Monthly Archives: January 2014

Thoroughly ‘Capitol’ Capital Culture

CBR_Logo2Capital Culture:
J. Carter Brown, the National Gallery, and the Reinvention of the Museum Experience
by Neil Harris

Dedicated in 1941, the U.S. National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, was the dream of philanthropist banker Andrew Mellon. For nearly a decade, he collected paintings and sculptures, with the intention of glorifying both the nation and its capital. Founded with conservative aims that mirrored the intellectual beliefs of the moneyed elite of its time, the Gallery featured only American and European works, created by artists who had to have been dead for at least twenty years at the time the art was placed.

9780226067704Staid, regal, and rather dull, the National Gallery was respected, but it was neither loved nor particularly successfuluntil the fresh air of the Kennedy Administration opened the museum world across the country to wider inclusions, the cultivation of popular appeal, and an appetite for new ideas. The National Gallery was slow to join this new world, until Carter Brown took over as director. He first changed the Gallery physically, hiring I. M. Pei to design a second building for the museum complex, which would include all the luxuries lacking in older museums, such as a restaurant, an atrium space for receptions, and a retail center for museum merchandise. Shortly after the opening the new building, he then helped change the entire dynamic of museum-going by creating the modern museum super-show with the legendary King Tut exhibit of 1976.

Neil 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.

Harris, Neil Credit Teri J. Edelstein

Author Neil Harris (photo credit: Teri J. Edelstein)

Brown, a scion of the Rhode Island Browns, was raised by a gentle, scholarly father and an adventurous, critical mother. He claimed that he had wanted to work at the National Gallery from the first time he saw the building at the age of twelve. A serious student of art history, and a lover of hard work who often felt he could not live up to the privilege he was born into, Brown saw the Gallery as his way to give back to both the art world he loved and to the country that had given his family so much.

His vision of what a museum should be had as much to do with creating a culture that could celebrate as well as venerate the beauties of the past. Brown used the Gallery and its influence to change just about everything that we consider to be part of the museum experience, changing a visit to see the treasures of the past from the aesthetic equivalent of visiting a mausoleum to an exciting and dynamic trip, with history and art being presented much the way a Hollywood blockbuster or new amusement park thrill ride might be. He made going to the museum not an activity just for the elites, but a truly American, populist experience. One that most of our childhoods would have been incomplete without.

In Capital Culture, Harris provides readers with a remarkably researched piece of history that is both interesting and enjoyable.

Three-Star Review

September 2013, University of Chicago Press
$35, hardcover, 608 pages
ISBN-13: 978-0-226-06770-4

—Reviewed by Lynda Fitzgerald

Learn more about Capital Culture


1 Comment

Filed under nonfiction

Writing out of the Box

CBR_Logo2The Man Who Built Boxes
by Frank Tavares

Frank Tavares, with his pleasant, matter-of-fact voice, told listeners of National Public Radio programs, “This is NPR,” for three decades. In his writing, a similar matter-of-fact voice comes through, in situations at times bleak and at others, darkly humorous.

Throughout Tavares’s collection of short stories, The Man Who Built Boxes, the reader will meet men and women who are grappling with their pasts. And sometimes, they learn the past will linger in unsettling ways.

Box-Kindle“Despite his appropriate grieving at the funeral, Jimmy Mendoza had to admit he was glad the son of a bitch was dead,” begins “Why Jimmy Mendoza Hated the Late Tamale Jones.” Jimmy is a man seeking closure at Tamale’s closed-casket funeral, but even when he hears directly from the deceased, peace of mind is hard to find. The two men remain linked for decades to a crime, with one taunting the other as they appear to get away with it.

For Antonio Enzo Marino, three decades spent in Italy can’t completely wipe his past in Texas. He lives a quiet life in a village that is in the process of sliding downhill, literally. The reader meets Antonio when he awakens to find his garden storage shed has fallen over the edge of his yard. “He and his neighbors, few in number, clung to a fantasy that some miraculous force would shore up the perimeter of their village, would stop the inevitable. But he knew it wouldn’t happen. There was no miraculous force. There was no natural force. There was no man-made force. There was only the tick in time.” With a crumbling home in his future, Antonio makes a choice to return to the town—and the woman—he left behind as a young man.

