Q&A with Jonathan P. Binstock

Get to know The Phillips Collection’s new Vradenburg Director & CEO Jonathan P. Binstock.

Jonathan P. Binstock is The Phillips Collection’s seventh director. Photo: Margot Schulman

What drew you to The Phillips Collection?

Between 1994 and 1998, I lived at 1724 21st Street, just a block-and-a-half north of the Phillips. I was working at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) and researching and writing my PhD dissertation on Sam Gilliam. That’s when I was first drawn to the Phillips, and I have been in love with it ever since. It was more than the world-renowned collection that enchanted me. My connection to the place was personal—just as it is for so many others. As an admittedly depressed, procrastinating graduate student, the Phillips was a guilt-free distraction, a place to indulge my love for art outside of my work and research. As much as I love visiting almost any art museum, and as much as I owe SAAM for providing me with the best possible professional training, the Phillips was my museum. It nurtured me during a difficult time in my life.

What will be your top priorities as the Vradenburg Director & CEO?

My top priority at present is to bring the love, passion, and energy I have for art and for serving communities through museum work to my new role. How this will take shape, I can’t be sure. I must begin with understanding what the Phillips is now, where it came from, and how it got here. The current exhibition, Pour, Tear, Carve, featuring a broad selection of works from the permanent collection, is a timely opportunity to get to know some recent acquisitions. We owe a lot to Director Emerita Dorothy Kosinski and her 15-year tenure, including for leading the effort to expand the size and scope of the permanent collection. I’m familiar with the historical treasures, but the Phillips is much more than that today.

Programmatically, we are firing on all pistons. We engage guests at 21st Street, THEARC in Southeast DC, and online with a wide variety of offerings. These include in-person events, hands-on art-making sessions, weekly online meditations on art, teacher professional development, pre-K–12 programs, and our Phillips Music series . . . the list goes on. Moreover, I want to get to know the more than 100+ full-time team members, if only on a first-name basis—this will be tough given that I’m good with faces but not so much with names! And I must develop a productive conversation with every member of the Board of Trustees, each of whom has impressed me in these early weeks with their dedication and hard work on behalf of the museum. Ours is very much a working board, and this engaged leadership is instrumental to what makes the Phillips such a special, successful, and beloved institution. Suffice it to say I have a lot of learning to do.

Jonathan P. Binstock chats with visitors at the opening of Pour, Tear, Carve. Photo: Ryan Maxwell.

What do you hope for the Phillips’s second century?

In a nutshell, my hope is to build on the success, for the Phillips is a uniquely successful institution. Yes, for its incredible art collection and excellent, dynamic programming, but also for something else, something even more difficult to describe than a Post-Impressionist treasure, or the feeling of time spent inside the Rothko Room. I’m beginning to believe there are two kinds of people in the world: those who have never visited, and those for whom the Phillips is their (or one of their) favorite art museums. There is something undeniably special about the place. It manifests a magical brew—of exceptional art, intimate, domestically scaled architecture, tree-lined neighborhood streets, and idiosyncratic founding principles derived from the DNA of a welcoming familial vibe—that creates the right conditions for people to fall in love with what we have and are. My very first hope is to further this sentiment. Let’s build strength on strength. How can we cultivate more love?

Will there be change? To be sure. To know the story of Duncan Phillips is to know how our founder was always curious and open-minded, eager to learn and expand his taste; he was always evolving, both as a collector and an institutional leader. The Phillips may be more than 100 years old, but I see it as still in its adolescence. The Phillips is precocious, ambitious, and has always punched above its weight and scale. Where will our open-minded curiosity lead us? For the Phillips, the best is always yet to come.

How will you ensure that diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI) continues to be infused in all of The Phillips Collection’s work?

