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

A Look Back on 12 Years as Chief Curator

After 12 years of distinguished leadership and curatorial accomplishments, Klaus Ottmann has stepped down from his role as Chief Curator and Deputy Director for Academic Affairs. During his tenure at the Phillips, Ottmann oversaw the curatorial, conservation, and registrarial departments, as well as led our major academic partnership with the University of Maryland. Here, Klaus shares some of his favorite memories.

What makes The Phillips Collection different from other museums?

The Phillips is unique in many ways but one of its most distinctive characteristics is the emphasis on creating new conversations between art works, which keeps the collection alive, relevant, and new, even if one has seen some of the individual works in other contexts before. This is what distinguishes The Phillips Collection from other more static museums, where art is not allowed to thrive and acquire new layers of meaning.

What are your hopes for the Phillips’s next century?

To continue to strive for more diversity within its collection and exhibitions without abandoning its foundational mission as a museum of modern and contemporary art where the intimate and experimental meet.

What exhibitions/programs/partnerships are you most proud of?

First and foremost, I would consider the creation of the Wolfgang Laib Wax Room my lasting legacy. In regards to exhibitions: Angels Demons, and Savages: Pollock, Ossorio, Dubuffet (2013) because I had a brilliant co-curator, Dorothy Kosinski; George Condo: The Way I Think (2017) because it was an extraordinary collaboration with an exceptional artist; Nordic Impressions: Art from Åland, Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, 1821–2018 (2018) because it allowed me to work very closely with all of the Nordic Embassies including the Greenlandian Representation (our rich diplomatic partnerships were one of my favorite aspects of working at the Phillips) and because it enabled me to work with 19th-century and 20th-century art in one exhibition for the first time.

George Condo and Klaus Ottmann in the Phillips galleries, 2017. Photo: Rhiannon Newman

What is your favorite work in the Phillips’s collection? What is a favorite work of yours in the Phillips’s collection that our members might not know about?

The Rothko Room has always been my refuge; it is one of the most powerful installations one can experience in a museum. I discovered many wonderful artists and paintings while working at the Phillips. One of my favorite works in the collection, and probably one of the lesser well-known ones, is Louis Michel Eilshemius’s Summer Landscape with Hawk (between 1901 and 1906).

Meet Our Chief Curator Elsa Smithgall

Meet our new Chief Curator Elsa Smithgall—who has been part of the Phillips’s curatorial team for 26 years—and hear about her goals for the department.

Elsa Smithgall in front of Airshaft (2021) by Nekisha Durrett. Photo: AK Blythe.

You have been at The Phillips Collection for 26 years. How do you think the Phillips has changed since then? How has the curatorial field changed since then?

The Phillips has indeed changed since I started more than two decades ago. One major change was structural: a major 30,000-square-foot addition in 2006. The new Sant Building created exciting opportunities, including additional galleries for the display of art as well as our first auditorium. Aside from this physical change, some of the most transformational organizational change I’ve witnessed occurred in the past few years in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and demands for racial justice. This global racial reckoning has catalyzed museums to center their work on diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. Since our first chief diversity officer came on board in 2018, I have felt the impact of our DEAI initiatives; yet much important work remains. For curatorial, this has led to more interdepartmental collaboration with colleagues as well as with a diverse array of community partners. For example, the Phillips shaped its centennial exhibitions last year in collaboration with a community advisory group while also incorporating community voices in its collection catalogue and wall labels, both models for future projects grounded in a community-centered museum practice.

How will you continue the foundational mission of the museum?

The Phillips was born from our founder’s belief in the necessity of art to promote well-being and connection. That fundamentally remains at the heart of curatorial’s mission: to present, study, and make art accessible to all people, with empathy and inclusion. Today, the museum not only welcomes physical visitors from around the world but also virtual ones, bringing art beyond the walls of its original home at Dupont Circle and our satellite campus in Southeast DC.

Also important, Duncan Phillips aspired for his museum to be a “beneficent force in the community” and had a long history of supporting local living artists. Our latest centennial artist commissions by DC artists Wesley Clark, Nekisha Durrett, Victor Ekpuk, along with last year’s juried invitational for artists of the DC region are just some examples of the ways we seek to play an active role in supporting DC’s vibrant art scene.

Elsa Smithgall with jurors of juried invitational Inside Outside Upside Down.

What are your top priorities as Chief Curator?

In 2020, the museum developed a 5-year strategic and operating plan. As chief curator, my top priorities are to achieve outcomes that advance key strategic initiatives. Some highlights include:

  1. Build a strong, high-performing curatorial team in a culture of collaboration, belonging, empathy, innovation, and experimentation.
  2. Grow the collection by adding works that reflect the diversity of our communities and give voice to marginalized figures.
  3. Stimulate new research and fresh perspectives on our collection that allow us to tell more expansive, inclusive stories about our cultural histories.
  4. Deepen authentic collaboration with community and academic partners in co-shaping exhibitions, programs, and initiatives.
  5. Craft a dynamic, innovative exhibition program that supports diverse artistic expressions and invites dialogue about the pressing issues of our day.
  6. Leverage digital technologies to strengthen visitor engagement through digital storytelling, interactive participation, and online publications.

What is one of your favorite works in the collection that many people may not know about?

There are many, but one I would call out is our gouache by Gwendolyn Knight that she painted during a visit to New Orleans in 1941, following her marriage to Jacob Lawrence. It showcases Knight’s artistic talents in color and design. What I love is the way Knight juxtaposes the larger-than-life red and green blossoming banana flower with the cool geometric buildings, windows, and stairwell and a glistening azure sky. Then upon closer look one notices a silhouetted figure in a red dress cradled beneath the flower. Might that figure represent the artist? Where will her next step take her?

Elsa Smithgall with Roger Sant at the opening of Bonnard to Vuillard. Photo: Rhiannon Newman.

What other favorite work do you have in the collection?

It’s impossible to pick just one out of our nearly 6,000 works today. Not surprisingly some of my enduring favorites are works by artists that I studied at length over the course of exhibition projects. Back in 2002, I had the pleasure of working on a Bonnard exhibition with former senior curator Beth Turner, and then again in 2019 with the Nabi collection of Vicki and Roger Sant which included many works by the French artist. There are many glorious Bonnards among our notable holdings, though I have a soft spot for The Open Window. Bonnard makes us feel as though we are breathing in the scene before that window, moving figuratively between inside and outside. In characteristic form, the artist encourages us to discover activity at the periphery: the woman at far right resting on the chair with a black cat by her side. The shimmering patterns of color give a vitality to the work that has stood the test of time more than a century since its making.