- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 20, 2002

When I learned Tuesday that J. Carter Brown, 67, who was director of the National Gallery of Art for 23 years, had died after a brave fight with the blood cancer multiple myeloma, I remembered our first meeting.

He interviewed me for the job as his secretary many years ago, and we chatted about the Dutch 17th-century art we both had studied at Harvard University. I also mentioned a book I wanted to write. He encouraged me to write the book rather than work for him.

This generosity of spirit and striving for the highest goals directed Mr. Brown's dealings with people and his mission for the gallery.

He came from the wealthy, cultured John Nicholas Brown family of Providence, R.I.; graduated summa cum laude from Harvard; earned a master's degree in business administration from Harvard Business School; and studied in Florence with the legendary art scholar Bernard Berenson.

Mr. Brown wrote a master's thesis on 17th-century Dutch painting at the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University.

He was a blue blood and scholar, but that didn't stop him from bringing the National Gallery into the 20th century after he became its director at age 34 in 1969. Mr. Brown changed the gallery and museums around the world with his then-astonishing innovations.

When Mr. Brown took over, the museum was mainly a conservative picture gallery that specialized in the old masters' works. During his tenure, an annual federal budget of $3.2 million increased to $52.3 million, a $34 million endowment to $186 million, and 1.3 million visitors a year to 5 million to 7 million.

People mattered to him. He was what could be called a patrician populist, although the word "populist" seems too dry for someone of his passions. He liked to joke that he came from a family of preachers his mother, Anne Kinsolving Brown, was the daughter of the rector of Old St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Baltimore and was there to spread the arts.

He had the celebrated architect I.M. Pei design the National Gallery's East Building in 1978. Mr. Brown also made exhibition design a respected art at the gallery as the institution redefined how museums exhibited their work. This enhanced the many blockbusters he put on, such as "The Treasure Houses of Britain," "Treasures of Tutankhamen," "The Splendor of Dresden" and "Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration."

"Previously there were art handlers and curators mounting shows. This all changed with Carter when he began his program of great exhibitions. Carter got together a team, first with Gaillard F. Ravenel and then myself," says Mark Leithauser, the gallery's chief of design.

I happened to go through the "Archaeological Finds From the People's Republic of China" show in 1974, one of the first exhibits mounted by the Ravenel-Leithauser team. Mr. Ravenel was a friend of mine and was installing the famous Han dynasty "Flying Horse" in a round vitrine. The bronze piece was the only object in the room. Mr. Ravenel was doing the work, but behind it all was the perfectionism of Mr. Brown.

The director told me once that building up the modern collections and the cache of old masters prints were two of his missions. One of his more controversial modern shows was "American Drawings and Watercolors of the Twentieth Century: Andrew Wyeth, the Helga Pictures" in 1987. Mr. Brown got a lot of flak, but he just smiled when the show broke National Gallery attendance records. At that time, Mr. Wyeth was the only living artist to have had a solo exhibit at the museum.

After he left the gallery in 1992, Mr. Brown continued his proselytizing missions with the founding of Ovation, a cable television network devoted to the arts, and directed the "Rings" exhibit of international artwork at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Although critics and the public praised the show, he jokingly told me, "I'm getting out of the international art exhibitions business. I'm tired of getting up at 3 a.m. to beg someone halfway around the world for a loan [of artwork]."

Mr. Brown also worked hard as chairman of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. He was supportive and enthusiastic about architect Frank Gehry's proposed new wing for the Corcoran Gallery of Art and its renovation. He invited Mr. Gehry to dinner at his home several times to discuss the plans.

The Washington, national and international arts communities are mourning Mr. Brown's death. Mr. Leithauser, who worked with Mr. Brown for 19 years, expresses the feelings of many: "Carter was a visionary. He had one of the most extraordinarily creative and inventive minds I've ever had the luck to run across. I hope people will realize what an amazing global effect Carter had on the museum world."

And, yes, I did get to write that book.


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