J.C. Brown, 67; Led National Gallery of Art


J. Carter Brown, the former director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington credited with turning the modest federal museum into a player on the national art scene, died Monday. He was 67.

Brown, who retired from the National Gallery in 1992 after 23 years of leadership, died at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston after a six-week battle with a blood cancer.

In addition to his role at the National Gallery, Brown spent 30 years as director of the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts, which oversees the District of Columbia’s public art and architectural endeavors, including the once-controversial Vietnam Veterans Memorial.


Brown resigned that post in May after being hospitalized for lung ailments that followed treatment for multiple myeloma. A successor has not been named.

Brown’s determined mission to expand the art audience at the National Gallery resulted in such blockbuster exhibitions as “The Treasures of Tutankhamun"(1977), “The Treasure Houses of Britain” (1986) and “Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration” (1992).

Earl A. Powell III, current director of the National Gallery, said Tuesday that Brown’s spectacular shows created a model for museums around the world.

“The large shows were something that he believed greatly in, in terms of expanding a museum’s mission and its goals,” said Powell, who spent four years at the National Gallery as executive curator in the mid-1970s, coinciding with the Tut exhibition. “The biggest one during Carter’s time was ‘Treasure Houses’; in terms of attendance, that was the largest show the gallery has had in 20 years.”

A devoted multiculturalist, Brown saw to it that many of the National Gallery’s temporary exhibitions were devoted to non-European art. Such efforts led one Washington Post writer to dub Brown, born to great wealth in Providence, R.I., the “populist patrician.”

During Brown’s tenure, the National Gallery’s annual budget grew from $3.2 million to $52 million; annual attendance leaped from 1.3 million to 7 million. About 20,000 works of art were added to the collections.

In 1978, the gallery unveiled its East Wing, designed by I.M. Pei. Brown called the opening of the contemporary structure the high point of his administration.

Jeremy Strick, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, worked for Brown at the National Gallery for six years beginning in 1986.

“I think Carter will play a big role in the history of American museums,” Strick said. “He is someone who effectively re-created the National Gallery, both as a generator of great exhibitions, and as a center of official culture in Washington. ‘Sleepy’ is the term people used for the gallery before Carter. That’s the last term you would use to describe Carter.

“Carter redefined the gallery’s relationship to modern and contemporary art,” Strick said. “He allowed the work of living artists into the National Gallery for the first time; he filled a stunning and striking contemporary building with contemporary art. This was revolutionary.”

Brown also served as chairman of the jury for architecture’s prestigious Pritzker Prize, and was a founding investor in the Ovation arts cable channel, which was launched in 1996. Ovation President Hal Morse said Brown saw the venture as an extension of his effort to bring art to the people.

“We were both fond of saying that we saw Ovation as the light we use to help understand the shadows,” Morse said.

Brown continued the tradition of his National Gallery exhibitions by organizing “Rings: Five Passions in World Art,” a $3.2-million show of objects from 44 countries for the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996.

Brown made an equally strong impression on the nation’s capital as leader of the Commission on Fine Arts. Charles H. Atherton, secretary of the commission, called it highly unusual for a director to survive the administrations of seven presidents. “That takes a lot of political acuity, shall we say,” Atherton said.

As head of the commission, Brown oversaw the development of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The design, selected in 1980, was conceived by Maya Lin, a then-21-year-old undergraduate architecture student at Yale University. Selected from more than 1,400 entries, her design was a simple V-shaped wall of polished black granite, chiseled with the names of the more than 58,000 men and women who had died in Vietnam.

Some conservatives opposed Lin’s design, calling its “V” shape too reminiscent of the peace sign. Others called the memorial a “black gash of shame and sorrow.”

The commission’s Atherton believes that Brown saved the memorial during its early construction phases by accommodating political pressure from then-U.S. Interior Secretary James Watt to add a more traditional sculpture of three infantrymen near the wall. That sculpture was put in place in 1984.

“Carter had the political acumen to see that, unless some gesture was made, Watt would simply not have issued the construction permit,” Atherton said. “What Brown did was devise a wonderful scheme where he added the three-soldiers sculpture, but it was off to one side. It was brilliant.”

Brown showed a little less political acumen in his protest of another addition, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, Atherton said. “He made some remark along the lines of: ‘The next thing you know, we’ll have a memorial to the canines,’ ” Atherton said with a laugh. “That wasn’t a great juxtaposition.”

Despite Brown’s objections, the sculpture of three women and a wounded soldier was set in place in 1993.

More recently, Brown was instrumental in obtaining congressional and presidential approval for the much-debated World War II Memorial, to be built near the Vietnam Memorial.

Brown, a descendant of the founders of Brown University, was born on Oct. 8, 1934. His father, John Nicholas Brown, inherited so much money at birth that the press dubbed him “the world’s richest baby.” J. Carter Brown was schooled at Groton and Harvard before embarking on a tour of art study in Paris, the Netherlands, Italy and New York.

Brown was 14 when he drove past the National Gallery’s imposing marble building and announced to his parents that he would run the place someday.

He achieved that goal in 1969 when his predecessor, John Walker, announced his retirement.

At age 35, Brown, who was then assistant director of the gallery, became the youngest director of any major art gallery in the country.

He shocked the art world with his decision to step down in 1992, at the height of his success.

He explained his decision in an interview several years later: “It was pretty hard to top what I’d been up to before I left: the ‘1492' show and the gallery’s 50th anniversary. It’s good to get out while you still have the energy to do something new.”

On May 21, Brown sent a letter to 20 arts organizations--an eclectic list including Brown University, the World Monuments Fund, the National Geographic Society and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts--severing all formal ties, such as his board memberships.

The letter was issued from the hospital, to which he had been rushed May 3 after having difficulty breathing. In the missive, Brown described his ailments and said he needed time to recuperate.

He also wrote of plans to finish a memoir about himself and his father, and to spend time with his fiancee, Anne Hawley, director of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Brown is survived by a son, Jay; a daughter, Elissa; his brother, Nicholas Brown; and his sister, Angela Fischer.

A memorial service will be held June 25 in Providence. Another will be scheduled at the National Cathedral in Washington.