” it was in this milieu that J. Carter Brown decided to pursue a career in art museums (p. 21).
Using “charm, family connections, youth and intelligence,” Brown schmoozed with a veritable who’s who of the post-war art museum world. In 1961, Brown became an assistant to NGA’s director, John Walker. The institution had been established during the Great Depression as a repository for the art collection of banker and former Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon. At the age of 27, Brown arrived in Washington DC at the same time as another dashing and Harvard-educated New Englander, John F. Kennedy. Like Kennedy, Brown was “photogenic, articulate, a suave exotic amid the predictable bureaucrats jockeying for power in Washington” (p. 60). He immersed himself in the atmosphere of Camelot and “the embassy party circuit” (p. 365) Eight years later he took the helm of NGA.
Despite Brown’s belief in museums as beacons of stability, his tenure coincided with social and economic flux. Until the Kennedy and Johnson years, the District of Columbia was a provincial city, sleepy and segregated. During the 1960s, the city and its chief industry – the federal government – entered a period of activism. Large initiatives addressed civil rights, poverty and cultural policy. The National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities were founded. On a local level, a subway system and tourist attractions were planned to vitalize DC’s crime-ridden core. Within this changing landscape, NGA struggled to secure its niche. Should it continue to uphold the status of America’s plutocrats or should it strive to serve a broader cross section of society? In Brown’s mind, it could do both simultaneously. To this end, Brown embraced ways to open NGA up: architectural expansion, crowd-pleasing exhibitions and modern marketing. He also reveled in boardroom activities like fraternizing with collectors, dining with heads of state and royals, and acquiring very expensive masterpieces. Harris colorfully documents how, under Brown’s watch, NGA became a populist plaza of commerce, education and recreation while remaining a monument to an old world collection.
In Chapter Three, we get a taste of the high-wire tricks of art buying Brown performed. “Stalking the Prey” tells the tale behind Brown’s most stunning acquisition: Ginevra de’ Benci by Leonardo da Vinci, at that time the “world’s costliest painting” and to this day the only Leonardo in the US (p. 81). Brown politicked, courted donors, bid, re-bid and eventually outbid Thomas Hoving’s team at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) for the precious canvas. But he lost another prize to Hoving — Velasquez’s Juan de Pareja. Brown was so furious at the defeat that he hypothesized that the Met had tapped NGA’s phones for inside information. It was the beginning of a professional rivalry that would have large repercussions for both museums.
Harris reads Hoving’s and Brown’s advocacy for their institutions during the 1960s and 70s through the lens of urban politics: a tug-of-war between New York City and Washington DC, at a time when one city’s fortunes were falling while the other’s were rising. The two strong-willed men competed not only for single works of art, but for the rights to bring major exhibitions to their respective cities. Brown usually won. For example, he staged elaborate social events for Nixon-era diplomats and cabinet members and won the right to host the hugely-popular Archaeological Finds of the People’s Republic of China (1974). Hoving was incensed.
Enter the book’s third protagonist — Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley. An ornithologist by training, Ripley alighted in Washington DC in 1964, after a distinguished military and scientific career. He sized up the political atmosphere in Washington, as well as NGA’s reputation as a social club. Then he countered with a vision of museums as quasi-universities: places for research, scholarship and public participation. Ripley wanted to unlock the tight grasp of the “high priests of high art” on America’s museums and upgrade the “below the salt” standing of scientists and other professionals. Brown, Hoving and Ripley frequently sparred in public for acquisitions, loans, exhibitions, buildings, and real estate. As Harris makes clear, the “flare-ups” (p. 125) ultimately benefited the public, pushing all three institutions to become more interesting and inviting – and bigger in size and scope.
Regarding the competition for cultural superiority between Washington and New York, Ripley wanted to expand the Smithsonian’s footprint in both cities. To his competitors’ dismay, Ripley won the rights to commission a building across from NGA on the D.C Mall to showcase Joseph Hirshhorn’s collection of modern art. Ripley then went on to mark Hoving’s territory by courting the Archives of American Art and the Cooper Hewitt and setting up facilities for them in New York City.
Ripley may have finessed prime real estate on the DC Mall, but Brown had expansive ideas of his own, with plans for the striking modern architectural achievement of NGA’s East Wing. Working with architect I.M. Pei, Brown envisioned and achieved a wholly new kind of museum building with a large public lobby and food court.
Hoving won the first victory: the “lengthy, bitter struggle to exhibit the glories of ancient Egypt”(p. 198). The infamous entanglement over Tut culminated in “one of the most seminal museum events of the 1970s” discussed brilliantly in Harris’ Chapter Seven, titled “Presenting King Tut” (p. 207). Most museological literature casts the 1970s Treasures of Tutankhamun extravaganza as either an ingenious or tasteless trendsetter in museum merchandising and marketing. Harris sheds light on this iconic exhibition’s intersection with foreign diplomacy, nation-building, American cultural policy and most of all ego.