The Phillips was one of the first art museums to engage a Chief Diversity Officer, and the work that the staff and trustees have been doing regarding DEAI has touched nearly every aspect of the museum. Before I became director, I could see the institution’s DEAI principles in its exhibitions and programs. Now that I’m here, I look forward to working closely with Dr. Yuma Tomes, our Horning Chair for Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion, to embed those principles more deeply into who we are and what we do, and to see every aspect of the institution through a DEAI lens. Ensuring that anyone who’s interested feels they belong at the Phillips and as if the Phillips belongs to them is not just the right thing to do. This is a key strategy for increasing the love, and it will help ensure the strength of our museum for the future. Part of what attracted me to the Phillips was the opportunity to have a permanent DEAI professional on staff, because doing this work well demands that the necessary expertise be at the leadership table all the time. My role is to make sure all of us—staff, board, and volunteers—understand our responsibility for advancing equitable and inclusive strategies and practices in every corner of the institution. Dr. Tomes leads this effort, and I will make sure he has the resources to do so.

What is your favorite Phillips artwork?

This is an unfair question. I was told being the Vradenburg Director and CEO would be a challenging role, but no one said it would be this challenging! Okay, all kidding aside, if I may be allowed to have several favorites, and if we may limit the discussion to what’s currently on view, then I will indulge the impossibility of the task. Miss Amelia Van Buren by Thomas Eakins is as remarkable a depiction of pensive absorption as there has ever been, and it is arguably by the greatest American realist whose paintings are terribly rare. Granted, its traditionalism makes it a bit of an outlier in the collection. That being said, having spent two years in Philadelphia, where Eakins lived and worked, his art holds a special place in my heart and I am thrilled that we have one of his best paintings in our collection.

One can’t talk about Eakins without talking about Diego Velázquez and the Golden Age of Spanish painting—one of modernism’s sources, as understood by Duncan Phillips—which leads me to another Phillips jewel, Spanish Ballet by Édouard Manet. Manet manifested his admiration for the Spanish realist tradition in profoundly more radical terms than Eakins, which brings this discussion closer to the experimental heart of the Phillips project.

Thomas Eakins, Miss Amelia Van Buren, c. 1891, Oil on canvas, 45 x 32 in., Acquired 1927; Edouard Manet, Spanish Ballet, 1862, Oil on canvas, 24 x 35 5/8 in., Acquired 1928; Jeffrey Gibson, A RARE AND GENTLE THING, 2020, Acrylic on deer hide on panel, glass beads and artificial sinew inset into wood frame, 34 1/2 x 28 7/8 in., Promised gift of Lindsay and Henry Ellenbogen in loving memory of Mirella Levinas, © Jeffrey Gibson

Finally, I absolutely adore Jeffrey Gibson’s A RARE AND GENTLE THING. Gibson, a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, painted this strikingly beautiful and very sweet work on deer skin, an homage to Native American materials and traditions. Equally touching is its credit line, which is a promised gift to the Phillips from Lindsay and Henry Ellenbogen in loving memory of Mirella Levinas, the late wife of our Chair Emeritus, Dani Levinas, making it doubly moving as a work of art. I am inspired by how the Phillips can be a place—a home—for contemplating people, lives, and ways of living and thinking from the past, and also play a role in enriching how we see ourselves today.

What is your favorite DC spot?

The 9:30 Club, and if you run into me there, I apologize in advance for my un-director-like behavior.

Leading The Phillips Collection Into Its Next Century

Dorothy Kosinski, Vradenburg Director and CEO of The Phillips Collection, will conclude her tenure at the end of 2022. Following 15 years of distinguished leadership, she will be named Director Emerita. Here, Dorothy reflects on her time at the Phillips.

Dorothy Kosinski at the Phillips’s 100th Birthday Party, November 2021. Photo: Ryan Maxwell

How do you think the Phillips has changed over the last 15 years?
During my tenure, the museum has moved outside its walls—it has become more engaged with and responsive to our communities, to the art of our time, and to the urgent issues that confront our society today. This is probably most apparent in our satellite space at THEARC in Southeast DC. But it is also clear in our growing collection that embraces diverse voices from across our nation and the world. We tell stories from Kinshasa, Congo; from Sitka, Alaska; from New Delhi, India; from Harlem; and from Washington, DC. We tell a more complex and global story about modern and contemporary art. Additionally, the Phillips is engaged in constructive conversation about migration, climate degradation, art and wellness, the threat of war, and women in the arts. At the same time, we model the most serious scholarship and conservation inquiry about our 19th- and 20th-century holdings to continuously advance new knowledge and new perspectives on our historic core collection. Of course (and greatly accelerated since the pandemic), our museum races to stay in advance of the demands for technological portals and digital assets in order to achieve immediate, transparent, and in-depth access.

