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Capital Culture

J. Carter Brown, the National Gallery of Art, and the Reinvention of the Museum Experience

Capital Culture

J. Carter Brown, the National Gallery of Art, and the Reinvention of the Museum Experience

American art museums flourished in the late twentieth century, and the impresario leading much of this growth was J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, from 1969 to 1992.  Along with S. Dillon Ripley, who served as Smithsonian secretary for much of this time, Brown reinvented the museum experience in ways that had important consequences for the cultural life of Washington and its visitors as well as for American museums in general. In Capital Culture, distinguished historian Neil Harris provides a wide-ranging look at Brown’s achievement and the growth of museum culture during this crucial period.

Harris combines his in-depth knowledge of American history and culture with extensive archival research, and he has interviewed dozens of key players to reveal how Brown’s showmanship transformed the National Gallery. At the time of the Cold War, Washington itself was growing into a global destination, with Brown as its devoted booster. Harris describes Brown’s major role in the birth of blockbuster exhibitions, such as the King Tut show of the late 1970s and the National Gallery’s immensely successful Treasure Houses of Britain, which helped inspire similarly popular exhibitions around the country. He recounts Brown’s role in creating the award-winning East Building by architect I. M. Pei and the subsequent renovation of the West building. Harris also explores the politics of exhibition planning, describing Brown’s courtship of corporate leaders, politicians, and international dignitaries.

In this monumental book Harris brings to life this dynamic era and exposes the creation of Brown’s impressive but costly legacy, one that changed the face of American museums forever.

616 pages | 43 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2013

Art: American Art

Biography and Letters

Culture Studies

History: American History


Capital Culture impresses on several counts. Harris has conducted a deep dive into the papers of Carter Brown and the Brown family; National Gallery of Art records; newspapers and magazine accounts of the period; and numerous interviews with friends and museum colleagues. . . . His organizational skill is praiseworthy: He has shaped this mountain of material into a highly readable, nimble narrative that skillfully segues from one topic to the next.”

Chicago Tribune

“J. Carter Brown was one of the most important and charismatic museum directors of the last fifty years. He almost single-handedly invented the idea that the experience of the museum could be as compelling as any work of art in the museum. In his quest to create great exhibitions and acquire singularly important works of art, he transformed the National Gallery of Art into one of America’s finest museums, and Neil Harris elegantly traces how he did this. Meticulously researched and thoughtfully written, Capital Culture places Brown in his historical context and reveals the social, political, and economic issues he contended with during his long tenure at the National Gallery. Harris also brings to life the way Brown used his rivalry with Tom Hoving and later Philippe de Montebello at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to animate the National Gallery and make it the cultural center of Washington, and for a time, the nation.”

Glenn Lowry, director, Museum of Modern Art, New York

“J. Carter Brown III was Director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC from 1969 to 1992, and a long-serving chairman of the US Commission of Fine Arts, which oversaw the aesthetics and architecture of the national capital. Grand, rich, debonair, well-educated and prodigiously well-connected, Carter Brown was the greatest cultural proconsul in the America of his day. By turns a snob and a showman, a patrician and a popularizer, he brought money and art and exhibitions and people into the National Gallery as never before, and he also left a permanent mark on the fabric of Washington DC. Neil Harris has written a superb life of this remarkable and sometimes controversial figure: deeply researched, perfectly structured, and beautifully written. The author is as sure-footed in dealing with the fine social gradations of America’s upper class as he is in recounting the many triumphs and few failures of Brown’s career as an aesthetic impresario. He has written an enthralling book, which is not only a wholly satisfying biography, but also a major contribution to the cultural history of modern America.”

David Cannadine, author of Mellon: An American Life

“As director of the National Gallery from 1969 to 1992, Brown not only suited the cultural moment, he helped create it. He made the gallery an internationally respected institution by embracing the idea of art as a public right. In Capital Culture, Harris argues that Brown’s blend of ‘glamour, intellectuality, social privilege, and high-mindedness’ made him the perfect personality to lead museums into a wonderland of glitz, glamour, and enterprise. . . . A thoroughly researched and well-written study of Brown as a remarkable cultural figure.”

Weekly Standard

With authority and insight supported by excellent research, Neil Harris narrates the politics and personalities, rivalries and backroom deals, glittering blockbusters and boosterism behind the transformation of the National Gallery from provincial latecomer to major force on the museum scene. A significant contribution to the history of the American museum by one of our leading historians.

Andrew McClellan, author of The Art Museum from Boullée to Bilbao

“The story of how Brown (1934-2002) helped give Washington the global cultural leadership it deserved is one well worth telling. Now Harris, a cultural and art historian, has written Capital Culture. . . . Harris describes in depth how Brown’s preparations for being an art museum director were both unconventional--he earned an M.B.A. from Harvard--and highly traditional.”

Wall Street Journal

“Harris, the Preston and Sterling Morton Professor of History and Art History Emeritus at the University of Chicago, has written an intensely researched and affectionate history of Brown’s era at the Gallery and how it changed the world of museum-going forever. It should be difficult to make something as insider baseball-ish as the politics of the museum world seem fascinating and vital, but Harris makes the struggles between Brown and other great museum directors of the time, such as Dillon Ripley, who was making similarly drastic and daring changes at the Smithsonian, and Thomas Hoving, the unrepentantly predatory director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, exciting and sometimes funny.”

Chicago Review of Books

“In this ‘institutional biography,’ Harris views the evolution of the American museum experience through the career of J. Carter Brown, the director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC between 1969 and 2002. . . . By the close of this fine study, one can’t but enjoy the gorgeous incongruity of Brown’ populism.”

Times Literary Supplement

Table of Contents


Chapter 1       Becoming Carter Brown
Chapter 2       The National Gallery: Directions and Deviations
Chapter 3       Stalking the Prey: The Quest for Old Masters
Chapter 4       The Secretary Arrives: Dillon Ripley and the Smithsonian Challenge
Chapter 5       Reinventing the National Gallery: Creating the East Building
Chapter 6       “What Hath Brown Wrought?”
Chapter 7       Presenting King Tut 
Chapter 8       Trouble in Paradise: The Light That Failed
Chapter 9       Exhibiting Strategies 
Chapter 10     The Secretary Carries On: Consolidating Dillon Ripley’s Administration
Chapter 11     Minister of Culture: Shaping Washington
Chapter 12     “Treasure Houses of Britain”: The Anatomy of an Exhibition
Chapter 13     Campaigns and Conquests
Chapter 14     Goodbye Columbus: Celebrating the Quincentenary
Chapter 15     Retirement Projects   



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