Focus on Collections Care for Sculptures

Head of Conservation Elizabeth Steele shares some recent improvements to collections care management.

Transferring sculpture into the new storage space

Our new custom-built museum quality cabinets in the Phillips’s recently installed in the main art storeroom ensures the preservation of the sculptures in our permanent collection. Pictured above, Yacine Fall (contract art handler) passes Organic Construction No. 9 , a 1961 welded steel work by Richard Hunt to Simona Cristanetti (sculpture conservator) to place safely in its new home. Compared to the older, less-used storeroom, their transfer to the upgraded storage space also improves the accessibility of the sculptures for review by conservators, curators, and installations staff.

Conducting a condition check on our sculptures

The more convenient location makes Ms. Cristanetti’s job to conduct a condition survey of nearly 150 sculptures more efficient. She is preparing written and photographic documentation of their condition and a treatment proposal that will guide the future care of each work. When last evaluated by conservation in 1996, the Phillips only owned 48 three-dimensional objects, meaning we tripled our sculptural holdings in 25 years. Pictured above, Greg Jallat (who recently joined the Conservation/Registration Departments as the Collections Care and Visual Resources Manager) works with the conservator to determine the best practices for housing these works while in storage.

The Richard Hunt sculpture is a recent gift of Phillips family members Alice Phillips Swistel, James Laughlin Phillips, and Marjorie Phillips Elliot. Funding for the improved housing, state-of-the-art storage cabinets and the condition survey has been provided by the Sherman Fairchild Foundation.

From the Archives: Duncan Phillips, Jacob Kainen, Alma Thomas

Associate Curator Renee Maurer shares letters and brochures from The Phillips Collection Archives that reveal the museum’s support of artist Jacob Kainen, one of Alma Thomas’s teachers at American University. 

Trained in New York as a painter and printmaker, Jacob Kainen moved to Washington in 1942 for a curatorial job at the Smithsonian. Kainen likely met Alma Thomas at the Barnett Aden Gallery in the mid-1940s, where they would both exhibit and where she worked as vice president. In 1957, Kainen taught Thomas during her last semester at American University. A strong supporter of her art, he became a mentor and offered art critiques at her home. In his oral history Kainen said: “She asked if I would come and give her some criticism. She’d pay me. So, I came from the Smithsonian, visited her home on 15th Street, g[a]ve her criticism every couple of weeks. She’d have a little lunch there . . . . [S]he looked at everything. She really wanted to be a great painter. She not only read all the art magazines, she knew about . . . color theories, and we would discuss . . . should her stripes end before the edge of the canvas or not. We’d discuss what would happen.” Kainen and Thomas also shared an interest in the modern paintings on view at the Phillips. Kainen explained: “The big influence in this town was the Phillips Gallery on artists. . . . [Y]ou could see contemporary art, you could see modern art, you could see the connection between the older art and the new art, because the gallery was devoted to modern art and its sources.”

Jacob Kainen, Street Corner, 1941, Oil on canvas, 23 1/8 x 28 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1942

Kainen received vital support from the Phillips soon after he moved to DC. Advised by his art peers, Kainen wrote a letter of introduction to director Duncan Phillips, hoping to obtain exhibition and acquisition opportunities, as this archival letter indicates. Kainen admitted: “Phillips liked my work, said to bring some paintings up to his office, and leave them there. Duncan Phillips liked to look at paintings against the wall for weeks because he said some paintings look sensational when you see them for the first time. But when you continue looking at them from time to time they sort of fall apart . . . . Other paintings might look very modest, quiet . . . but the longer you look at them, the stronger they get.”

My Dear Mr. Phillips: It has been suggested to me by Joseph[?] Solman[?], Milton Avery and Walter Quirt[?] that you would be interested in seeing my paintings. I would appreciate the opportunity of showing them to you. I have recently transferred my home and studio to this city and am therefore about to bring a group of canvases for you to see at your own convenience. I have exhibited in New York for the past eight years, having had shows at the A. C. A. Gallery and elsewhere. Your very truly, Jacob Kainen

As this letter suggests, Kainen’s efforts succeeded. Duncan Phillips was interested in his art. On Phillips’s behalf, a staff member wrote to Kainen to offer him the opportunity to submit work to a regional sales show held at the museum during the Christmas season. All proceeds from the sales of works went directly to the artists. That December, Phillips purchased Street Corner, 1941, the first painting by the artist to enter a museum collection.

