Happy 100th Birthday, Phillips Collection!

“Art is part of the social purpose of the world and a gallery can be a meeting place of many minds, harmonized by a genuine respect for the spirit of art, which is none other than the spirit of pleasure in the exchange of different attitudes and sensibilities.”—Duncan Phillips, A Collection Still in the Making, 1931

“This is a time when museums are needed even more, not only because they’re places that broaden the way we understand things and see things but also because in many ways, at their best, they’re part of the glue that holds communities together.”Lonnie Bunch, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, October 14, 2021

Mayor Muriel Bowser has proclaimed November 12, 2021, “The Phillips Collection Day” in honor of our centennial.

When the Phillips Memorial Gallery opened in 1921, it comprised one room and 237 paintings. The Phillips family lived in the building then, welcoming visitors into their home. 100 years later, The Phillips Collection, now with nearly 6,000 works of art and expanded buildings, is still home to more than 120,000 visitors each year. In hearing your favorite stories and memories, I know the Phillips is a special place for so many. While we have greatly extended our outreach globally, there are longtime DC residents who cherish the museum for its uniquely intimate, Washington experience. We hope that more people will be able to have these enriching encounters with art, for many more years to come. From 1921 to 2021, we have championed the power of museums to educate and build communities.

Celebrate with us at our Birthday Party today! Visit PhillipsCollection.org/events to make a reservation.

Despite myriad challenges, we have had a full centennial year so far. We showcased our collection and featured recent acquisitions with Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century. Our juried invitational Inside Outside, Upside Down and Community in Focus project made us smile and cry reflecting on all that we have experienced this past 20 months. We presented works by beloved artists like Jacob Lawrence, and contemporary voices like Marley Dawson, Victor Ekpuk, and Nekisha Durrett. We endowed the position of Horning Chair for Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion, a powerful indication of our commitment to DEAI work. We have presented Duncan Phillips Lectures by Lonnie Bunch and Arlene Dávila (stay tuned for our final lecture from Elizabeth Alexander in January), had conversations with collectors and artists, and showcased the best of traditional and new chamber music. We have engaged with audiences of all ages (from our family workshops to our Creative Aging program with older adults) and continue our work with PK-12 students and teachers throughout the region.

It is especially fitting that our fall exhibitions honor DC icons David Driskell and Alma Thomas, two artists and educators who led the Washington creative space for many decades. They knew how important it is to have art—bright, bold, colorful art—in our world, just as Duncan Phillips did. I am humbled to shepherd this wonderful institution, and very proud of all that has been achieved over 100 years, creating a dynamic institution dedicated to Duncan Phillips’s vision to help the world “see differently” as artists see.

Thank you for celebrating “The Phillips Collection Day” with us!

Dorothy Kosinski

The Phillips Collects: Nekisha Durrett

2021-22 Sherman Fairchild Fellow Shiloah Coley speaks with Nekisha Durrett about the recent acquisition of her work from the juried invitational Inside Outside, Upside Down

Nekisha Durrett, Eleanor Bumper killed by police on October 29, 1984 | Age 66, 2020-21, Magnolia leaves, poplar, velvet, acrylic, LED lighting, 19 1/4 x 19 1/4 x 5 3/4 in.. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Luke Walter Photography

Nekisha Durrett always knew she wanted to be an artist, and her chance encounter with Jacob Lawrence at The Phillips Collection made it seem a little more attainable. He was one of the first examples of a Black person she saw operating in that space, making a life as an artist. “You know that you want to be an artist, but you don’t see anyone else like you or in your family doing it. You’re not seeing people who look like you who are doing it and are successful in the ways that you see white artists—white male artists are successful,” said Durrett. “There is no roadmap. Everyone’s pathway is very different. Add on top of that not seeing any representation of anyone who looks like you who’s making a life of it. So in that regard, meeting Jacob Lawrence, seeing his work hanging in the museum, I think it probably became more of a maybe. It did feel just a little a bit more in reach.”

Her work from Inside Outside, Upside Down now joins the permanent collection at the Phillips alongside Lawrence’s work. Eleanor Bumper killed by police on October 29, 1984 | Age 66 honors the life of a Black woman killed by the police. The magnolia leaf dawns her carved-out name. While the magnolia tree is popular for its beautiful flowers, its leaves stand the test of time, refusing to decay or wither. The work is part of a larger series, Magnolia, honoring many Black women.

