Art of the Possible

By Vincent Buonanno '66 / September / October 2002
June 29th, 2007
On June 17 Brown lost a man who was neither an alumnus nor a faculty member but who was an extraordinary volunteer and loyal friend. J. Carter Brown, trustee emeritus, taken by a form of blood cancer at age sixty-seven, was still vibrantly involved at Brown in the areas of his deepest interests.

Drawn to service by his ancestral connection to the Browns who founded the University and by the two centuries of family members who had served it, Carter probably was most strongly influenced by devotion to his father, John Nicholas Brown, who himself gave a half-century of service to Brown.

But Carter's life was not about quietly occupying hereditary seats in Providence or keeping vigil to burnt-out candles. His professional and volunteer life as a cultural arbiter and trailblazer was intensely full. He assumed the directorship of the National Gallery of Art when he was thirty-two and occupied that position for the next twenty-five years. His leadership in the construction and popularization of the National Gallery's East Wing Building, designed by I.M. Pei, initiated the phenomenon of museum buildings as major civic icons. His blockbuster shows permanently changed the landscape of U.S. cultural life. As a volunteer he headed for thirty years Washington's Commission of Fine Arts, made up of the city's czars of architectural and monumental design review, and chaired the jury for the Pritzker Prize in Architecture, that profession's most sought-after award.

Carter Brown joined the John Carter Brown Library's Board of Governors in 1980, not long after his father's death. He became a stalwart supporter of the Library's then-new director, Norman Fiering, who was setting out on a period of unprecedented growth in fellowships, collections, and endowment while also amplifying the Library's services to scholarship. When the JCB decided to double its size with the Caspersen Building in the late 1980s, Carter stepped up to lead the design review of that major addition to the original building, which had been approved by his grandfather about a century before. Carter was ever in support of such strategies as traveling exhibits to widen the audience for the collections of a rare book library.

In 1985 Carter became a Brown trustee and immediately got involved in the Corporation's Committee on Facilities and Design. He rarely missed a session of its all-day meetings and brought to them his enormous design-review experience and visual confidence. During design presentations he would transform into a lynx, nosing up to three-dimensional models on all fours in order to grasp the building's sight lines and prospective townscape. But he was not a dreamer. He knew about budgets, limits, and the art of the possible. His aesthetic education after his graduation from Harvard included stints at the New York Institute of Fine Arts and with Bernard Berenson at I Tatti in Florence, but he also returned to Cambridge to earn an M.B.A. at the Harvard Business School.

Carter brought a highly cultivated and useful ambivalence to Brown's physical planning; that is, he revered the historic fabric of all College Hill as much as he did the Brown campus. He knew well that Brown had been a huge beneficiary of the human scale and feel of the surrounding neighborhood, and he knew the speed with which a growing institution could unravel that fabric. This did not mean, however, that he favored historical pastiche in design. Like his father, who had chaired the Committee on Facilities and Design twenty-five years earlier, he wanted Brown to preserve the best of the old while striving to bring in the finest of contemporary design.

When an architect charged with the exterior restoration of a century-old building on the Pembroke Campus presented renderings that incorporated his own signature ornamental touches, Carter barked, "That would be an act of blatant vandalism." However, for the adaptive reuse of that building's interior, Carter endorsed every possible innovation in intelligent reconfiguration. Later, when a confident "starchitect," Rafael Violy, presented an early rendering of the Watson Institute building that was as flat and horizontal as a Chicago prairie-style building, Carter said, "You need to look again at Providence, the verticality of our buildings, the steeples." Violy returned with a roof-piercing elevator shaft, almost a campanile. But Carter never forgot, in his words, "who has the pencil." He skated perfectly that fine line between patron input and free design expression. He taught us all.

Carter had an uncanny recall for the details of visual encounters or travels long past, and he would recount them in a sparkling and musical way. In his last years he assisted with a RISD Museum exhibition based on Windshield, the family's summerhouse, which was designed, at his father's request, by the modernist Richard Neutra in the 1940s. Professor of the History of Art & Architecture Dietrich Neumann, the exhibition's curator and author of its catalogue, was often startled by Carter's precise memory for the design process and the nuances of the interior spaces at Windshield, which had burned down during Carter's childhood.

Carter loved aesthetic apprehension and retrospection and the spirited articulation of those ideas. At the many meetings in which he participated at Brown, one had the feeling that he had just arrived and that when the meeting was over he would not be tarrying long. But his homework was always done; he had made the promised call to whomever, his eyes and ears sharply attuned, and he was unfailingly cheerful and ready to contribute.

He is survived by a son, Jay (John Carter Brown IV); a daughter, Elissa '05; a sister, Angela Brown Fischer; a brother, Nicholas Brown; and by Anne Hawley, his fianc}e.

- Vincent Buonanno '66

A Brown trustee, Vincent Buonanno is governor emeritus of the John Carter Brown Library and former chairman of the Corporation's Committee on Facilities and Design.
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September / October 2002