Women’s History at the Phillips: Minnie Byers

Minnie Byers. Photo: courtesy Byers Family

Minnie Byers. Photo: courtesy Byers Family

Strong-willed Minnie Byers left her home in Ellenboro, North Carolina, when she was eighteen. With very little money, Byers found her way, attending business school in Richmond, learning secretarial skills, and studying the stock market. The financial knowledge she acquired made her invaluable to the Phillips family. Minnie Byers worked for the Phillipses from 1923 to 1960. Byers was initially assistant to museum treasurer Dwight Clark and became treasurer herself in 1927. Her financial acumen saved Phillips from the crash of 1929 by advising him to put his stock market holdings in real estate. Minnie was close to Duncan Phillips’s mother and administered her estate. Mrs. Phillips left Minnie a good sum of money, which she invested  and which became her nest egg.

Minnie Byers was a powerful executive before women played that role. In Byers’s day, working in finance was a man’s world. Once, Duncan Phillips took Byers to a board meeting with financiers and industrial people, all men. They told Phillips, “No women allowed, you can’t bring her in.” Phillips replied, “If she can’t come, I won’t be there.” “OK, bring her in.”

Minnie confided to one of her relatives, “I have a problem with Duncan.” He replied, “What is it?” She answered, “I can’t tell him how much money we have. He’ll go and spend it on works of art.” Minnie was protective of Phillips and his money. She began to educate herself about art. She’d say, “I don’t think it’s worth that, Duncan,” and he listened to her. “I invested their money wisely,” said Minnie.

Minnie Byers’s house in the Dupont Circle neighborhood, just three blocks from The Phillips Collection. Now the building is the Embassy of Mozambique. Photo: AgnosticPreachersKid at en.wikipedia

Minnie raised four nieces and nephews, providing them with the best education possible and a wide array of cultural experiences. To her many nieces and nephews, Minnie was a source of enchantment. She called and asked what they wanted for a birthday, and lo and behold, it would appear. Visiting Minnie was a magical affair, she took them to Woodward and Lothrop, and they got to ride the escalators and choose which clothes they wanted. Minnie had a cook and a maid. Her dining room table seated 12 and was always laden with food, a big banquet.

As a token of his esteem for Byers, Duncan Phillips gave her paintings by Walter Griffin, Lilian Westcott Hale, Henri Le Sidaner, and Helen Turner, and Marjorie Phillips gave her works of art as well.

Byers’s former home at 1525 New Hampshire Avenue is currently the Embassy of Mozambique.

Women’s History at the Phillips: Elmira Bier

Elmira Bier, in white blouse, sits with C. Law Watkins to her left and Marjorie and Duncan Phillips to her right.

Elmira Bier, in white blouse, sits with C. Law Watkins to her left and Marjorie and Duncan Phillips to her right. Standing are Ira Moore (?) and Charles Val Clear. Photo circa 1931.

Elmira Bier graduated from Goucher College and began working as Duncan Phillips’s secretary in 1923. She went on to direct the music concert series beginning in 1941, encouraging young musicians to expand their repertoire to include works that were off the beaten track. Bier altered the landscape of music in Washington; an article referred to her as “a dominating force in the cultural life of this city.” Bier explained that Phillips had conceived of his museum as “a museum of modern art and its sources,” and she tried to follow this example in her programming, encouraging musicians to include contemporary works in their performances. Bier was not a musician or an artist, but she taught herself about both fields.

When asked to describe her role, music critic Paul Hume wrote that “she ran the place.” Former registrar John Gernand said that her versatility was amazing. On the occasion of her retirement party in 1972, he told her, “You may greet Henry Moore or Kenneth Clark and a few moments later take care of calling a plumber, talking to a musician about his program you have not received, or dictating a letter to a publisher about an unsatisfactory color proof, and doing all this with various and frequent interruptions by telephone, intercom, or one of us in person with a question.”

Kevin Grogan, former curatorial assistant, remembered Miss Bier as “crusty, irascible, and hard-headed. Needless to say, she was loved by all.” Elmira was famous for making a fabulous liquor-filled fruitcake which she would insist on serving before noon in a small, enclosed room “that could give you a contact high like you wouldn’t believe.”

Bier’s devotion to the Phillips was matched by her love of organic gardening. She delighted in the first tomato from her garden, as she did in serving lettuce grown in her cold frame for Christmas dinner. She commissioned architect Henry Klumb to build a strikingly contemporary home on Glebe Road in Arlington, which she shared with her companion, Virginia McLaughlin. Elmira tended the vegetable garden while Virginia took care of the trees and bushes.

A letter from Elmira Bier to Alfred Stieglitz, April 3, 1946. The Phillips Collection records, 1920-1960, Archives of American Art, Washington D.C.

A letter from Elmira Bier to Alfred Stieglitz, April 3, 1946. The Phillips Collection records, 1920-1960, Archives of American Art, Washington D.C.

In Like a Lion

The first day of spring certainly came in roaring, with thunder storms and showers throughout the region. Celebrating storms, spring, and Women’s History Month with three paintings by women in the Phillips’s permanent collection.

(left to right) Mary Bradley-Watkins, Storm, undated. Oil on canvas, 8 x 10 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquisition date unknown. Loren MacIver, Printemps, 1964. Oil on canvas, 50 1/4 x 77 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1966. Janice Biala, Spring, Rue de Seine, 1936. Oil on cardboard on wood panel, 25 5/8 x 21 3/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1942.