In 1922, one year after The Phillips Collection opened to the public, Duncan Phillips explored the idea of opening a branch of the museum in New York. He reached out to Frank Rehn, a gallery owner, and A.C. Downing, Jr., of the New York Trust Company, for advice. Phillips’s treasurer, Dwight Clark, inquired about the location of the future art center of New York and specifically asked for information on the value of properties on 57th Street between Lexington Avenue and Sutton Place as well as within the bounds of Lexington Avenue, Sixth Avenue, 50th Street, and 70th Street. The New York branch never came to be because Phillips decided to make acquisitions of works of art a priority. Phillips paid $125,000 for The Luncheon of the Boating Party in 1923, which exhausted the funds needed for purchases as well as real estate.
Women of Influence: Elmira Bier, Minnie Byers, and Marjorie Phillips is the current Reading Room exhibition just outside of the Phillips’s library, and examines the critical role that each woman played in the day to day activities of The Phillips Collection. Elmira Bier first started working at the Phillips in 1923, two years after the museum opened to the public, and retired in 1972. Bier was Duncan Phillips’s executive assistant. Fiercely protective of Phillips’s time, Bier took on many responsibilities, including serving as the first director of the music program, beginning in 1941. Despite her lack of formal training, Bier quickly established a widely acclaimed concert series that highlighted new performers and innovative music, which paralleled Duncan Phillips’s support of contemporary art.
Bier traveled extensively with Virginia McLaughlin, the sister of Jim McLaughlin, who was a curator at the Phillips. In addition to trips within the United States, they ventured to Norway and Ethiopia. Bier wrote of the latter, “This is really a wonderful experience. The people are gentle and many are handsome. Had lunch in home of young Ethiopian woman whose husband is in diplomatic corps. Nature dishes, some of them red hot! Friends assisting her alert and very feminist. They have women in parliament; we had no sense of color barrier. Saw the Emperor on Monday and heard him speak. Tiny but royal in bearing and very alert. He is particularly interested in education.”
French painter Pierre Bonnard visited The Phillips Collection in 1926 after serving on the jury of the Carnegie International, an art exhibition in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. On the train to Washington, Bonnard was so fascinated by the architecture of a club sandwich that he made a sketch of it.
During his visit to the Phillips, Bonnard asked Marjorie Phillips, an artist in her own right, to lend him some paints and brushes so he could “improve” a section of his painting Early Spring. Marjorie Phillips, fearing the worst, fibbed and told Bonnard that all of her paints and brushes were in Ebensburg, Pennsylvania, where she went to work during the summer months.
Duncan Phillips asked Bonnard to look at half a dozen of Marjorie Phillips’s paintings. Bonnard suggested, “draw more” and “get the character.” Following his return to France, Bonnard wrote to the Phillipses, “I still work despite my age. I imagine Mrs. Duncan Phillips continues to paint as sensitively as in the paintings I saw on my American trip.”