The Phillips is not isolated and our work reflects the enormous changes in the field. I think I will paraphrase my esteemed colleague Lonnie Bunch who said that the museum is not a community center but must be at the center of the community. That pretty much sums up the thrust and direction of this change. Additionally I will point to a book that just came out Change is Required: Preparing for the Post-Pandemic Museum containing my own essay (among 47 others) entitled “Purpose Is the Only Thing.” I think that, too, captures the essence of our efforts.

Workshop at Phillips@THEARC led by artist Janet Taylor-Pickett, February 2020

What makes the Phillips special?
The Phillips has a very precious and distinct character—intimate and accessible because of its domestic scale; personal and idiosyncratic because of its genesis as a private collection; deeply rooted in the immediate community and yet acknowledged globally for its expansiveness and excellence.

What are your hopes for the Phillips’s next century?
The Phillips was out ahead in its focus on issues of diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion. My hope is that this work only deepens, and that these values continue to permeate and drive all of our work and initiatives across the museum as they do now. That is the responsibility of the next generation of leaders and trustees.

Installation view of Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century, featuring (left to right) Alfonso Ossorio, Excelsior (1960), Richard Pousette-Dart, Totemic Transcendental (1982), Aimé Mpane, Maman Calcule (2013), Photo: Lee Stalsworth

What exhibitions and programs are you most proud of?
It is so hard to choose a favorite exhibition. I think the exhibition that I co-curated with my dear colleague Dr. Klaus Ottmann on Jackson Pollock, Alfonso Ossorio, and Jean Dubuffet (2013) was groundbreaking in its scholarly framing of an artist who had been unknown and underappreciated for so long. More recently, the project conceived by my esteemed colleague Dr. Adrienne L. Childs, Riffs and Relations: African American Art and the European Modernist Tradition (2020), was visually and intellectually exhilarating in its presentation of a complex and multi-layered story. I am very proud of our annual Artists of Conscience series; that has been one of our primary platforms for exploring the tough and knotty ideas in the art world and society at large. Most importantly, it is the artists’ voice that we center. I am inspired by our Art and Wellness initiatives that bring us in meaningful and impactful dialogue with children, veterans, and older adults. Empathy and resilience are the values at the heart of this work.

What is your favorite work in the collection? A work that is not as well known?
That’s an impossible question for me! I adore Manet’s Spanish Ballet (1862). I also love Simone Leigh’s No Face (Crown Heights) (2018). A work you might not know? For that I’d choose Aaron Maier-Carretero’s Not In Front of the Kids (2020) that we purchased from our juried invitational exhibit during the Centennial.

What are your plans after the Phillips?
I plan to exhale! I serve on the boards of directors of two foundations as well as on the National Endowment for the Humanities National Council, so I am pretty busy as it is. I am in the midst of several conversations framing my role at other organizations that allow me to offer my knowledge and experience in impactful leadership. I am also investigating fellowships and residencies that will allow me to return to some long postponed as well as new curatorial and scholarly projects.

Thoughts on women’s rights and our work in the museum

I know I am not alone in being depressed and appalled by the erosion of women’s rights in this country and around the world. Rape is used as a tool of power, terror, and abuse in war zones in Europe and Africa. Women are forced from their jobs and girls are turned away from schools in Afghanistan. In the US court rulings and new legislation strip control of reproductive and health decisions from women. The current atmosphere of intolerance encompasses legislation negatively impacting LGBTQ+ individuals, and the banning and censoring of books, to mention just two more troubling issues.

Simone Leigh, No Face (Crown Heights), 2018, Terracotta, graphite ink, salt-fired porcelain, and epoxy, 20 in x 8 in; 50.8 cm x 20.32 cm, Director’s Discretionary Fund, 2019

In my role as Director of The Phillips Collection, I want to share some thoughts about these troubling issues, and how our museum reflects and embraces our mission driven values of diversity, equity, access, and inclusion that are so boldly stated in our strategic plan, crafted and adopted by staff and board leadership, and that continues to guide our work in all ways. Our diversity values impact our workforce, our hiring, our institutional culture, our board of trustees, our collecting policies, the focus of our exhibitions and programs in the museum and in the community.

