Building a Museum Career during the Pandemic Lockdown 

Chloe Eastwood, 2020-21 Sherman Fairchild Fellow, reflects on her time at The Phillips Collection amid a global pandemic.

The past year has had a liminal quality for many, in which our experiences seem disconnected and time itself seems to flow differently. I will likely always think of my time at The Phillips Collection as being somewhat apart from what came before, for me, and from what comes after. Though precious and fleeting, my year at The Phillips Collection has been exactly what I needed, personally and professionally. 

John D. Graham, The Lonely Road, 1928, Oil on canvas, 21 3/4 x 15 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1929

When the pandemic came to the United States and the country shut down, I, like tens of millions of Americans, stopped working. At the time, I was less than one year out from having finished graduate school, and the thought that my brand-new, hard-earned professional skills would atrophy terrified me. I was then and still now remain in a point in my career where constant professional development is vital if I’m to progress in the museum field, but in a pandemic, what work was there to be had? I was told after one interview that the one-year temporary position for which I’d been runner-up had received 220 applicants. The interviewer’s position, which was permanent and paid better, had received just 37 applications the year before. Meanwhile, museums and historic sites laid off employees in wave after wave. First the front-of-house staff, then the lower-ranked professionals. It was estimated that one-third of museums would not reopen at all.  

It is clear how few opportunities there were compared to the many talented professionals who could have filled these roles, and so it is not humility or deprecation to suggest that the primary reason I came to The Phillips Collection was because I was lucky. I knew people (didn’t we all?) who applied for three times as many jobs as I did and didn’t get a single interview. Meanwhile, I found gainful employment in my chosen field, and I believe I’ve made the most of the opportunity, both in professional development and in what I could do for the Phillips. I’ve helped to build web pages and developed content for the Bloomberg Connects app. I’ve edited audio and video content for the museum and our partners, including the short film which was presented at the pilot of the new Conversations with Collectors series. It has been an incredible work environment, and I cherish the opportunities I’ve had here. 

Now, in the last month of my fellowship, I’m freshly aware of just how precarious the field still is. I know plenty of others who have also heard this wakeup call.  Money, which was always tight in the arts, is now starving many highly-trained but under-employed professionals out of the field. Costume designers and philosophers are becoming librarians. Potters are becoming welders. Stage managers are becoming accountants. While I worked my year at The Phillips Collection, I completed my coursework towards a Master of Arts in Teaching. I look forward to partnering with the vibrant cultural centers of DC while teaching history at the secondary level.   

Marjorie Phillips: Artist and Executive

The Phillips Collection is excited to share the recent publication of “Duncan and Marjorie Phillips and America’s First Museum of Modern Art” (Vernon Press, 2021) by Pamela Carter-Birken. Here is an excerpt from the book, which reveals the stories of the people who worked to make The Phillips Collection both an experience and a home.

The Gilded Age had waned when Marjorie Acker attended the Art Students League of New York. She took the train into the city from Ossining, New York, where she lived with her parents and six siblings. Her routine was to disembark at Grand Central Station on 42nd Street then walk up Fifth Avenue to reach the renowned art school on 57th Street. The Indiana-born painter loved New York City. She would pop into art galleries to see the latest works on display whenever time allowed.  . . .

Please don’t disturb read the sign Marjorie put on the door to her studio, a dedicated space first located within the Phillips’s Dupont Circle property and later at their Foxhall Road home. She had always been a disciplined creator, even painting on her honeymoon. The newlyweds’ get-away would not be the only time she packed palette and easel. During her years with Duncan, she made the most of their summers in the Alleghenies. “It was a wonderful place for painting,” she said of rural Ebensburg, Pennsylvania. “Social life didn’t follow you there. You could walk, paint. I’d work in my studio, from the car or in a field on the spot.” Back in Washington, Marjorie set aside mornings for painting. On those afternoons when she was tempted to return to a work-in-progress, the duties of being a museum executive usually prevented her from opening the studio door again until the next day. While Marjorie did not become director of The Phillips Collection until after Duncan’s death in 1966, she served as its associate director for 41 years and bore responsibility for the minutiae of organizing temporary exhibitions in the museum’s Prints and Drawings Room.  . . .

