A collection still in the making
The Phillips Collection was established in 1921 by Duncan Phillips (1886-1966), heir to a steel fortune, in his family's 1897 house in historic Dupont Circle. It is known to be one of the world’s finest public museums of modern art. Phillips never sought to establish a comprehensive survey of styles or movements, nor to exhibit the collection as a whole. From the outset, the museum has been dedicated to the idea of modernism as a dialogue between the past and the present, without restrictions on geography, nationality, or time period, embracing its founder's vision to be " an intimate museum combined with an experiment station.
"I Incorporated the Phillips Memorial Gallery… and I saw a chance to create a beneficent force in the community… a joy- giving, life-enhancing influence, assisting people to see beautifully, as true artists see."
- Duncan Phillips, 1926
In addition to founding and directing the museum, which began as a living memorial to his father and brother, Phillips was also a writer, critic and educator who made significant contributions to the public's appreciation of modern art. Most of Phillips's book and articles were published during the first half of his career, from the time he was a student at Yale until the 1930's, when he was developing and refining his ideas about modern art. After that, Phillips turned his attention to his work as a collector and museum director, and relied less upon the written word as he allowed his collection to be a living testimony to his ideals.
"…The artists of so many different kinds, seeking different sorts of beauty, are all in my laboratory, being tested by the great things in the Collection."
-Duncan Phillips, 1927
A pioneer in many ways, Duncan Phillips – along with his wife, painter Marjorie Acker Phillips (1894-1985) – had a keen enthusiasm for the art of his time, relying on his eye for great talent and promise to assemble a world-class collection. Especially inspiring was Phillips's open-mindedness and generosity of spirit, his search for the individual artist's unique voice, and his belief that everyone would benefit by "seeing as true artists see."
Phillips acquired works because they spoke to one another through contrast and analogy, writing in 1926, "I bring together congenial spirits among the artists from different parts of the world and from the different periods of time and I trace their common descent from old masters who anticipated modern ideas." The Phillips follows this practice of creating " visual conversations" in the gallery by frequently rotating the works from the permanent collection into new arrangements, thus ensuring that visitors enjoy fresh experiences on every visit to the Phillips.
Duncan Phillips wrote: "Art is a universal language… that is part of the social purpose of the world; it requires appreciation and the bonds of fellowship with all who understand." We invite you to share in that "bond of fellowship" in our galleries.