Archives 101: What is an Archival Collection?

In this series, Phillips Manager, Archives and Library Resources Juli Folk and Digital Assets Librarian Rachel Jacobson explain the ins and outs of how archives work.

It’s usually fair to say that the average person is more familiar with libraries than archives. If that is the case for you, here are some helpful distinctions aimed at enhancing your next visit to The Phillips Collection Library & Archives.

Libraries hold published books and materials, which are secondary sources that were consciously created and intended to be distributed for review. Books are collected and circulated through libraries as individual items and are cataloged and organized according to standards that have been well-established for hundreds of years.

Archives are different in that they are made up of primary-source materials that were created over the course of normal daily business and life. Archival materials can include receipts, correspondence, photographs, ledgers, digital media, and related ephemera. In order to maintain their context, archival items are classified in aggregate as “collections,” instead of as standalone items.

The Phillips Collection Library & Archives holds numerous collections that include materials documenting the inner workings of the museum. Some items that may have seemed run of the mill at the time have since become treasures. For example, this undated handwritten note was left for Duncan Phillips at the front desk of the museum by Georgia O’Keeffe during one of her visits.

There are a variety of different kinds of archival collections. For example, institutional departmental collections manage and preserve the records of the business or institution. These collections exist to serve the needs of researchers and staff members, to document historical discussion and decisions over time, and to support strategic institutional goals. Two examples of these types of collections in our archive are the Records of the Music Department and the Exhibition History Records.

The Records of the Music Department consist of materials dated from 1925 and include correspondence, press clippings and reviews, photographs, concert programs, serial publications, pamphlets, press releases, and other ephemera pertaining to concerts and performers.

Archival boxes housing the Music Department records are organized chronologically, ready for research. Courtesy of The Phillips Collection Library & Archives

Exhibition History records are dated from the early 1900s and contain material that was created and collected by the Curatorial Department to support activities related to the research, planning, preparation, logistics, and catalogue for individual shows. The collections include articles, brochures, catalogues, checklists, correspondence, and reviews.

Photograph collections are compiled or created by individuals, families, or organizations and are preserved for their enduring evidentiary value and context. Our recently digitized Historic Photographs Collection is arranged chronologically with items that date from the late 1800s. The collection includes images of the museum building interior and exterior, the immediate and extended families of Duncan and Marjorie Phillips, art exhibitions, notable visitors, special events, and construction projects. The materials are in a variety of formats and sizes, with both color and black-and-white prints. This collection will be available digitally soon!

Duncan Phillips (left) and his younger brother Jim Phillips in the late 1800s. Courtesy of The Phillips Collection Library & Archives

Annex installation from the 1960s exhibition Sculpture Seen Anew: The Bronze Age to Brancusi, including works by Constantin Brancusi and Henry Moore. Courtesy of The Phillips Collection Library & Archives

Stay tuned for the next post in this series, which will focus on Archival Processing to describe the steps we take to make our collections more accessible and useful to researchers.

From the Archives: Duncan Phillips, Franz Bader, and Alma Thomas

Through archival materials, Associate Curator Renée Maurer explores the rich relationship between The Phillips Collection, Franz Bader, and Alma Thomas.

Austrian-born Franz Bader (1903-1994) fled Europe for the US in 1939 and settled in Washington, DC, where he worked at The Whyte Bookshop and Gallery located at 17th and H Streets. During the 1930s, the Whyte, The Phillips Collection, and the Howard University Gallery of Art, were among the few galleries in DC to acquire and exhibit the work of local living artists, including artists of color. Bader became director of Whyte Gallery in 1948, and then later opened Franz Bader Gallery in 1953. Duncan Phillips may have met Bader at Whyte Gallery. Archival correspondence indicates that he actively made purchases there, even acquiring examples by museum staff like Circus by John Gernand, who attended the Phillips Art School, worked with Alma Thomas’s teacher Robert Gates at American University, and served as the Phillips’s registrar and archivist.

Receipt for purchase of John Gernand, Circus, 1938, Oil on canvas, The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1939

The Phillipses and Bader also crossed paths at the museum. Bader later recalled to Duncan’s son Laughlin Phillips: “The beauty and informality of the Phillips Gallery has always meant so very much to me. Visiting it the first week after my arrival in this country helped to form my idea of America.” Duncan Phillips and Bader shared an interest in promoting DC’s arts community. In the 1950s Bader requested Phillips’s assistance with a traveling exhibition that featured work by Washington artists, supported by the United States Information Agency, and planned for Vienna, Bader’s hometown.

Through acquisitions and exhibitions, Phillips and Bader gave many Washington-based artists their first opportunities. Following the success of Alma Thomas’s first solo show at the Howard University Art Gallery in 1966, Bader became Thomas’s primary dealer. In 1968, he hosted an exhibition of Thomas’s paintings and watercolors, her first major one-person show at an established DC commercial art gallery.

