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National Gallery Director J. Carter Brown, 1971

Thursday, May 03, 2012 - 12:57 PM

Views on Art host Ruth Bowman interviews J. Carter Brown (1934-2002), the director of the National Gallery from 1969 to 1992. 

J. Carter Brown came from a prominent New England intellectual family who encouraged his interest in art at an early age. His ancestors established Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and his father, John Nicholas Brown II, was Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President Harry S. Truman. Brown studied History and Literature as an undergraduate at Harvard, later receiving both an M.B.A. from Harvard and a Master's from New York University's Institute of Fine Art.  

In 1961, The National Gallery hired Brown as the assistant to the then Director, John Walker. In 1969, at the age of 34, he replaced Walker and went on to become the longest serving Director in the Gallery’s history.

The year of this interview, 1971, was an exciting time for the National Gallery. The museum had just broken ground on the East Building, an addition that would eventually double the Gallery’s floor space and increase its scope. The architect responsible for the expansion was I.M. Pei. Pei was already well known for the construction of the Des Moines Art Center and the Johnson Museum at Cornell University (his iconic pyramid structure at the Louvre was to come later, in 1988). 

The new East Building was meant to compliment the Gallery’s adjacent West Building, a grand neoclassical structure built in 1941 and paid for by Industrialist Andrew Mellon. In addition to the building, Mellon had also donated his art collection; to this day, he remains the single largest donor of art to the federal government. Many of the great works in Mellon’s collection had been bought during the depression from the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia.  It was a time when the Hermitage Museum was desperate for money and one could, according to Brown, easily acquire paintings "right off the walls.”

With the opening of the new building, Brown invited scholars to come and work with the prints and drawings in the Gallery's vast collection. He established a residency program for the advancement of scholarly research at the newly minted Center for Advanced Studies in the Visual Arts. In Brown’s words, the Center would establish for the “first time since Alexandria” a library with books for advanced studies in art.

Bowen and Brown end with the discussion with a teaser for an upcoming exhibition, Rodin Drawings, True and False.  The show was to include 132 drawings by Rodin and 28 forgeries of the artist’s work. Visitors would be able to examine each work and judge the authenticity for themselves. 

Authenticity was a hot topic in the art world at the time. The forger Elmyr de Hory had recently garnered fame from Clifford Irving’s 1969 book Fake!, and Orson Welles’ 1974 film F For Fake – a movie based partly on Irving’s book – followed soon thereafter.

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