The quintessential museum director.
Wilmington NC – [Click the Listen button to hear Rich's commentary.]
I think my first up-close and personal meeting with Ren Brown was a classic moment, the first, thankfully, of many I would have with him. It was about nine years ago and I was eeking out a living as a freelance journalist. I had been assigned to write a profile of Wilmington's arts scene and visit with Ren Brown at St. John's Museum of Art was, of course, compulsory.
We had finished our interview and I needed a photo, so we made our way over to the lowest floor of the Hughes Gallery building. I suggested a few poses with Ren leaning on or standing next to various pedestals and art objects. He patiently followed my suggestions as I tried to capture just the right image of the museum director in his domain. Finally, he could stand it no more. As I was snapping off a few more awkwardly composed frames, he turned to a bold, textured painting by Wilmington artist Eric Lawing and said, "Why don't we try it in front of this? This is what I think you're looking for." The painting was a composition of two rows of faces, each the same but each colored and textured differently. Ren's became another face in the composition - within the painting but separate from the painting at his own angle.
The editors loved it -- it was just right. And of course it was; Ren Brown had an aesthetic sixth sense and feel for detail that was uncommon in a common world, and this is what made him the essence of a museum director. He hired me on a whim two years later - and I still remember him saying with a slight smile "I think this might work." I now realize I was about to embark on a journey of learning that would inform, and form, my career and life. The amount that one could learn from Ren Brown is immeasurable in the truest sense of the word. If you were willing to be a sponge, and grit your teeth a little as he sent you back to your office to make a few slight adjustments for the fourth or fifth time, then there was nothing you couldn't get a little better at doing. With Ren it was never a personal thing - it was just what needed to be done, or adjusted, slightly...gently, on the road to perfection.
There are so many who knew Ren better and longer than me, but I think his impact on me was so pronounced because of the utter uniqueness of it all. For someone who was then new to museum administration -in the art museum world, especially--a walk with Ren through the galleries was an experience in place and moment. What I mean is that, Ren was in his perfect place and in his moment of focused singularity when standing in front of a painting, describing the nuances, connections and almost-hidden details that brought the painting to life. As with all perfectionists and leaders -and the two concepts must by needs be intertwined-- the knowledge of art was a part of him...it was in the bone.
But the moment of moments was the building of the new museum. I started at the museum the week after the project was announced and had the thrill of witnessing its creation first hand. For Ren, it was what he had been preparing for his entire career...it really was what he was born for. This is the man who, in the several hours before each exhibition opening -literally right up to the seven o'clock reception--would conduct a final walk-through of the entire scene. Adjusting light angles and the positioning of pedestals and even the placement of whole paintings -these were grit your teeth moments for the curators.
Imagine that times one hundred and you'll get a feeling for the ballet, the symphony, the epic of detail and fine tuning that played out as Ren Brown engaged one of the world's foremost architects to design the state-of-the-art facility that is the Cameron Art Museum. It was like watching a great conductor maneuver through The Rite of Spring. It was exhausting - but we all learned so much and "the house that Ren built" is filled with the life and brilliance --and knowledge-- of the quintessential museum director. I'll miss you, Ren.