In a 1985 review of a National Gallery of Art exhibit on ancestral British country houses, the critic Robert Hughes wrote, “The agenda of the show is plain, and who could object to it? It is a fund raiser, aimed at drumming up more American support for that collectively unique, financially insecure, historically indispensable phenomenon, the Stately Home.” The director of the gallery at the time was J. Carter Brown III, the American aristocrat who’s the subject of Capital Culture, an elaborate and rewarding new book by Neil Harris, a historian at the University of Chicago. Its thesis is that Carter was one of a few men in the art world to reform the experience of visiting a blockbuster American museum over the last half of the 20th century. Over his 23-year tenure as gallery director, Carter championed a shift of museum funding from the public to the private sectors, favoring, as Hughes suggests, the sort of grand, corporate-sponsored spectacles that would rake in millions of visitors, as shows like “Treasures of Tutankhamun” (1976-’77) and “Treasure Houses” (1985-’86) did. To the consternation of many critics, curators, and journalists in the 70s and 80s, Carter was more than willing to skim a bit of erudition and classicism off the top in order to ensure a sturdy bottom line.

Carter was one of three children of John Nicholas Brown II and Anne Seddon Kinsolving Brown; all were born around the time of the Great Depression, and benefitted from yachting expeditions and Scottish nannies. An “instinctive eclectic” from a young age, Carter spent his early years around Newport, Fisher Island, and various boarding schools, rubbing elbows with the northeast’s most moneyed minors, their names impossibly Waspy, oozing Roman numerals. His youthful penchant for playing the impresario was matched only by a love of sports, but Carter was very bad at sports, and so he adjusted his goals accordingly. In 1961 he became an assistant to the previous director of the National Gallery, John Walker, during which time he appointed a public relations officer for the museum and persuaded a few seasoned journalists to report on its affairs.

The title of Harris’s book signals two powerful forces at play in Brown’s life and career—the nation’s capital and the kind that makes the world go round. The bulk of this book is swept up in the intrigue of art acquisition. There are ruthless battles fought over Leonardo da Vinci’s Ginevra de’ Benci, and high-pressure appeals to Control Data, Mobil, IBM, and the British royal family, among others, for funds and furnishings. The rest of the book is reserved for stories about how, with his good looks, charm, and trust fund, Carter befriended everyone in Washington from the Kennedys to Nancy Reagan, and how changes in the urban landscape, such as the expansion of the Washington Metro in the early 70s, affected the fate of the National Gallery. As for the “culture” in Capital Culture, readers should keep in mind that this is a heavy book with a slender frame. It’s a book about money, politics, and art; it is not a social critique, and it is not really about anyone aside from a handful of wealthy white men. Capital Culture is more like an impressive guide, without a clear political agenda, which details many dramatic and beautiful things. Who could object?