Alice Nelson Pratt Brown, philanthropist, patron of the arts and education, and civic leader, was born on March 4, 1902, in Siloam Springs, Benton County, Arkansas. She was the daughter of Minot Tully Pratt, formerly of Temple, Texas, and Lillian (Nelson) Pratt. Minot Pratt, a graduate of Stanford University, was a prominent young engineer and division superintendent for the Santa Fe Railroad. In 1908 he was killed in a freak industrial accident. Alice, her mother, and younger brother, Tully, moved to Lometa, Texas, and Mrs. Pratt married J. A. Fulton.
Alice Pratt attended boarding school and spent time in Dallas with her aunt, Annie, and her husband, Leslie Waggener, Jr., a lawyer and bank officer, was a minor collector of art and active in the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. Through taking Alice to informal lectures and museums in the area, he encouraged her interest in art.
In 1924, while attending Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, Alice Pratt made her debut into Dallas society. She also began dating George Rufus Brown, whose older brother, Herman, was married to another former Southwestern student, Margarett Root. The Browns were natives of Belton, Texas, and George, an engineer with a degree from the Colorado School of Mines, had recently joined Herman and Margarett’s brother, Dan Root, in their small paving and contracting company, Brown & Root, Inc.
Alice’s aunt and uncle did not regard Brown as a good prospect for Alice, so they sent her on a European trip and hoped that she would forget him. The trip greatly increased her knowledge and interest in art, but she did not forget George Brown. She graduated from Southwestern with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in 1925, and on November 25, 1925, Alice Pratt married George Brown in Lometa.
The couple moved to Wharton, Texas, where Brown & Root was involved in a major construction job, and then to Houston in 1926. During the next five years, they had three daughters—Nancy, Alice Maconda, and Isabel. In 1933 the family moved into a home at 3363 Inwood in the River Oaks subdivision, where Alice and George resided until their deaths. The Browns soon became part of the social elite of the city and were members of the Houston Country Club and parishioners at St. John the Divine Episcopal Church.
The Browns’ political and personal relationship with Lyndon Baines Johnson and his wife Claudia (Lady Bird) began about 1936 when Johnson was elected congressman from Texas’s Tenth Congressional District. Lady Bird Johnson had great affection for Alice Brown and her sister-in-law Margarett Root Brown and described Alice as an “outspoken” and “peppy” person who liked modern art. Alice and Lady Bird corresponded and saw each other regularly as their husbands’ business and political interests became intertwined. The Brown brothers and their wives remained close friends with the Johnsons throughout Lyndon Johnson’s years in Congress, during his presidency, and until his death. George and Alice Brown often stayed in the White House and regularly hosted the Johnsons at their home or entertained them and other Washington notables at Huntland Farms, the Browns’ estate in Middleburg, Virginia. After graduating from Smith College, daughter Isabel was an aide in Johnson’s senatorial office. Alice Brown and Lady Bird Johnson remained close correspondents and friends throughout the years, and George and Alice were among the first people Lady Bird called when her husband died in 1973.
Family and friends admired Alice Brown’s “passion” and true “eye” for art and her knowledge, especially of modern art. She became involved in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) by the 1950s and, beginning about 1955, was a member of its board of trustees for twenty-seven years.
In 1951 the Brown brothers established the Brown Foundation, with themselves and their wives as the trustees. With the goal of supporting education and the arts in Texas, the foundation focused primarily on three institutions: Southwestern University, Rice University, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. In 1962 the brothers gave their Brown & Root stock to the foundation, and George Brown, as head of the foundation, orchestrated the sale of Brown & Root to Halliburton for $33.5 million; all proceeds went to the foundation.
Although Alice was George’s partner in all the Browns’ philanthropic donations throughout Houston, she was the moving force behind the Brown Foundation’s major gifts to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. In 1964 the foundation established the Alice Pratt Brown Museum Fund for the museum with a $250,000 gift, which eventually grew to $1 million. The endowment income supported various major accessions to the collection, including works by Frank Stella, Philip Guston, Bertel Thorvaldsen, and Adolphe Gottlieb. Alice Brown personally sought new accessions for the collection and urged family and friends to do likewise. Among the many MFAH programs she made possible was a first-of-its-kind Gulf-Caribbean exhibition in 1956, sponsored by Brown & Root.
As a private collector (of mainly pre-Columbian art), Alice also often purchased works for the MFAH with her own funds, and she and her husband donated major works of art. Well-connected in the art world outside of Houston, Alice worked and corresponded with art patrons, such as Joe and Olga Hirschhorn, and national and local artists, such as Dorothy Hood. She worked closely with members of the MFAH curatorial staff, and during her extensive travels, which included trips to museums and repositories around the world, she explored possible acquisitions for the museum.
In 1963 Lady Bird Johnson appointed Alice Brown to the Committee for the Preservation of the White House. In this capacity, Brown often helped obtain works by American artists for display in the White House. From 1968 to 1972, Alice was a trustee of the then-proposed John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. She was also a member of the Texas Commission on the Arts and Humanities (1975–82). She and her husband were recipients of Rice University’s Gold Medal for Distinguished Service in 1966.
Alice Brown encouraged the MFAH’s growth, and during her tenure on the board the museum’s collection and physical plant went through a marked expansion. In 1968 the Brown Foundation gave the MFAH $1 million to purchase land north of the museum. In 1970 she served on the steering committee for the MFAH’s $15 million capital campaign, whose main goal was completion of the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe-designed addition which had been designed in 1954. The Brown Foundation’s Alice Pratt Brown Museum Fund pledged $4 million to the campaign, and Alice not only turned a ceremonial shovel when ground was broken for the addition, but she also took park in the ribbon-cutting ceremony when the MFAH Brown Pavilion opened in 1974. The Brown Foundation’s ten-year challenge grant at the MFAH ultimately resulted in the construction of a school of art and sculpture garden at the museum. The sculpture garden was a longtime interest of Alice’s. During an earlier trip to Jerusalem, she had been impressed with sculptor Isamu Noguchi’s Billy Rose Garden, and she convinced the board to select Noguchi to design the MFAH’s garden, which opened in 1986 after her death.
George Brown died in 1983 and left Alice a sizable estate. His will stipulated that $2 million go to the Alice Pratt Brown Museum Fund for the MFAH. Alice Nelson Pratt Brown served as chair of the Brown Foundation until her death from a heart attack in Houston on April 12, 1984. Funeral services were held at St. John the Divine Episcopal Church, and she was buried in the Brown family plot in Glenwood Cemetery in Houston. Her estate gave $4 million to create the Alice Pratt Brown Endowment Fund for Acquisitions for the MFAH. Alice Pratt Brown Hall at Rice University, which houses the Shepherd School of Music, the Alice Pratt Brown Directorship at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, and the Alice Pratt Brown Garden at the Houston Botanical Garden are all named in her memory.