Laura (tavella) wrote,

missing DC a bit

J. Carter Brown has died. If you aren't a museum maven, you probably don't know him, but the was the dominating figure on the Washington arts scene for years, and responsible for turning the National Gallery of Art from a somewhat staid old institution with some great paintings into a world class art museum. When my father was the art reviewer for Weekend, he used to get personal tours of the exhibitions from Brown, which was invariably a treat, as he knew his subjects thoroughly.

What the obituary really made me nostalgic for, though, was an old style of philanthropist. Namely, Paul Mellon. Who (with his sister, Ailsa Mellon Bruce) paid for the building of the East Wing of the National Gallery, and when it ran millions over budget he shrugged and paid the money. For an amount of money that no commercial donor would ever give if it didn't involve thousand foot high flashing golden arches, their only requirement: that the building not be named after them. It's just the East Wing, as the original building is the National Gallery of Art. Paid for, you'll perhaps not be surprised to hear, by their father, Andrew Mellon, and filled with donations of Old Master paintings from the Mellons. Including such things as the only Da Vinci painting you can see outside of Europe. That sounds like it should be a Tolkien quote -- "the only Da Vinci west of the Atlantic and east of the Urals."

And to go with the new building, they donated new art. Thousands of paintings and drawings and sculptures, Degas and Cezanne, Van Gogh and Picasso, Calder and Rothko.

I suppose this can be viewed as some sort of longing for a feudal past, but it charms me in an age where the Smithsonian now plasters donor and corporate names across halls and exhibitions, where no one would think of giving money without being memoralized suitably prominently in the name, with a contract to back it up. Wise of them -- in the what have you donated me lately world, getting a name on a building doesn't mean you keep it. I hear Avery Fisher's name is about to be stripped off the home of the New York Philharmonic in favor of fresher money.

I'm not blindly nostalgic, if given the choice between pure and nonexistent and available I'll usually choose the latter, and I don't blame curators for doing the same. I don't think it actually harms children particularly to have the name Orkin floating in their heads while they are petting a hissing cockroach. But I love that the Mellons took their pleasure from watching people visit beautiful buildings filled with fabulous art, and not from any obeisance to their name. It makes me feel I share their joy.
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