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.
Staid, regal, and rather dull, the National Gallery was respected, but it was neither loved nor particularly successful—until 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.
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.
September 2013, University of Chicago Press
$35, hardcover, 608 pages
—Reviewed by Lynda Fitzgerald
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