The Phillips Collection celebrates its centennial year in 2021.
After losing his father in 1917 and then his brother in the 1918 influenza pandemic, museum founder Duncan Phillips wrote in A Collection in the Making, “Art offers two great gifts of emotion—the emotion of recognition and the emotion of escape. Both emotions take us out of the boundaries of self…. At my period of crisis I was prompted to create something which would express my awareness of life’s returning joys and my potential escape in to the land of artists’ dreams.”
As the centerpiece of The Phillips Collection’s centennial celebrations, the museum presents the exhibition Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century. Building on Duncan Phillips’s founding principle of inspiring others to “see beautifully,” and drawn from the museum’s growing permanent collection of nearly 6,000 works, Seeing Differently will highlight over 200 diverse artistic expressions by artists from the 19th century to the present, including paintings, works on paper, prints, photographs, sculptures, quilts, and videos. Spread throughout the entire museum, the exhibition will explore the complexities of our ever-changing world through four themes—identity, history, place, and the senses—with special focus on recent acquisitions that showcase how the museum’s dynamic collection continues to evolve. Seeing Differently will be on view from March 6 through September 12, 2021.
In 2021, The Phillips Collection, America’s first museum of modern art, celebrates its centennial. The museum opened its doors 100 years ago as a memorial to founder Duncan Phillips’s father, Duncan Clinch Phillips, and brother, James, who died in the 1918 flu epidemic. Recognizing the healing power of art, Phillips sought to share his “living” collection in a welcoming space and to inspire others to find beauty in the artist’s unique way of seeing the world. Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century at once commemorates the museum’s centennial and launches its next vibrant chapter.
“Seeing Differently marks the first major celebration of the museum’s permanent collection in over 10 years and is guided by Duncan Phillips’s belief in the universal language of art as a unifying force for social change,” says Vradenburg Director and CEO Dorothy Kosinski. “Since its founding as America’s first museum of modern art in 1921, the museum has more than doubled its footprint and enjoyed rapid growth in its holdings, from its foundational collection of 237 works to nearly 6,000 works today. At a time of profound loss and division in our country, the exhibition reminds us of our founder’s abiding belief in the power of art to heal wounds, foster empathy, and build community through a greater understanding of our shared humanity—to help us see differently.”
To develop this major exhibition, the Phillips’s curatorial team worked in close collaboration with a group of community advisors across disciplines who brought a multiplicity of perspectives to help shape the exhibition concept, interpretation, programming, and community engagement.
“Since the early stages of planning Seeing Differently, our world has endured major upheaval—from a health and economic crisis wrought by the covid-19 pandemic to social ferment in the fight to end systemic racism. Collaborating this past year with a community advisory group, the Phillips engaged in meaningful discussions about creating inclusive spaces for our visitors that use art to spark connection, reflection, and dialogue around pressing issues of our day,” says Elsa Smithgall, Senior Curator.
Serving broad and diverse communities remains at the heart of the Phillips’s mission. Seeing Differently integrates local voices into all aspects of the project, including incorporating community written labels in the galleries. By creating spaces for the community to respond to the multicultural artistic expressions in our growing collection, the exhibition moves beyond curatorial voices to empower others to develop personal connections to art. Artist voices will also be present through video clips of Phillips-conducted interviews with David Driskell, John Edmonds, Whitfield Lovell, and Alyson Shotz.
A highlight of the centennial will be the juried exhibition, Inside Outside, Upside Down, to be presented from June 12–September 12. "At a time when people’s lives have been upended by covid-19 and civil unrest, our open call will invite artists in the area to submit work that speaks to the struggle and resiliency of the human spirit. Juried artist prizes will be offered as well as a crowd-sourced people’s choice award. This exhibition builds on our museum’s important legacy of presenting, acquiring, and championing the work of living artists in the local community. Duncan Phillips organized regular exhibitions dedicated to artists of the DC region and sought to support and nurture their talents through acquisitions and training in an art school formerly set up in the museum," notes a museum statement.
“The Phillips’s guiding philosophy about art as a source of healing takes on new meaning in light of the current moment and how the nation is responding to calls for racial justice. Museums are not neutral spaces and the Phillips has been a place for community convening, discussion, and for exploring urgent issues of our time since our inception,” says Chief Diversity Officer Makeba Clay. “The Phillips plans to honor this legacy by using the moment to confront systemic inequities, including understanding our own institution’s past and the implications of its historical context. Through this exhibition that looks at the collection built over 100 years, the museum plans to address the ways in which we have benefitted from the status quo and marginalized others in the process. This process includes self-examination, and leveraging the museum’s role as a community cultural space to catalyze conversation and create opportunities to chart a new path forward.”
The centennial publication will serve as an important art historical resource and the museum’s first comprehensive collection publication since 1999 and focuses on the collecting of the 21st century. This richly illustrated book includes an opening essay by Vradenburg Director & CEO Dorothy Kosinski; artist conversations with John Edmonds, Whitfield Lovell, Alyson Shotz, and the late David C. Driskell; 11 thematic essays by scholars across disciplines; and object responses by notable contributors, including artists Anthony Gormley, Sean Scully, Renée Stout, and Jennifer Wen Ma. The catalogue, edited by Elsa Smithgall, is published by The Phillips Collection in association with Giles.