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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

Related Links:
National Gallery of Art
Art Historians
NY Times

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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 Interview

Director Emeritus
National Gallery of Art

May 5, 2001
San Antonio, Texas

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  J. Carter Brown

What was your life like when you were growing up in the '30s and '40s?


J. Carter Brown: Well, I had a fabulous opportunity of having two parents who each was very interested in the arts, my mother particularly in music. She'd been a music critic before marriage. She played in the Johns Hopkins Orchestra -- the violin. My father took up the cello, and we had chamber music during my childhood, and on. I mean they were passionate about making music. They also had record collections. My father collected orchestral works, and my mother collected opera, and when they merged their two collections there was hardly a single overlap. My father was very visual, and he was into collecting drawings. He was into architecture, he had a drafting board in his study all his life, into the history of architecture. He'd been a patron of architecture, both a gothic chapel at St. George's, on which he worked very closely with Ralph Adams Cram, and then later a very pioneering building. In 1936 he hired Richard Neutra, a revolutionary modernist, to build the first modern house of any size and importance in the East. And so, I grew up in the summers in that house, and it had a big effect on me. But, one absorbed through the pores a sense of the arts from this wonderful atmosphere. And, there was travel, and they could take us to museums, and they really knew what they were looking at. So, it was a pretty exciting way to grow up.


J. Carter Brown Interview Photo

What kinds of things did you like to do when you were a boy?

J. Carter Brown: Well, I was a passionate sailor. I just loved everything about "messing about in boats." I loved racing, because it's such an intellectual challenge as well as a physical challenge. You have to know about nature and weather and the physics of it, and a psychological challenge, because it's what your opponent is thinking and what you think he or she's going to do. So that was a great passion.


I'd been very lucky to be sent off to school -- a lot of people don't think it's so lucky -- boarding school at nine. I went to the Arizona Desert School in Tucson where we all had our own horses. We learned camping, we played polo, we had the most wonderful life because it was so beautiful. We'd get up and do chores at dawn, and we'd see these incredible Arizona sunrises. The tough part was that because they didn't have air-conditioning and it gets so hot, the season -- the academic year -- was squeezed, so you didn't start till mid-October, and you got out early May, which meant there was only room for one vacation in the middle of the year, which meant we were there at Christmas. When you're nine years old and you're away from home at Christmas; it's a little bit of a strain. But, I think that's maturing, and I loved being in the outdoors and being in that gorgeous natural environment. I mean the desert is as beautiful as anything that exists. I go back. I was there just a few weeks ago out of nostalgia. I just love it.


Where in Arizona is this school?

J. Carter Brown: It was in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains near Tucson. It doesn't exist any more. It burned down, and I had a Proustian experience at one point, by renting a horse and going out to see if I could find any archeological remains. Finally I did. I found some tile that didn't burn in the fire, and I could get it fixed back in my memory as to exactly where I was between nine and twelve.

Then I went to school in Massachusetts. They couldn't believe that any school way out there could prepare you, but I only lasted two weeks in the grade they put me in, and they bumped me up. I was there for five years there. That was pretty challenging, because one got a darned good education. But I had trouble with my knee. I had to give up football. I became manager of the football team. It gave me time to practice the piano, and I learned I was never going to be a pianist. It was an exciting time from every point of view except socially.

What went wrong socially? What kind of kid were you?


J. Carter Brown: Oh, I was hopeless. I was very unathletic, and when I was in school I was two years younger than everybody in my class, so I got beaten up all the time, and I got laughed at for being interested in studying and doing stupid things like that. And, it's been so rewarding. I'm going to my 50th anniversary of my high school, and so rewarding that now they feel... I'm the guy that sort of "made it" in the class, having been the Class Joke. Never completely "joke," because I was president of the Dramatic Society, and I did manage to graduate first in my class, but that wasn't the value system of that particular group of boys. They had an undefeated football season. They were really good at athletics, and the atmosphere at school was pretty anti-intellectual in those days.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance


It sounds like you fulfilled the dream of every unpopular kid who studies hard.

J. Carter Brown: Well, let's hope it pays off in the long run.

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This page last revised on Nov 25, 2008 11:09 EDT
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