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Everyone dreams of home improvement

April 2, 2011

Duncan Phillips. Sketch for museum building, from Journal B, c. 1923. From The Phillips Collection Archives.

In The New York Times Sunday, March 27, Nicholai Ouroussoff  wrote, “Over the past 15 or so years, some of the most original and idiosyncratic art institutions in the country [...] have embarked on major expansions to modernize [...], significantly transforming their identities.” The three museums he examines were all, like the Phillips, created by an individual collector with a distinct vision. Ouroussoff goes on to say that many of these building projects will result in a loss of character and create a regrettable sense of the “corporate.” It is hard to think of a museum that hasn’t undertaken a major building project, or at least considered it, The Phillips Collection included.

In 1923, Duncan Phillips made a sketch of his ideal museum building in which to house his growing collection and welcome visitors. Having opened his red brick and brownstone home as a gallery, even as his family still lived there, his drawing reflects a grand plan, a structure much more like the classical-style exhibition spaces of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Phillips’s dream museum would include a garden with arched cloister, a theater, a terrace over looking the city, and a majestic corridor to feature the monumental works of Augustus Vincent Tack. The site he selected was a short walk up Connecticut Avenue from his 21st Street house (space currently occupied by the Washington Hilton.) But after reflecting on his goals for the Phillips Memorial Gallery, as it was then called, he decided that the domestic setting was essential for encouraging contemplation, slow looking, and dialogs between seemingly disparate works. (Financial climates also played a part in his decision.)

Our museum has expanded in many ways, both during Phillips’s lifetime and since. With the relocation of the Barnes Foundation, an institution thought to be intrinsically bound to not only its location but its original installation, I think it has been shown that expanding and building are simply facts of life for museums.

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