Marjorie Phillips, Self-Portrait, c. 1940, Oil on canvas, 20 1/2 x 16 1/2 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of the artist, 1985

No matter the task at hand, Marjorie saw the world as an artist. Duncan admired her for it, and throughout her career he cheered her on. In 1948, Duncan composed the foreword for an exhibition brochure about works by Marjorie. The exhibit was first mounted at the Bignou Gallery and then shown at the Phillips Gallery. In his description of her art, Duncan wrote: “What we need today is not just another group movement but a few individuals who love that real light, which is the life of everything it touches. Such an artist is Marjorie Phillips who, in spite of keen understanding and appreciation of many [artistic] techniques is never distracted from her course. She is a luminist with a truly classic feeling for composition of pictorial space.” In the context of art history, Luminism was a term coined a half-dozen years after Duncan wrote the foreword. It referred to a group of artists who could use light to turn sky or sea ethereal. With pervading light came a feeling for the universality of nature. As an art movement, Luminism encompassed painters in the 19th century’s Hudson River School, among them Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt. Marjorie would have been familiar with Church’s interpretation of Niagara Falls and Bierstadt’s of the Rocky Mountains, among other sweeping renditions. When Duncan called Marjorie a luminist he was not comparing her to the great American landscape artists. Rather, he was referring to how she used light to enhance what he saw as her individualism.

samesexinthecity: Joan Snyder and David Hockney

The Phillips Collection is proud to partner with @samesexinthecity to celebrate, honor, and examine Queer art during Pride and beyond. @samesexinthecity explores LGBTQ identity through works in the Phillips’s collection.

Joan Snyder, Savage Dreams, between 1981 and 1982, Oil, acrylic, and fabric on canvas, 66 x 180 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Gifford Phillips in honor of Laughlin Phillips, 1992

Joan Snyder (b. 1940, Highland Park, NJ) first gained attention for her artwork in the 1970s, when she was outspokenly involved in the women’s movement, creating artworks that explored and deconstructed ideas of abstract expressionism, landing on an evolving style that played with pictorialism, incorporating words and letters and personal iconographies. Her artworks are in a number of museum collections, and she has been the recipient of several awards including a MacArthur Fellowship in 2007, a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in 1983, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1974.

A vocal feminist, she did not publicly identify as a lesbian until 1980, after a time of confusion, a troubled marriage, and after evolving public success in the art world. In a 1995 interview with fellow artist Harmony Hammond, she noted that she was hesitant about being limited, saying, “Once I began to live honestly and openly, there wasn’t an issue. This was just one part of my life, so I don’t identify that way alone (as a lesbian artist).” However, her artwork is intensely personal, confessional even, incorporating gestural paint strokes, bright colors, and found objects to create a new language.

David Hockney, 1996, Three Men, Ink on paper, 40 3/8 x 29 in., The Phillips Collection, Bequest of June P. Carey, 1983

David Hockney (b. 1937, Bradford, United Kingdom) has established himself as one of the leading, versatile artists of the 20th century. Known for his prolific output of works of all mediums—experimenting with everything from acrylic paints, to stage designs, to collaged photography, and more—his explorations of queer life in the 1960s and 1970s remains key to our imagining of gay history at that time.

While doing postgraduate work at London’s Royal College of Art, he was inspired by the writing of Walt Whitman, creating works with titles such as “Erection” and “We Two Boys Together Clinging.” He was intrigued by the differences in response to queerness when he visited America for the first time in 1961, which alongside the easy-going lifestyle led him to move to the United States in 1964. After moving to California, he started painting colorful images, focusing on domestic scenes of men together, among sun-drenched pools and palm trees, showers and bathtubs, and bedrooms in bright, window-filled houses. His artwork was overt in his examination of the male body, blatantly sexual as he depicted gay desire, luxuriating in the white, male nude. In the early 70s, Hockney started double portraits of couples, such as writer Christopher Isherwood and painter Don Bachardy, and Henry Geldzhler and Christopher Scott—portrayals that captured public attention and remain today as key images of the 1970s gay, white scene on the West Coast.

Interested in seeing queer art and histories highlighted even further? Vist @samesexinthecity on Instagram for daily updates!