In 1970, Bader presented paintings from Thomas’s Earth and Space series, two years before they went on view in the artist’s career defining retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. In late 1971, while curating A Small Loan Exhibition of Washington Artists for the Phillips, Marjorie Phillips negotiated with Bader the loan of Thomas’s acrylic Atmosphere. Thomas’s last show at Franz Bader Gallery occurred in 1974, and it included two works that were on view in the Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful exhibition: Fiery Sunset, owned by Bader, and Horizon.

LEFT TO RIGHT: Alma Thomas, Fiery Sunset, 1973, Acrylic on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, New York; Alma Thomas, Horizon, 1974, Acrylic on paper, Henry H. and Carol Brown Goldberg

In 1976, two years before Thomas’s death, Bader donated to The Phillips Collection Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers. The archival letters below relate to the gift. Bader acknowledges to then director Laughlin Phillips that Thomas was pleased to have an example of her work at the museum and hoped “that this will enable people to enjoy the painting.” On Thomas’s carbon copy, in her papers at the Archives of American Art, Bader annotated the letter with “Congratulation Again.” Laughlin Phillips wrote to Bader that the Thomas painting is “a significant addition” and “we are extremely pleased to have it.”

Letter from Franz Bader to Laughlin Phillips

Letter from Laughlin Philips to Franz Bader

Writing to Thomas, Laughlin Phillips acknowledged the gift of Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers, donated by Bader. He mentioned that the painting “has been hanging steadily since its arrival and bringing pleasure to staff and visitors alike” and remarked on his interest in her new work on view at the Corcoran. Later that year, the Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers joined the American Art from The Phillips Collection exhibition and toured several venues in the US.

Letter from Laughlin Phillips to Alma Thomas

In the fall of 1977, the Phillips hosted an exhibition of photographs by Franz Bader. Thomas attended the exhibition and kept the brochure.

Brochure for Franz Bader exhibition at The Phillips Collection

From the Archives: Barnett Aden Gallery and The Phillips Collection

Through archival materials, Associate Curator Renée Maurer explores the rich relationship between The Phillips Collection and Barnett Aden Gallery.

The groundbreaking Barnett Aden Gallery, the first Black-owned commercial art gallery in the United States, opened at 127 Randolph Place NW on October 16, 1943. It was founded in the private home of James V. Herring, director of the Howard University art department and Alonzo Aden, former curator of the Howard University Gallery of Art. Alma Thomas was the gallery’s primary funder and vice president. Herring and Aden, who frequently collaborated with Duncan Phillips, modeled the Barnett Aden Gallery on Phillips’s conviction that art should be enjoyed in an intimate setting. Phillips described his museum as “a home for all those who love art [where] visitors will feel inclined to linger and to return again.” Inspired by these ideas, the inaugural show at Barnett Aden was called Art for the Home. The gallery displayed works by artists of diverse backgrounds and upheld the belief that art should be available to everyone. It endorsed living artists who were not yet established and sold small-scale works for the starting collector. Visitors from across the city attended the gallery’s racially diverse exhibitions and educational programs. The gallery became a destination for cultural exchange and discourse, and the art openings were among the few interracial social events in the city.

Many local and up-and-coming painters were given their first group or solo show at the Barnett Aden Gallery. The Phillipses and the museum staff offered support by loaning paintings, purchasing art, and attending exhibitions. For example, from April to May of 1946, the Barnett Aden hosted Loïs Mailou Jones’s first solo show. Duncan Phillips lent Place du Tertre, 1938, which he had purchased from Jones in 1944. The painting was prominently featured in the brochure, below.

Brochure for Loïs Mailou Jones exhibition at Barnett Aden Gallery

The Barnett Aden Gallery also hosted Irene Rice Pereira’s first solo exhibition, from December 1948 to January 1949. The Phillipses attended the opening and made their first acquisition from the gallery, Pereira’s Transversion, 1946. Aden thanked Duncan Phillips in a letter dated February 17, 1949: “The members of the staff of the Gallery and I wish to express deep appreciation of yours and Mrs. Phillips’s visit and of your willingness to purchase the painting of I. Rice Pereira. We hope that you will continue to enjoy it more during the coming years.” The receipt below reveals the $650 purchase price for the work.

Letter from Alonzo Aden to Duncan Phillips about Irene Rice Pereira painting and purchase receipt

For the Barnett Aden’s 10th anniversary show Eighteen Washington Artists, the Phillipses lent Fish by Robert Gates. Duncan and Marjorie attended the exhibition with staff and kept this brochure.

The Barnett Aden Gallery 10th Anniversary brochure

On May 2, 1954, Aden wrote a letter of thanks to Phillips and enclosed a newspaper clipping from The Washington Star, which relayed details from the 10th anniversary exhibition opening. Aden noted that The Phillips Collection’s loan was prominently featured in one of the images in the article.

[Transcript: Dear Mr. Phillips, As I send this article for you to see, I am reminded of many kindnesses which you and your gallery have extended us. The painting shown in the background of the lower photographs is the Robert Gates “Fish” which you were so kind to lend for our tenth anniversary show. With grateful appreciation. Sincerely, Alonzo J. Aden]

At the gallery opening, The Washington Star reviewer highlighted the art of Jones and Pereira, who stands by her piece and next to Aden in the top right photo.

The Washington Star review