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.

My Time at The Phillips Collection: Communities + Collaborations

Our 2021-22 Sherman Fairchild Fellows have recently completed their year at the Phillips! Fellow Gary Calcagno shares his experience. We thank all of our fellows for their hard work and amazing contributions to the museum.

Over the past year as a Sherman Fairchild Foundation Fellow, I’ve had the opportunity to take on projects I never had the chance to in previous internships. What I learned throughout my tenure is the possibilities of cultivating communities and collaborations.

I was initially drawn to the fellowship because of the opportunity to develop a unique project. I previously worked at a university art museum in California, the Manetti Shrem Museum of Art. There, I developed a real interest in the relationship between academic institutions and art museums and the possible outcomes of such relationships. When I was researching The Phillips Collection, I learned the museum had an ongoing partnership with the University of Maryland that began in 2015—lightbulbs started going off in my head.

Luckily for me, a professor at UMD had reached out to the Phillips for a potential project. Tita Chico, professor of English and faculty director of the Center for Literary and Comparative Study, wanted to co-sponsor programs with the museum. I was selected as one of the fellows and brought on to develop programs for the center’s anti-racism initiative. Starting in 2020, the Center for Literary and Comparative Study sponsored a series of programs to support and act on the statements of solidarity for Black Lives Matter. Programs ranged from topics in the humanities to pedagogy and education, but I noticed there weren’t programs dedicated to visual culture or the visual arts which is where I could bring my background in art history to develop programs.

I learned a great deal about the possibilities of giving platforms to scholars and thinkers in the arts. It was important to me to not only feature speakers who were doing topical and timely work, but also those whose voices could be further amplified by providing a platform. After I conducted research and compiled bios, we narrowed down our speakers: Bridget R. Cooks and Jolene Rickard.

Hosting virtual programs meant that we could build connections across the country. Bridget R. Cooks, professor of art history at University of California, Irvine, collaborated with Robert Cozzolino from the Minneapolis Institute of Art to put on “Haunted: The Black Body as Ancestor and Spectre.” Jolene Rickard from Cornell University in New York spoke with Lisa Myers from York University in Toronto, Canada for their program: “Indigenous Arts with Dr. Jolene Rickard, Citizen of the Tuscarora Nation.

My collaborative projects included other partners also. I helped develop a professional development series for Phillips Collection staff in an effort to learn from each other and build camaraderie. I also coordinated outreach for our internship program to reach universities and groups we haven’t worked with in the past.

One of my final projects for the museum is working on an inclusive language guide. One of the key aspects of developing communities and collaborations is a shared and understood language. By recognizing and ensuring the language we use is inclusive, we can better communicate and understand each other.

The Sherman Fairchild Foundation Fellowship has been one of the most enriching and essential experiences for my career.

Meet Our Spring Interns: Emily, Gabriela, Adriana, Jason

Our spring 2022 interns reflect on the projects they’ve been working on and what they’ve learned during their time at The Phillips Collection.

Emily Roberson, American University

“My name is Emily Roberson and I am the Curatorial Intern. My main project has been researching female artists from the Harlem Renaissance. I’ve really enjoyed visiting institutions in Washington, DC, to conduct primary and secondary source research. Many of the artists I’m studying have received very little scholarly attention, so it’s exciting to be working on a project that will really contribute to the conversation about their lives and work. I’m a second-year art history master’s student at American University, and my research specialization is 18th- and 19th-century European art. I’m especially interested in feminist approaches to art history and studying under-researched artists. I moved to Washington, DC, during the pandemic, so I still feel like I have a lot of the city to explore, but I keep returning to the Phillips because the increasing focus on under-represented artists is refreshing and inspiring to me. I also really value the emphasis on transcultural and diachronic exhibitions that connect modern and contemporary artists in creative ways.”

Gabriela Sepulveda Maiz, George Washington University

“Hi! My name is Gabriela Sepulveda and I’m the Community Engagement Intern. I’m originally from Puerto Rico, and moved to DC in August 2020 for my master’s in Museum Studies at George Washington University. I love birdwatching, running, hiking, and dancing. I’m interested in moving museums toward deeper and more meaningful engagement with their surrounding communities. As the Community Engagement Intern, I create, develop, and design the wellness kits we distribute to the community. It’s been an intellectually enriching process and I’ve been honored to meet and interact with the community directly.”

Adriana Vergara, George Washington University

“I am Adriana Vergara, a graduating senior at The George Washington University, minoring in Italian and majoring in art history. This spring, I have been working as the Contemporary Art Conservation intern under the mentorship of Associate Conservator Patricia Favero. During my internship I created documentation for the time-based media works in the collection. Specifically, I chose to focus on the work Transfigured Night by John Akomfrah because I had the opportunity to see it on display at The Phillips Collection last spring and I wanted to learn more about the work and aid in its conservation. Throughout this internship I learned that the museum is truly a collaborative environment, and that each department is eager to help the others succeed. This internship has also pushed me to think more deeply about what characteristics are most important to an artwork’s identity and it has allowed me to better understand the complexities of conserving time-based media. As an aspiring conservator, this has truly been an invaluable experience for me.”

Jason Rosenberg, George Washington University

“I’m Jason Rosenberg and I am originally from South Florida. I am currently an undergraduate at The George Washington University majoring in art history and political communication. In addition to art, I also enjoy spending my time singing in GW’s a cappella group “Sons of Pitch,” riding on my school’s equestrian team, and developing film in the darkroom photo lab. This past spring, I’ve had the absolute privilege of interning in the Curatorial Department with my mentor, Vesela Sretenovic. Throughout this process, I’ve experienced the opening of an exhibition, meet local artists, learned more about the grant-funding process, delved into copyright law within fine art, and gained first-hand understanding of how a museum operates—with a special focus on the pivotal role curators play. Work I’ve done has included: writing and publishing blog posts, researching artist foundation profiles for potential funding, attending staff meetings, drafting email templates for derivative copyright permissions, and sorting through library collections. My mentor and all the staff I’ve met at the Phillips have illuminated a whole other side of the art world that I’ve never had access to. I know this opportunity will have a lasting impact as I continue my studies in graduate school and prepare for an exciting career in art law down the line. Thank you!”