Storytime with Karen

At Karen Schneider’s retirement party last week, she shared with the staff some of her favorite moments over her 41 years at the Phillips (which included a lot of parties!). We’re excited to share some of them with you here.

Becoming the Phillips Librarian: Laughlin Phillips, son of Duncan and Marjorie Phillips, was the director when I started at the Phillips. He was a kind, gentle man who was also shy and modest. He loved getting to know the eccentric staff and delighted in seeing our artwork. He was also a terrific writer and editor and he would make whatever we wrote infinitely better. My background is in studio art. I was an artist in residence for two years and taught art to middle and high school students at National Cathedral School. I needed something for the summer and came to the Phillips. During my interview, I was asked if I had worked in a library before. I said yes, at Bennington College. Laughlin (he liked to be called Loc) led me upstairs to the the library, which was on the fourth floor of the house. The room had been Marjorie Phillips’s studio and the site of the Phillips Gallery Art School as well as Loc’s nursery. Loc opened the door and it was complete chaos. There were workmen on ladders building bookshelves, drop cloths spattered with paint, and the radio was blaring. Loc looked down at me and cleared his throat, which I later learned was a sign that he was nervous. Just then two cats raced across the room, Bazooka and Fiona. Loc asked me, “Do you think you could do something with this?” I said, “Yes.” I worked at the Phillips that summer and really enjoyed it. There was much to be done. I wrote a list of why the Phillips needed a librarian and what that person would do and I nominated myself. When I was back at National Cathedral School the head of the art department came up to me with a wide-eyed look and told me that Laughlin Phillips was on the phone. He told me “We like what you wrote. You’re on!” The fact that I had no art history or library degree did not matter to him. He was a good judge of character and loved to hire artists. He delighted in all of our eccentricities.

The Ham: John Gernand, the museum’s first registrar, fed Bazooka and Fiona promptly at 1:00. The cats came into his office precisely at 1:00 and John unwrapped aluminum foil which contained thin pieces of ham. After they had their lunch, Bazooka relaxed belly up on John’s desk under his lamp which was next to his phone. I always wondered what would happen if he received a call from the MoMA. Did the person on the end of the line hear Bazooka go Rarr?

Art Barn: One year we had our staff show at the Art Barn in Rock Creek Park. One of the staff members came running up to me—”Laughlin Phillips bought your work on paper!” I thought, “Drat! I should have added more zeroes to the price!” Loc wanted to talk to me about my work, which he put on the mantle of his fireplace next to a Braque still life.

The Hat Party: We had a hat party in the original courtyard. Everyone had to wear a hat. There was a fringed lampshade hat that someone found in one of the offices, a Sherlock Holmes hat worn by Jim McLaughlin, our curator, a red fez as well as my black pillbox hat. By the end of the alcohol fueled event, Giacometti’s Monumental Head in the middle of the courtyard had a huge pile of hats on top of its head.

Come as a painting party: One of our best parties was one in which we dressed up as a painting. I think that Bill Koberg made a hat that had a reproduction of Walt Kuhn’s Plumes. I was the guitarist in Manet’s Spanish Ballet and made my guitar using foamcore.

Present at the Unveiling: In the 1980s, the small staff was permitted to watch the uncrating of works of art, something that would be forbidden today, when only the curators, registrars, preparators, and director are allowed that privilege. I will never forget the joy experienced by all of us as a stunning Bonnard landscape from a French museum was unpacked from its enormous crate. It was included in a major Bonnard exhibition in 1984.

Celebrating Karen Schneider, Phillips Librarian since 1981

The Phillips celebrates Karen Schneider, who will be retiring on March 31 after 41 years of service to the museum.

Karen was hired by Laughlin Phillips, Duncan and Marjorie Phillips’s son, in February 1981. She fondly recalls books everywhere and even the Phillips’s cats (Fiona and Bazooka) scurrying by as she was introduced to the space that housed the books, then in the original Phillips House. When she started, the library had 800 volumes, and now it has 10,000. Karen created the library, archives, and oral history program, in which current and former directors, other staff, artists, and trustees with deep knowledge about the collection are interviewed.

Karen Schneider in the library, c. 1997

Over her 41 years at the Phillips, Karen has demonstrated tremendous skill in guiding the research and providing for the needs of our curators and external scholars. Her institutional knowledge of The Phillips Collection (and ability to decipher Duncan Phillips’s handwriting!) is legendary and has been a highlight of her many museum tours; her wealth of knowledge has been captured in an oral history interview. Karen also created numerous archival exhibitions such as Moving Forward, Looking Back and items in display cases throughout the museum. Her curated archival exhibitions for the Reading Room, the area outside the library, included Women of Influence: Elmira Bier, Minnie Byers, and Marjorie Phillips; Duncan Phillips and Washington Collections; Duncan Phillips and New York Collections; The Journals of Duncan Phillips; and Dear Dove, Dear Phillips, Dear Stieglitz.

