James McLaughlin Memorial Staff Show

Photo: Sarah Osborne Bender

In honor of tonight’s opening reception for the 2011 staff show, coordinator Jenna Kowalke-Jones has written a remembrance of the show’s namesake, James McLaughlin. Watch for part two tomorrow.

The Phillips Collection’s annual James McLaughlin Memorial Staff show opens this week, marking its 29th year. The first staff show opened in 1982 with an exhibition of paintings by James (Jim) McLaughlin (1909-1982) titled A Retrospective Exhibition: In Memoriam. McLaughlin’s family, in his honor, endowed the staff show in 1984. Artist, gallery preparator, and curator, McLaughlin’s contributions to the Phillips spanned five decades, and his legacy continues with the staff show.

Detail of photo by Jane Godfrey from the show James McLaughlin Retrospective: In Memorium, 1982.

McLaughlin, who hired local artists and art students as museum guards at the Phillips, was well known for his support of artists in the Washington, D.C., area. Susan Davis wrote in the Washington Post (January 1982): “As curator of the Phillips Collection, Jim McLaughlin received artists with unusual openness in order to see their portfolios. If you called, he said yes, he would see you. And when you arrived at his office, there was time for you . . . Another curator might choose to remove himself from the access of the hundreds of artists. Jim McLaughlin remained dutiful and sincere.” Another account of McLaughlin’s enthusiasm for local artists comes from Michael Clark, who wrote in the Washington Review (February-March 1982), “Jim tried his best to keep the collection the way Duncan Phillips had envisioned it. And he was successful at keeping the relaxed informal atmosphere that makes the Phillips Collection a great place among museums . . . Jim gave a lot of encouragement to many Washington artists, and it wasn’t unusual to see him at many art openings around town.”

Behind the scenes, the Phillips’s gallery preparators Shelly Wischhusen, Bill Koberg, and Alec MacKaye continue to carry out McLaughlin’s legacy when installing the staff show every year. Each has a story about how McLaughlin’s knowledge about the collection and art installation has been passed down, directly from McLaughlin himself. Librarian Karen Schneider commented on McLaughlin’s deep connection to the collection by saying that he lived with the art and “was a genius at installing art.”  Schneider continued, “Jim was a hands-on person” who not only installed and curated the art, he built a close relationship with the Phillips family.

Jenna Kowalke-Jones, Young Artists Exhibitions Program Coordinator

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