“I always see the outpouring of emotion or attention when Black men were murdered, and I felt like it wasn’t the same for Black women,” Durrett said, recalling her thought process behind the work. The delicate pieces differ from the larger public pieces and projects she typically takes on, but she couldn’t work on those to the same extent amid the pandemic. During the spring and summer of 2020, Durrett collected the fallen leaves from a magnolia tree in Rock Creek Cemetery, where she would go to process her anxiety and grief over the covid-19 pandemic and the continued police brutality against Black bodies.

Noting the immense amount of videos and images of violence against Black people circulating, the leaf emerged as a useful metaphor. “I didn’t want to put that kind of labor on Black bodies so using this leaf as a metaphor for the Black body just seems to make sense,” Durrett said. This work is intimate, demanding the viewer’s attention if they are to truly see it, asking them to get closer.

Similar to how Lawrence helped open the door for Durrett, she now continues that legacy with her audience. Her therapist, who is located around the corner from the Phillips, visited the museum to see her work, sharing that she’d never been before and didn’t think it was a space where she would see herself, a feeling far too familiar for marginalized folks, and especially Black folks in museum settings. “That is a part of the work. It’s creating a space where you can see yourself,” said Durrett.

DC-area educators respond to Alma Thomas (Part I)

Alma Thomas taught art at Shaw Junior High School for 35 years. She said: “People always want to cite me for my color paintings, but I would much rather be remembered for helping to lay the foundation of children’s lives.” To honor and connect to Thomas’s career as a teacher, we asked DC-area educators to respond to works of art in Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful . These educators participated in the Phillips’s 2021 Summer Teacher Institute, exploring ways to adapt arts-integrated lessons to their students. Read their perspectives on how they personally connected to Thomas’s artworks.

Read more responses in Part II

Alma W. Thomas, Cover of a birthday card, early 1960s, Watercolor on paper, Closed: 7 × 5 in., The Columbus Museum, Gift of Miss John Maurice Thomas in memory of her parents, John H. and Amelia W. Cantey Thomas and her sister Alma Woodsey Thomas, G.1994.20.141

How do you select a greeting card—by image outside or by message inside? If you are like me, I am drawn to the image first. The image strikes my eye with a message of its own.

This small watercolor illusion of a bouquet of flowers has been carefully arranged by Thomas, as if the flowers are laid out, waiting to be placed in a vase. Notice how she carefully layers her bleeding colors starting with a background of blotches of yellow, then greenish grey, and topped by red. Black streaks give structure to the blotches making the flower illusion hold.

What kind of card would you select this painting for? Birthday? Mother’s Day? Sympathy? What do you think is the written message inside? Who did Alma Thomas have in mind when she painted it? What message is she sending you?

Mary Beth Bauernschub, School Librarian, Beltsville PK-8 Academy

 

Alma W. Thomas, Falling Leaves, Love Wind Orchestra, 1977, Acrylic on canvas, 21 1/2 x 27 1/2 in., Private collection

When leaves seem unembarrassed and stubbornly brave to show their ruby color on bright bold days, I know that nature calls us in a whisper to say, “Don’t fear your evolution. Everything must change.” So I dance with abandon as the gentle wind blows. I will not fear change. I will let it all flow. I will trust in the process, this journey, this life. I will trust in the cycles, the beauty of life.

Colie Aziza, Early Childhood Special Educator, Pre-K, Frances Early Childhood Center

 

Alma W. Thomas, Sea of Tranquility, c. 1971, Watercolor on paper, 22 x 30 in., Alex and Lissette Stancioff

Gazing at this beautiful masterpiece of Alma Thomas reminds me of my own journey migrating from the Pearl of the Orient Seas to the Land of the Free. The challenges of migration offer opportunities for growth and resilience. Migrants have varying circumstances and make a move for different reasons, including economic, socio-political, and environmental factors. Initially, for me, it was the call to liberate myself from the hostile working environment back home, an experience that adversely affected my mental health and well-being.

Walking in the Manila Bay area in the Philippines on a sunny day, I had an epiphany. It was time to embrace change and pick up the broken pieces of my inner self. Luckily, I was offered employment in the United States, and after a few years of service, I was nominated for a countywide recognition. It’s also in this country where I found my lifetime partner, and we have been blessed with a miracle baby girl. Nowadays, I am making the time to explore what truly makes me better, greater, and happier. I knew if I did not take the risk, I would never have reached my own “Sea of Tranquility.”  Are you ready to find and explore yours?

Irene De Leon, Service Coordinator / Early Childhood Special Educator, Judy P. Hoyer Early Childhood Center