Many art lovers consider the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., one of the premier private museums of modern art. The extraordinary collection, with about 3,000 works, includes French Impressionist masterpieces as well as works by prized contemporary American artists. The museum recently celebrated its 90th anniversary with several new additions.
The Phillips Collection is a small, private art museum tucked away in the heart of downtown Washington, where it’s been open to the public since 1921. It was originally the home of Duncan Phillips, a passionate collector who transformed his boyhood home into the first museum of modern art in America.
Marjorie and Duncan Phillips in front of Renoir's 'Luncheon of the Boating Party' (1880-81), ca. 1954.
The museum was damaged in a fire last year, but it reopened in January, just in time for its 90th anniversary. More than 6,000 people stood in line to see the renovated galleries, and to take a peek at some special cakes that were created just for the opening.
Dorothy Kosinski, director of the museum, says that the gallery’s intimate setting is just one of the characteristics that distinguishes the Phillips Collection from other museums.
"Other museums have grand, huge atriums and very public spaces," she says, which gives them more of a corporate feel.
The Phillips is not only smaller, but it also has a very narrow focus; namely, a devotion to modern art rarely seen in larger museums where one might see Egyptian, European and pre-Columbian art, all under one roof.
"Here it really is Duncan Phillips’ vision of great, modernist paintings," she says.
The museum’s big draws include priceless masterpieces by French impressionists, such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s "Luncheon of the Boating Party," which Kosinski believes is one of the most beloved works of art in the collection.
"It’s a master work of high Impressionism," she says.
Another draw is an entire room of paintings by abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, who died in 1970.
According to Kosinski, the artist personally consulted with Phillips about the placement of his paintings, and even suggested the lighting conditions to create a spiritual environment.
Another popular attraction at the Phillips is a series of paintings by African-American painter Jacob Lawrence, which Kosinski describes as "poignant, moving and powerful."
"It’s this complex and wonderful narrative of the migration of the blacks from rural south to urban north and the difficulties of that wrenching, profound change in life," she says.
"I think the Phillips Collection played a very interesting, positive role in Washington, D.C., when this was still quite a segregated city."
According to Kosinski, it was important to Duncan Phillips to juxtapose great European paintings with American artists to prove that the Americans were equally important.
She gives the example of American modernist Arthur Dove whose work Phillips was particularly fond of.
In fact it was Dove's painting, "Flour Mill II" that inspired another popular abstract painter, Sam Gilliam, to create a site-specific work for the museum's main stairwell, in time for its 90th anniversary.
Another new installation coinciding with the museum's anniversary includes two massive etchings, titled "As Time Goes By," by British painter Sir Howard Hodgkin.
"They are really incredible just in terms of their complexity, their beauty, their explosive power," says Kosinski.
They are among the largest etchings ever made, each measuring 12 square meters. They are mirror images of each other, but in different colors.
Displaying Impressionist masterpieces alongside bold contemporary pieces is just one reason Kosinski believes the Phillips Collection is unique and appreciated.
"People come and really feel at home here and really engage, and it’s a powerful force," she says. "Goodness knows the world needs the salubrious (healthy) impact of art in our lives."
With treasures both old and new, the Phillips Collection is committed to fulfilling its founder’s vision of bold exploration, within a warm and intimate setting.