Phillips History on View: Loss and Intimacy

Duncan and Jim as boys

Duncan and Jim Phillips as boys.

See the introduction to this series here.

Duncan Phillips and Jim, his older brother by two years, were quite close. Jim even waited two years to attend Yale University so that he and Duncan could go at the same time. In 1918, after traveling and collecting art together, Jim died in the Spanish flu epidemic at the age of 34. Duncan’s father, Duncan Clinch Phillips, had died the previous year.

After the death of his father and brother, Duncan and his mother decided to turn their house into The Phillips Memorial Art Gallery in 1921. In an essay titled “Art and Intimacy,” Robert Hughes writes that “Though born in grief, the collection would eschew the monumental: it would go in the family house and, symbolically, restore the life that house had lost.”

The sense of family is reflected in The Phillips Collection, which doesn’t resemble most museums or white-cube galleries, but a home. Hughes quotes Duncan as saying “we plan to try the effect of domestic architecture, of rooms small or at least livable, and of such an intimate, attractive atmosphere as we associate with a beautiful home.” It’s particularly striking to look at old photos of the galleries and see plush furniture, ashtrays, and a coffee table. However, this unusual approach is seamless and makes the viewer feel at home, admiring the old fireplaces, and picturing the galleries as former dining and living rooms. The atmosphere Duncan invented encouraged visitors to linger.

Maya Simkin, Library Intern

Phillips History on View: An Introduction

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Head Librarian Karen Schneider taking notes on manuscripts up for consideration in the exhibition.

The first month of my internship at The Phillips Collection was spent working with the Library and Archives to organize a salon-style installation about the life of Duncan Phillips and the history of the collection. Albeit a daunting task, this project is exactly what I needed. It provided a necessary background on the museum and put the collection into context. While unearthing old photographs, correspondence, and manuscripts, I’ve slowly absorbed the foundation of the museum while simultaneously learning how exhibitions are organized. I’ve learned interesting stories, seen great photographs, and learned the art ideologies and artist relationships behind the museum. I’m looking forward to sharing them over the next few weeks here on the blog!

Maya Simkin, Library Intern

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Head Librarian Karen Schneider determining an order for our selected photographs from the archives

Women of Influence

postcard from archives

Postcard from Elmira Bier to Marjorie Phillips, undated. From The Phillips Collection archives

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.”

group photo with Elmira

From left to right, seated in front row: C. Law Watkins, Elmira Bier, Marjorie Phillips, Duncan Phillips. Standing are Ira Moore [?] and on the right Charles Val Clear. Photo circa 1931.