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If you like J. Carter Brown's story, you might also like:
Dale Chihuly,
Frank Gehry,
Philip Johnson,
Maya Lin,
George Lucas,
Trevor Nunn,
James Rosenquist,
Vincent Scully,
Wayne Thiebaud
and Fritz Scholder

J. Carter Brown's recommended reading: A Study of History

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National Gallery of Art
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J. Carter Brown
J. Carter Brown
Profile of J. Carter Brown Biography of J. Carter Brown Interview with J. Carter Brown J. Carter Brown Photo Gallery

J. Carter Brown Biography

Director Emeritus
National Gallery of Art

J. Carter Brown Date of birth: October 8, 1934
Date of death: June 17, 2002

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  J. Carter Brown

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John Carter Brown was born in Providence, Rhode Island. His family had been prominent since before the Revolution, providing the initial endowment for what is today known as Brown University. His parents shared a passion for the arts and public service. His father, John Nicholas Brown, served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President Truman. While living with his family in Washington, the young J. Carter Brown fell in love with the National Gallery of Art and first conceived of a career that would allow him to pursue his love for all the arts and to share them with a larger public.

Although he was already committed to a career in arts administration, Brown spent his undergraduate years studying history and literature, and acquired a master's degree from Harvard Business School. With this preparation, he immersed himself in the study of art history in Europe, including studies with the renowned art historian Bernard Berenson, and completed a second master's degree in art history at New York University.

In 1961, Brown joined the National Gallery as an assistant to the Director, John Walker. He was appointed assistant director in 1964, and in 1969, at the age of 34, he was appointed Director. He was only the third person to hold this position, and would become the longest serving director in the Gallery's history.

Carter Brown was the first American museum director with a business degree. When he set out to raise $50 million for a new acquisitions fund, he overshot the target and raised $56 million. Even as public funding from the arts came under intense political attack, he induced Congress to increase the Gallery's operating budget year after year, from $3 million in 1969 to $52 million when he retired in 1992. During his tenure, the Gallery's endowment grew from $34 million to $186 million.

J. Carter Brown Biography Photo
Having enjoyed an incomparable exposure to the world of art, and a thorough professional and academic training, Brown set himself a goal of bringing the joys of culture to a larger audience than the hermetic world of connoisseurs and art historians. In addressing the public, the Director always referred to the institution he headed as "your Gallery."

With his special gift for diplomacy, Carter Brown persuaded foreign governments to loan priceless works for visiting exhibitions, and led American collectors to donate their treasures to the nation, including works by Cézanne, van Gogh, Picasso and Veronese. In his 23 years at the helm of the Gallery, he increased the collection by 20,000 works of art, including pieces by old masters and modern giants, from Leonardo da Vinci to Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, and Jackson Pollock.

Combining rigorous scholarship with a unique theatrical flair, Brown instituted a series of dazzling special exhibitions. 1977's "Treasures of Tutankhamen," inaugurated a new era of "blockbuster" museum shows. In 1985, one exhibition alone, "Treasure Houses of Britain," attracted almost a million visitors. He also broadened the scope of the gallery beyond its traditional emphasis on European and North American art, with exhibitions of African sculpture, Chinese archaeological discoveries and the historic riches of Japan. Under Brown's leadership, the Gallery's annual attendance rose from 1.3 million in 1969 to almost 7 million visitors a year.

J. Carter Brown Biography Photo
Brown greatly expanded the Gallery's exhibition space, doubling its square footage. Perhaps his greatest triumph was the construction of the Gallery's East Building in 1978. I.M. Pei's angular modern design encountered fierce opposition from traditionalists and preservationists who feared it would spoil the view of the Capitol, but the finished building has become a major attraction for visitors to the city. Named to a list of the ten best buildings in America, it ignited an international trend of new museum buildings as innovative works of art. Brown ended his service to the Gallery on a high note, with "Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration," an unprecedented extravaganza of art from five continents, marking the 500th anniversary of Columbus's voyage to the New World.

After retiring from the National Gallery in 1992, he continued his crusade to bring the splendors of art to the mass public. He founded the cable television arts network Ovation and served as its chairman. During the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, he mounted a magnificent display of works from every continent and period of human history: "Rings: Five Emotions in World Art."

J. Carter Brown Biography Photo
His service to his adopted city continued until the end of his life. He served for 30 years as Chairman of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, an independent agency that advises the Federal and District of Columbia governments on matters of art and architecture that affect the appearance of the nation's capital. In this capacity, Brown was a leading advocate of the controversial Vietnam Veterans Memorial, designed by 21-year-old Maya Lin. As with the East Building of the National Gallery, Carter Brown's judgment was vindicated by the American people, who have made the Vietnam Memorial the most-visited site in the nation's capital. Brown also played a crucial advisory role in the creation of the Korean War Veterans Memorial and the memorial to President Franklin Roosevelt.

In August 2000, Brown was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a terminal blood cancer. He confronted his illness with the same dignity and courage that had characterized his entire life and career. Six months before being interviewed by the Academy of Achievement, he received an autologous stem cell transplant and enjoyed an active life for the following year-and-a-half, before succumbing to a lung ailment in June 2002.

In his last years, he participated in a host of new building projects in Washington, including the American Indian Museum, a modern wing for the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the National World War II Memorial. Through these works and the National Gallery of Art, the generous spirit of J. Carter Brown will contribute to the life of his country for many years to come.

This page last revised on Jul 13, 2010 12:32 EDT
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