In 1961, as part of the Kennedy Administration’s desire to curry favor with the Egyptian government, NGA displayed 34 objects from King Tut’s tomb as part of an international tour. Jacqueline Kennedy presided at the opening. Over the exhibit’s run, NGA’s attendance quadrupled. With minimal marketing, the exhibit traveled the nation, making a stop at Yale University’s Peabody Museum, which at that time was directed by Ripley. Again, attendance at that rather sleepy museum ballooned. The next year, Egypt offered the U.S. a fifty-foot-long temple from the Aswan Valley. The Temple of Dendur was to go on permanent display at an appropriate institution. Ripley, then a newcomer to Washington, lobbied hard for Dendur’s placement on the D.C. Mall. His approach was scholarly; he hired conservation specialists to prove that it could withstand a humid Washington summer and beseeched leading archaeologists to write letters of support. In contrast, Hoving’s approach was political and financial; he lobbied the Kennedy family to intervene on behalf of New York City and promised to raise millions of dollars for a new climate-controlled wing. He won. The re-constructed Temple of Dendur is still one of the Met’s most popular displays.
Next up was another prize: the loan of 3,000 objects from Cairo’s museum including a golden burial mask from King Tut’s tomb. The exhibition would bolster the 1976 bicentennial celebration of a nation still mired “in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate” (p. 189). NGA’s bicentennial exhibition schedule needed a boost; its productions had met with mixed success. In the meantime, the Smithsonian had scored big with popular events like the We the People exhibition, the Folklife and Art Festival, and the brand-new Air and Space Museum. Hoving, fresh from his Dendur victory over Ripley and still bitter over NGA’s snagging the Chinese archaeology show, was intent that Tut would be his. “I was determined,” Hoving confessed, “never to lose another blockbuster, especially to the National Gallery and … J. Carter Brown … [who always] grabs it all” (p. 202).
But Brown had other plans. He wanted NGA to close out the bicentennial with a bang. He mounted an aggressive public relations campaign for Tut, holding private dinners with key political players and even visiting Egypt. He triumphed and, although Tut was technically co-organized by NGA in partnership with the Met, it opened at NGA in late 1976, grabbing the media attention. As the age of the blockbuster unfolded, Brown insisted that NGA’s shared exhibitions must always open in Washington, with the attendant galas, celebrity tours and press openings. Even though Hoving oversaw Tut’s famed merchandising campaign, Brown took center stage and most of the credit at televised events. He “made matters worse by indicating that a Thracian gold exhibit from Bulgaria, slated to come to the Metropolitan the following year, was a National Gallery reject” (p. 205). Hoving smiled for the cameras and later confessed that he screamed at his staff about it in private.
As the Reagan era dawned, Ripley faced pressure from Congress over the Smithsonian’s budget and Brown re-organized many NGA administrative operations, bringing on professional staff with business training. In an effort to beef up NGA’s contributions to art historical scholarship, he set up the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (CASVA) fueling “local faith that the capital had emerged as a cultural destination” (p. 362). Most visible to the public was the expanding number of major crowd-pleasing shows, sponsored by corporations, which premiered in Washington. These included one of Brown’s favorites, Treasure Houses of Britain. Treasures‘ displays of artwork and period pieces from English country houses attracted almost half a million visitors as well as paparazzi attracted to its glamorous patron, Diana, Princess of Wales. During this period, Brown’s relationship with the Smithsonian matured. He collaborated with Ripley on the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, a showcase for a collection of Chinese jades. His relationship with the Metropolitan Museum of Art remained prickly.
Brown’s last NGA show, Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration was timed for the Quincentenary of Columbus’ voyage and involved intensive negotiation with the Italian and other foreign governments. Although it had been planned for years, its opening coincided with new developments in museology: the passing of Native American Graves and Protection Repatriation Act, critiques of the singularity of the museum’s Eurocentric curatorial voice and a number of “combustible issues …a mood of guilt, anxiety and accusation … [and] charges of exploitation and repression” associated with Christopher Columbus. Brown tried to walk a line that “transcended ideology”, motivated his original entry into art museums: a “religion of beauty, his ongoing belief in the redemptive power of the art exhibition … human skill and creativity.” It is a testament to Brown’s strength as a leader that through all the financial, political and diplomatic somersaults of his long career in Washington, he never lost his passion for the “transformative power of art”. His last NGA show was a political lightening rod, but also an aesthetic success.
Harris and other authors have amply documented how America’s early museums owe their existence to the collecting fervor of the nation’s robber barons, industrialists and bankers.4 By weaving the work of Brown, Hoving and Ripley, Capital Culture elucidates how the nation owes museums’ transformation during the latter half of the twentieth century to professionals who brought the art of leadership into the art of the museum.
Museum directorship extends beyond the purview of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant old boy’s network that nurtured Brown, Hoving and Ripley. It is as important to document the experiences of women and others who were not part of this club and succeeded as museum leaders in surrounding cities around this same time — Adelyn Breeskin (Baltimore Museum of Art), Katherine Coffey (Newark Museum) and Anne D’Harnencourt (Philadelphia Museum of Art) — come to mind.
All told, however, Harris’ brilliant book teaches us an important lesson. Museums might just need great leaders as much than they need great art and artifacts.
For more information on USF’s Museum Studies program, click here.