Phillips Collection showing what future of classic museums can be

Philip Kennicott

THE WASHINGTON POST – In John Akomfrah’s 2013 video, Transfigured Night, a Black man is seen looking out the window of a sterile office at a bright but bleak landscape of high-rise buildings.

He is a solitary, vulnerable presence contemplating a hard-edge world of power and modernity. Other images in the two-screen video include silhouette figures standing near the Lincoln Memorial, saturated and moody visions of other Washington landmarks, and disconcerting scenes of political violence.

It is a stormy and contemplative work about the legacy of colonialism but also the larger possibility of leaving old and broken things behind. There is no path forward without significant trauma, loss and suffering, which can drive us inward and apart from one another.

Today, legacy arts institutions live in that same spirt of unease, promise and gloom. They have been left to fend for themselves in a world that is changing rapidly. When the coronavirus pandemic is over, will they be dinosaurs? Are the traditions they have sustained for decades, or centuries, worth sustaining?

Akomfrah’s video is encountered roughly at the midpoint of the Phillips Collection 100th Anniversary exhibition, Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century. It condenses the anxiety, idealism and historical sweep of the other galleries, seeming to pose a question to the museum similar to the one many are posing to the nation at large: Is there a way forward?

Collector Duncan Phillips and artist Marjorie Phillips. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
The Phillips Collection exterior

Seeing Differently, which sprawls throughout the museum, offers an emphatic answer: yes. Planning for the show was already underway when the museum was forced by the pandemic to close a year ago. Since then, demonstrations related to the killing of George Floyd and other African Americans, and renewed focus on white supremacy and economic inequities launched the broadest movement for racial justice since the civil rights protests of the 1960s, and the refusal of a sitting president to concede an election sparked both an insurrection at the Capitol and wide awareness that American democracy is threatened bigotry, ignorance, cowardice and hypocrisy.

The scope and ambition of the exhibition reminds one of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) post-renovation reopening exhibit in October 2019, just months before the New York behemoth was also forced to close because of the pandemic. MoMA’s impetus was both self-promotional, to show the depth and richness of its collection, and intellectual, to dismantle what its curators felt were cumbersome and restrictive art history narratives.

In a catalogue essay for the Phillips Collection show, museum director Dorothy Kosinski argues that the museum’s founder Duncan Phillips also resisted the dead weight of fixed narratives: “Uninterested in art historical taxonomy – the isms – he reveled in exploring unusual juxtapositions and frequently changing installations in order to reveal the fluid continuum of artistic expression.”

But what a difference between the two shows: The Phillips Collection focusses on the “fluid continuum,” while at MoMA the emphasis was on a flamboyant disdain for the “isms”. The smaller museum has managed to connect dots and suggest alternatives to the old thinking, while at MoMA the highlights were a few interesting juxtapositions mostly at sea in a chaotic mess of de-contextualised art. That’s not surprising: It is easier to disrupt old narratives than to propose new ones, and there is more reward (at least in the short term) in being seen as a disrupter than there is in the risky and speculative work of forging new connections.

The Phillips Collection has the advantage of being a relatively small museum. In the 100 years since it was founded, the museum’s holdings have grown from 237 to almost 6,000 works. Regular visitors know the core collection like they know the rugs and lamps of their own living room. It is possible to have a personal relation with the key treasures of the Phillips Collection in a way that is no longer sustainable at MoMA, given the crowds, foot traffic and institutional emphasis on growth.

It would be difficult for any curator, no matter how visionary, to display the essential highlights of MoMA without invoking their canonical power. The isms and taxonomies of modern art are, to a large degree, essentially the isms and taxonomy established by MoMA over the last century. And so the monumentality of the major works at MoMA led to what felt like an effort to contain or neutralise them. They would be kept on display – the paying public would otherwise revolt – but they must ultimately be defeated rather than reconceived.

One doesn’t sense that self-defeating cynicism at the Phillips. The audience favorite of the collection – Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party” – has been moved from its old gallery, which it dominated like a cross on an altar, and reinstalled in the museum’s Music Room, where it sits behind the piano, enhancing the implied conviviality of the room, but in a rather genial, retiring way. It doesn’t feel quite so loud, or overbearing, but rather as if it has learned to sit back and listen a bit.

Another gallery, on the second floor of the old mansion, is devoted to small domesticities, including photographs of families by Bruce Davidson and intimate scenes of ordinary life by Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard. But it also includes important paintings by Horace Pippin, Yasuo Kuniyoshi and William Merritt Chase. The racial and ethnic diversity of the artists is striking, but more important, the gallery rises above the bland generalization: We are all human, all devoted to family, all equally committed to home and hearth. There are unities here, to be sure; but there are also essential differences, in scale, in wealth, in material comforts and in the subtleties of emphasis on what makes a house a home.

The curators of the exhibition emphasize familiar themes, especially art as a form of healing, citing Phillips’s own words about how building the collection and making it available to the public helped him heal from the 1917 death of his father and the loss of his brother during the 1918 flu pandemic. But it is Phillips’s larger philosophical view of art that gives this show its coherence.

Today, that view will seem to some naive and to many dated. Phillips read the work of John Dewey, especially his 1934 treatise Art as Experience, and found confirmation and elaboration of his own sense that there was a deeper ethical and existential dimension to the way that art heightens our sensory experience. Art, properly understood, not only sensitises us to formal patterns and relations, but connects intense aesthetic experiences to our everyday existence in a world overbrimming with beauty (if we can learn how to see it). Art both refines and connects, bridging the chasm between our solipsism and the world.

Some small art museums are perpetually entrapped by their founder’s vision. They labor under strictures that prevent the art from ever being moved, or lent to other museums, or that make it difficult to collect new works and integrate them into the existing collection. The Phillips, fortunately, wasn’t limited in such blunt ways by Duncan Phillips. The burden it carries, which turns out to be a blessing, is the lingering shadow of Phillips not as an art collector but an art lover.

And love is the critical thing. Some museums have it and know how to share it, others don’t. The Phillips has earned another century.