A Home for all the Arts

Caption: Duncan Phillips’s journal from between 1917 and c. 1920, on view in the Reading Room through February 2015. Photo: Vivian Djen

Duncan Phillips was a prolific writer. Starting in his days as a student at Yale, Phillips wrote about art and literature, recounted trips abroad, and recorded his dreams for his museum. Meticulously cared for in the Phillips archives, the texts from the 1900s to 1930s show the development of his collecting vision and his passion for art.

Phillips’s journals from 1917 to 1920 anticipate the museum’s opening in 1921:

We dream that the Phillips Memorial Gallery shall be a home for all the arts. We propose that the building shall be of a domestic rather than a formal and institutional type of architecture; that the grounds surrounding the building shall be laid out with terraces and gardens in keeping with the architectural style formally selected, that there shall be, as part of the scheme an Auditorium for lectures, plays and concerts; that there shall be a comprehensive art library; and a gallery for exhibitions of contemporary painting, foreigners as well as American. We propose to especially dedicate ourselves however to the encouragement of American art. We have in mind a plan for exhibiting the permanent collection in units with rooms containing the most important works obtainable by selected artists, rooms that will serve as memorials to the genius of these artists and to which their admirers will make [pilgrimages].

Excavating the Archives: Tracing Duncan Phillips’s Thoughts on Modern Art

Journals and manuscripts written by Duncan Phillips on display as part of the exhibition, History in the Making: 100 Years After the Armory Show. Photos: Joshua Navarro

Journals and manuscripts written by Duncan Phillips on display as part of the exhibition, History in the Making: 100 Years After the Armory Show. Photo: Joshua Navarro

“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.” – Gwendolyn, The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

It would appear that Duncan Phillips wasn’t one to travel without his diary either. Although perhaps not quite so scrupulous as Oscar Wilde’s Victorian characters, Phillips enjoyed the habit of journal keeping, from documenting voyages overseas to exacting notes on the price and shipment of a new work of art for his growing collection. More than a century after Duncan Phillips began writing about art, The Phillips Collection has meticulously archived his diaries, daybooks, and drafts for later publications in its library.

But Phillips wrote for more than his own personal satisfaction – it seems evident that his diaries were one place where Phillips grew from an admirer and collector to an esteemed critic of art. He edited his own journals, inserting marginalia and crossing out entire paragraphs or even pages as his ideas changed. Phillips’s publications sometimes developed over the course of several years; for example, his 1924 deluxe edition monograph on artist Arthur B. Davies was the result of thoughts and essays Phillips had written since 1916. The museum’s library and archives still contain each of these drafts, and of course, the final product which is now on display in History in the Making: 100 Years After the Armory Show.

Perhaps most striking in Phillips’s thought is how it changed over time, especially with regard to works of art he saw in the 1913 Armory Show. This exhibition, which was lambasted by the press, was equally troubling to Phillips. But with time the young collector’s opinion changed. His journals and many drafts express this. Writing on the Armory Show in several drafts throughout the 1910s and 20s, Phillips first characterized the exhibition as “notorious,” then as “startling,” and finally as “sensational” in his Collection in the Making (1926). Furthermore, the artists that he had seen in 1913 became more palatable as he trained his eye as a collector. Matisse and Cézanne, whom he once decried as “damned fools,” became highlights of his collection.

As a curatorial intern working on the Armory Show this summer, I had the chance to excavate the archives and help identify this dramatic shift in Phillips’s thinking. I have to say I agree with Gwendolyn, journals make for quite sensational reading.

Anna Rotrosen, Curatorial Intern