Tavares, who studied at Wheaton College and Northern Illinois University, writes with clear details, opening the doors to the homes of people who may be coasting through their lives, treading water in unfulfilling jobs, marriages that have lost their romance, or family relationships that are stuck in unhealthy patterns.

Tavares photo

Author Frank Tavares

Tavares’s characters are often rough around the edges, many who may feel boxed in by their life’s circumstances. There’s Sally, in “The Illustrated Sally,” a twenty-nine-year-old woman with giant chip on her shoulder and a body that serves as canvas to numerous tattoo artists. Each new tattoo stamps a reminder of someone who has wronged her, keeping the past from which she has fled ever present. John, in the title story, crafts wooden boxes of all shapes and sizes as a hobby—or obsession—as he grapples with rejection, loss, and a constant reminder of a sorrowful past over which he had no control.

Sometimes, those characters who have found satisfaction don’t really deserve it. Take the title character in  “When Max Ryland Met the Devil.” Max is an arrogant, good-looking “alpha sales dog,” who finesses his way into bed with many of his female coworkers … until he meets someone who can take him down more than a few notches with devilish style.

There are a few stories where the characters actually lay the past to rest, even peacefully, and the reader sees a man who has moved forward, which offer a sweet balance to a rather salty cast that populates this book.

While not all the stories are equally satisfying, “Girl” in The Man Who Built Boxes is a meaty sampling of stories, filled with characters, some a little saltier than others.

Three-Star Review

August 2013, Bacon Press Books
$9.99, paperback, 226 pages
ISBN-13: 978-0-9888779-5-5

—Reviewed by Paige Fumo Fox


Filed under fiction

Chicago: “Bridgetown”

CBR_Logo2Chicago River Bridges
by Patrick T. McBriarty

Chicago, “the city that works,” wouldn’t work nearly as well were it not for the scores of bridges that crisscross the Chicago River, linking the North Side and the South Side, connecting people and business and commerce and transportation and shipping and leisure. These many bridges also connect the city’s present to its past, revealing a history of Chicago from before this city on the marsh was technically even a city.

Patrick McBriarty has crafted a lovingly told and thoroughly researched history of the bridges that now span and once spanned the river in Chicago River Bridges, a large-format, fully illustrated guide that chronicles more than 175 bridges in 55 locations on the North Branch, South Branch, and Main Channel of the Chicago River. Packed with nearly 200 illustrations, maps, and photographs, the book is an exhaustive, detailed examination of the bridges and the city that grew up around them.

McBriartyF13From the first footbridge (built in 1832 by a tavern owner) to today’s modern marvels of engineering, McBriarty chronicles Chicago’s downtown bridges. Readers will find detailed information about the structures themselves, including architectural, mechanical, and technical details as well as information about the politics behind them, from debates about funding to discussions about ownership to arguments about placement. Engineering innovations are brought to life as McBriarty shares exacting details about materials and designs, explaining how the Chicago-style bascule bridge influenced bridge building worldwide.

For those readers whose eyes might glaze over with all the mechanical and technical information, which at times can feel microscopic, McBriarty colors these pages with lively descriptions of political and financial fights that helped or hindered bridges during the city’s history. Stories also abound of various bridge-related mishaps, from ships running aground and slamming into bridge pilings to horse-and-wagon accidents that tossed animals, humans, and cargo off bridges and into the river to the 2004 incident involving a Dave Matthews Band bus, the Kinzie Street bridge, a tourist boat, and a lot of sewage—to a sickening result. Floods and fires also populate these pages, serving as example after example of a city that perseveres.

McBriarty’s enthusiasm for Chicago and its bridges shines through on each and every page of Chicago River Bridges, as does his attention to detail. The book is literally packed with information, and punctuated with “historical highlights” and various sidebars, evidence of the effort the author put into researching and writing the book, which is something of a companion to his documentary film Chicago Drawbridges, coproduced with Stephen Hatch.

Architecture, design, engineering, history, human drama, politics—Chicago River Bridges has all of this and more. It is beautifully designed and well written, making for a lovely package for enthusiasts. Whether all readers will find each and every bridge—and each and every iteration of each and every bridge at each and every crossing of each and every branch of the river—entirely as fascinating as the author may be a question, but there’s certainly something for just about anyone in these pages.

Three-Star Review

October 2013, University of Illinois Press
Regional History
$44.95, hardcover, 329 pages
ISBN: 978-0-252-03786-3

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen


Filed under nonfiction