America's First Museum of Modern Art


Duncan Phillips (1886‒1966) was the younger son of Major Duncan Phillips, a Pittsburgh businessman and Civil War veteran, and Eliza Laughlin Phillips, whose father was a banker and co-founder of the Jones and Laughlin steelworks. He moved with his family to Washington in 1895. 

Duncan Phillips was very close to his older brother, Jim, with whom he graduated from Yale in 1908. Duncan wrote extensively on art and published his first book, The Enchantment of Art, in 1914. He and Jim also collected works of art, obtaining a collecting allowance from their parents in 1916.

His father's death in 1917 and Jim's death from influenza in 1918 were stunning blows to Duncan Phillips. He and his mother responded by founding the museum, originally called the Phillips Memorial Art Gallery. “Sorrow all but overwhelmed me,” he later wrote. "Then I turned to my love of painting for the will to live."

Phillips married artist Marjorie Acker in October 1921, just before the museum opened, and the two worked closely together. Over the years, Phillips continued to write about art, build strong relationships with artists as patron and collector, present numerous exhibitions, and frequently rearrange works of art in the galleries. He served as the museum's director until his death in 1966.

Duncan Phillips's wife, Marjorie Acker Phillips (1894–1985), was both an artist and her husband's partner in developing The Phillips Collection. Brought up in New York state, she studied at the Art Students League, requiring her to travel daily from Ossining to New York City.

In 1920, Marjorie met Duncan Phillips at a New York exhibition of his collection. They married in 1921, not long before The Phillips Collection opened. Marjorie Phillips painted almost every morning, running the household and assisting with the collection the rest of the day. She was the museum's associate director from 1925 until her husband's death in 1966, when she became the director. The couple's son, Laughlin, succeeded her in 1972.

Marjorie Phillips's works were exhibited at the Phillips and other galleries. Her painting Night Baseball, which depicts Joe DiMaggio at bat against the Washington Senators in 1951, became something of a local icon after the Senators left in 1971. "They can take away the team," wrote the Washington Post in 1985, "but they haven't been able to take away the painting."

Duncan Phillips originally exhibited his collection in special galleries at his family home, an 1897 Georgian Revival house in Washington's Dupont Circle neighborhood. Over time, the building was adapted to include more galleries and offices, particularly after the Phillips family moved out in 1930.

In 1960, Phillips added a modernist wing to the Phillips house. This addition, now known as the Goh Annex, was renovated, reconceived, and expanded in 1989 through a major gift from Japanese businessman Yasuhiro Goh.

The Phillips completed a large renovation and expansion project in 2006 that incorporates an adjacent former apartment building, now the Sant Building. The project, which placed 65 percent of the added 30,000 square feet below ground, includes additional galleries, a 180-seat auditorium, a library, an outdoor courtyard, an art conservation studio, and an expanded visitor entrance, shop, and café. The enclosed Hunter Courtyard offers visitors a place to talk or reflect and includes art by Ellsworth Kelly, Barbara Hepworth, and Regina Pilawuk Wilson.

The University of Maryland Center for Art and Knowledge at The Phillips Collection is based in the remodeled Carriage House, located directly behind the main museum building. 

The oak-paneled Music Room (originally a library built in 1907 for Duncan and his brother when they were students at Yale University) on the first floor of the original house functions as gallery space as well as an intimate setting for concerts and other events. 

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