Scenes from Karen’s retirement party, with staff old and new

In 2006, Karen worked with the project architect to design the new library in the Sant Building. In 2018, she provided crucial assistance in receiving a transformative grant from the IMLS Museums for America Collections Stewardship program to establish an archival digitization program at the Phillips that has allowed us to begin digitizing items of priority for archival research.

From everyone at the Phillips over the years: thank you, Karen!


Welcome Dr. Yuma I Tomes, Horning Chair for Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion

Meet our new Horning Chair for Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion, Dr. Yuma I. Tomes. Dr. Tomes bring 20 years of experience to the museum as a leader in community outreach and multicultural initiatives in academia and educational psychology. Here, he shares what brought him to the Phillips and his vision for the museum.

Dr. Yuma Tomes

Why did you want to be CDO at The Phillips Collection?

After spending 20 years in academia and desiring to do more in the areas of diversity and inclusion, I felt a new season was necessary. While I have limited background working with museums, the tenets of the position are directly aligned with my aspirations of creating brave, inclusive spaces for learning and growth. Providing thought leadership in conceptualizing and shaping a center for learning and practice around creativity, empathy, equity, and resilience was appealing. Additionally, the opportunity to build and cultivate external relationships allows The Phillips Collection to become more accessible to diverse audiences. Finally, and possibly most importantly, The Phillips Collection has been “seeing differently” for a century. This mindset promotes an inclusive environment of acceptance and redefining traditional museum practices.

How will your background in academia and as a psychologist inform your work at the Phillips?

Diversity transcends professions by embracing universal principles. In my experiences as a psychologist and university faculty member [at Sam Houston State University and the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine], I worked in diversity-rich environments and established numerous equity-based activities that will assist the Phillips’s DEAI work. More specifically, creating multicultural learning modules, developing cultural-conscious training, and increasing cross-cultural communication are of particular interest at The Phillips Collection. Additionally, I think my previous experiences help to bridge arts and academia. While most universities have arts programs, the ability to take the museum to the university in different fields (e.g., psychology, social work, etc.) highlights a unique approach to learning.

What is your priority as the CDO at The Phillips Collection?

I want to build on the success The Phillips Collection has embarked on in DEAI work. Given the intersection of the pandemic and social/racial unrest in the United States, most professional entities have engaged in DEAI work. However, The Phillips Collection has been a leader in this area by being among the first museums to create a Chief Diversity Office position. Priorities include but are not limited to: establishing effective diversity trainings, creating a monthly DEAI newsletter, creating Phillips-in-the-community events, and promoting art and mental well-being. Hopefully these initiatives will establish safe spaces that champion fairness and anti-oppression, positioning The Phillips Collection as a museum of artistic expression, community health, and well-being for the region and throughout the country. 

In 2020, museums across the country issued statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and declared their commitment to DEAI. How have you seen the cultural sector respond since then and how will cultural institutions continue to evolve in their DEAI work?

The ground-swell from cultural institutions across the country has been palpable. In 2020, museums were in a unique position to not only chronicle the movement through different art forms, but they were critical to host community meetings and dialogues to promote healing. As a result, museums will continue to shepherd DEAI work through exhibitions, conversations, and community learning opportunities. Museums attract people from different perspectives. These intersecting moments highlight learning opportunities and make community members feel seen and valued.

The Phillips Collection has just celebrated its centennial. What changes do you hope The Phillips Collection makes in the DEAI space over its next century?

I hope The Phillips Collection continues to lead in DEAI and become an institution of inspiration. Museums, like The Phillips Collection, can create learning experiences that advance critical thinking while valuing equity and diversity. This could include a myriad of ideas ranging from an exhibition of art by artists of various backgrounds/abilities/sexual orientation to creating/establishing diversity trainings that are universal in all work environments. Further, The Phillips Collection can be a museum of cultural consciousness advancing the pursuit of equity and accessibility for all. The museum can generate a discourse that can disrupt dominant social narratives that have historically supported hegemonic beliefs. Hopefully, every person entering The Phillips Collection will see themselves reflected through the art, hear their stories through oral traditions/history, and feel they belong to an institution that honors their intersectionality.