Dear Mr. Kainen: You have probably given up hope of ever getting a reply to letter of June 17th in which you asked about the possibility of showing your work here. Mr. Phillips left the city about the time your letter came and I have been meaning to tell you that we would put your name on our list and that if we have a Christmas Sales Show, you would have an opportunity to submit your work then. We hope you will visit the Gallery frequently and that you will enjoy it. If you care to do so, in late September you might come in to see me and bring one or two representative paintings. I do not promise anything in the way of an interview but it will serve as an introduction of you to us and of us to you. With best wishes, Sincerely yours,

For Thomas’s teachers at American University—Kainen, Robert Gates and Ben “Joe” Summerford—the collection of modern art at the Phillips served as an important resource. In their own work and in classroom discussions, they all drew upon color-filled canvases by Pierre Bonnard, Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, and others at the museum. Duncan Phillips supported Thomas’s teachers in many ways through the acquisition and exhibition of their art. In 1952, the Phillips presented their work in An Exhibition of Paintings by a Group of Washington Artists, which Thomas would have seen. This letter acknowledges Kainen’s participation in the show.

May 9, 1952 Dear Mr. Phillips: Thank you for your letter of May 7 inviting me to participate in an exhibition by a group of Washington artists, to be held in your Print Rooms during the coming summer. I deeply appreciate your kindness in selecting me as one of this group. With regard to the three paintings I left at the Gallery, you may, of course, keep them at your convenience for decision as to your choice for the exhibition. Sincerely yours, Jacob Kainen

Throughout her many decades in Washington, Alma Thomas frequented the Phillips, a short walk from her home at 1530 15th Street, NW. She held onto brochures that were meaningful to her like this example from Kainen’s retrospective at museum in 1973.

Recent Paintings by Jacob Kainen exhibition brochure


Kainen, Jacob, 1942-1952, The Correspondence of Duncan Phillips, The Phillips Collection Archive, Washington, D.C.

A New Perspective on the Rebuild of Our Steinway

In December 2015 we posted a video by H. Paul Moon about the painstaking rebuild by PianoCraft of our Steinway piano that lives in the Music Room. This major and sorely needed renovation of this precious instrument used lumber from the Sitka spruce, wood that is highly prized by musical instrument makers. This work was transformative, and our rebuilt piano has been played by many renowned and emerging pianists through our fantastic music program.

A recent front page Washington Post story caught my eye. It featured a large two column above-and-below-the-fold color photo of a Sitka spruce in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest on Prince of Wales Island off the pan handle of the state of Alaska. The reporter was Juliet Eilperin. Her story was not about Steinway pianos but rather about the tug of war between the market value of a 180-foot sitka spruce as timber (around 6,000 board feet of timber worth around $17,500) and its value as climate change mitigator capturing carbon dioxide (holding around 12 metric tons of carbon and another 1.4 tons in the roots). The article states that the Tongass National Forest “holds the equivalent of 9.9 billion tons of CO2–nearly twice what the United States emits from burning fossil fuels each year.” Since the US purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867, the value of the forest has been exploited to produce lumber, paper, rayon and other products. Preservationists have fought the building of roads and the pollution of paper mills. The indigenous Haida and Tlingit nations, drawing on an old and deep understanding of the resources of the forest, rivers, and ocean, argue that the old growth forests are essential for the landscape’s survival and also for their way of life. What are the solutions? To protect the forests by selling carbon credits to oil and gas companies, to foster a more balanced economy that depends not on industrial scale timber industry but on an intricate balance of Alaska native and small operator lumber companies, tourism, fishing, craft, and many other small industries.

This thoughtful, in-depth article brought me a new and unexpected appreciation of our beautiful Steinway piano. From now on I will marvel not only at its physical beauty, its auditory excellence, and of course the compelling art installed in the Music Room, but also at the magnificence and importance of a 500-year-old Sitka spruce to the ecological health of the planet and to the holistic well-being of the native peoples of Alaska. I will also pay tribute to the Piscataway and Anacostan native peoples of our DC region, on whose unceded land we live and work.