Our collecting policy explicitly embraces adding diverse voices—people of color and women. I want to mention just a few of the women that are now represented in our collection, acquired within the past ten years or so (by no means intended as a comprehensive list): Jae Ko, Kate Shepherd, Arlene Shechet, Zilia Sánchez, Nekisha Durrett, Ranjani Shettar, Nara Park, Zoë Charlton, Renée Stout, Marta Pérez García, Mequitta Ahuja, Janet Taylor Pickett, Barbara Liotta, Regi Müller, Tayo Heuser, Linn Meyers, Alyson Shotz, Jean Meisel, Jennifer Wen Ma, Helen C. Frederick, Bettina Pousttchi, Jeanne Silverthorne, Sandra Cinto, Julia Wachtel. I have been true to this goal of diversification in many of the purchases made with the Director’s Discretionary funding including works by Simone Leigh, Dindga McCannon, and the complete portfolio of the Guerilla Girls.

Nekisha Durrett with her artwork Airshaft (2021) in the bridges of The Phillips Collection. Photo: Brendan Canty

Many of these artists were featured in Vesela Sretenović’s Intersections exhibition series that was inaugurated in 2009, or from projects curated by Klaus Ottmann or Adrienne Childs, among others. The acquisition of the work by Zilia Sánchez resulted from the major monographic exhibition that Vesela organized in 2019 that traveled to New York and Ponce. Our exhibition of the Debra and Dennis Scholl collection of contemporary Australian Aboriginal women artists resulted in a stunning gift of six ceremonial poles. Marta Pérez García’s work entered the collection from our centennial community juried exhibit Inside Outside Upside Down, (curated by Elsa Smithgall and Camille Brown with Renée Stout) an introduction that resulted in her current Intersections exhibition Restos-Traces.

Marta Pérez García, Restos-Traces, 2021-2022, photo by AK Blythe

Our programming has also reflected women’s rights issues. Programs can be platforms for learning, exchange, and participation. In 2018 we mounted a solo installation by Australian artist, Halcyon fellow, Georgia Saxelby, To Future Women. Installed at the one-year anniversary of the Women’s March of January 2017, this project involved a community making, participatory letter writing activity, resulting in a time capsule of hundreds of expressions of anger, hope, sorrow, and solemn reflection. On February 14, 2018, Violence Against Women Day, we staged a panel discussion that brought an array of voices to the stage. How appropriate that this summer we have hosted Marta Pérez García’s powerful and disturbing Restos-Traces exhibition that confronts us with the resilience and strength of women who have survived domestic violence. Later this month, as the exhibition reaches its conclusion, programming will allow our communities to convene for further discussion, growth, and healing. In addition, I recall the 2020 annual Artists of Conscience Forum with the theme of “Women, Race and Representation,” celebrating the creativity of women highlighted throughout the Intersections series.

Installation image of Zilia Sánchez’s Juana de Arco (Joan of Arc), 1987

In 2020 we engaged in a heated debate about whether to install Black Lives Matter banners on our façade. We heeded the advice of then Chief Diversity Officer, Makeba Clay, that we should first “show the receipt,” and kept on doing our work towards diversity and inclusion, rather than making a performative gesture. Later that year we installed a work by conceptual artist Jenny Holzer which included two large banners “Moral Injury” and “So Vote.”  For me, that remains the key message and opportunity. It applies no matter what any individual’s opinion might be. In previous years we have hosted voter registration drives and citizenship ceremonies, activities we will continue to embrace. Our support of these activities seems especially important in a time when political forces are attempting to thwart the right of enfranchisement of the citizens of our country.

Very soon we plan to hold internal museum wide discussions with the participation of artist-activists with whom we have worked before. My hope is that this forum might afford a safe platform for a rich exchange of ideas and proposals. Additionally, next month internal staff will commence with the Diversity Intergroup Dialogue Series (DIDS). These sessions will afford each of us an opportunity to delve further in topics that reflect DEAI areas and methods to increase our cultural sensitivity.

Public programs will be announced in the near future.

We hope you continue to join us on our journey.

Regina Pilawuk Wilson, Syaw (Fishnet), 2014