Phillips Flashback: April 1924

21st Street view of The Phillips Memorial Gallery (as it was then called), and the original entrance, 1920s. From The Phillips Collection Archives.

A permit is issued to the “change [the] entrance of the picture gallery,” giving the public direct access to the Main Gallery through a new entrance at 1608 21st Street. On occasion, visitors can also enter the Music Room (North Library). Previously entry was through the formal double-staircase entrance at 1600 21st Street and possibly through a “basement” entrance on Q Street. The new entrance at 1608, pictured above, allows visitors to enter and go directly to a small elevator, delivering them to the second floor Main Gallery.

Today, the museum has two main entrances: Q Street for office visitors and the Sant Building on 21st Street for museum visitors.

Library Paradise

I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library.” – Jorge Luis Borges

In honor of National Library Week (April 10-16, 2011), let’s look at how far The Phillips Collection library has come! The library was established in 1976 in a space on the fourth floor of the house, a beautiful light-filled room that had previously served as Laughlin Phillips’s baby nursery, Marjorie Phillips’s painting studio, and the Phillips Gallery Art School.

Phillips Gallery Art School, fourth floor of original house, c. 1930s. The Phillips Collection Archives.

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Everyone dreams of home improvement

Duncan Phillips. Sketch for museum building, from Journal B, c. 1923. From The Phillips Collection Archives.

In The New York Times Sunday, March 27, Nicholai Ouroussoff  wrote, “Over the past 15 or so years, some of the most original and idiosyncratic art institutions in the country […] have embarked on major expansions to modernize […], significantly transforming their identities.” The three museums he examines were all, like the Phillips, created by an individual collector with a distinct vision. Ouroussoff goes on to say that many of these building projects will result in a loss of character and create a regrettable sense of the “corporate.” It is hard to think of a museum that hasn’t undertaken a major building project, or at least considered it, The Phillips Collection included.

In 1923, Duncan Phillips made a sketch of his ideal museum building in which to house his growing collection and welcome visitors. Having opened his red brick and brownstone home as a gallery, even as his family still lived there, his drawing reflects a grand plan, a structure much more like the classical-style exhibition spaces of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Phillips’s dream museum would include a garden with arched cloister, a theater, a terrace over looking the city, and a majestic corridor to feature the monumental works of Augustus Vincent Tack. The site he selected was a short walk up Connecticut Avenue from his 21st Street house (space currently occupied by the Washington Hilton.) But after reflecting on his goals for the Phillips Memorial Gallery, as it was then called, he decided that the domestic setting was essential for encouraging contemplation, slow looking, and dialogs between seemingly disparate works. (Financial climates also played a part in his decision.)

Our museum has expanded in many ways, both during Phillips’s lifetime and since. With the relocation of the Barnes Foundation, an institution thought to be intrinsically bound to not only its location but its original installation, I think it has been shown that expanding and building are simply facts of life for museums.