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One of Washington, D.C.'s most beloved museums turns 90 this year. The Phillips Collection calls itself America's first museum of modern art. Founder Duncan Phillips was an early collector of Picasso, Matisse and Van Gogh. The Phillips was the first to buy a Georgia O'Keeffe. In fact, the Phillips' anniversary slogan is Ninety Years of New.

NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg has a personal take on the 19th century mansion-turned-museum.

SUSAN STAMBERG: In 1962, as newlyweds and new Washingtonians, my husband and I would stroll down Connecticut Avenue to the Phillips on Sunday afternoons, arrange ourselves on a brocade love seat, light up cigarettes and read The New York Times, looking up from time to time at a Matisse or a Manet. It was like visiting a really rich friend with fabulous taste and a collector's eye.

Duncan Phillips great-niece, Alice Phillips Swistel, remembers making similar visits as a child, although she didn't smoke. Uncle Duncan once came into the nursery where Alice was playing.

Ms. ALICE PHILLIPS SWISTEL: And he sat and watched me blow soap bubbles -bubbles, because he just loved the color of the bubbles, floating. And I thought that's very unusual for an adult to want to sit here and not even talk.

STAMBERG: He was unusual. He loved to look and to buy what he loved. Phillips Director Dorothy Kosinski says Duncan Phillips looked with his eyes and his heart.

Ms. DOROTHY KOSINSKI (Director, Phillips Collection): It was never about trophies. I don't think he really thought in those terms. There was a sense of a love affair that Phillips looks at this and says, oh, my God. I've got to have this.

STAMBERG: The Phillips Collection was created from tragedy. In 1917, Duncan buried his father. A year later, his beloved brother died. In his grief, he decided their memorial would be a museum, free and open to the public. He put artworks on view in his own home.

Alice Phillips Swistel.

Ms. SWISTEL: He decided that art, for him, was a way to pull out of depression and to stimulate his love of life and ideas and thinking.

STAMBERG: Since then, many have found strength, as well as beauty, at Duncan Phillips' museum. I went there right after 9/11 to be surrounded, in the midst of all that horror and confusion, by some eternals: Renoir's remarkable "Luncheon of the Boating Party," Goyas, Van Goghs, Cezannes - some comforts.

Mr. WILLIAM CHRISTENBERRY (Artist): Somebody once said the Phillips is like an easy armchair.

STAMBERG: Artist William Christenberry - the Phillips owns and shows his work. Christenberry loves the intimacy of the place, as do so many artists. Mark Rothko said it was his favorite museum.

Alfred Molina, who recently portrayed Rothko on Broadway in the play "Red," came to experience the painter here. Years ago, seeing Rothkos in London, Molina didn't get him.

Mr. ALFRED MOLINA (Actor): I thought, you know, okay. You know, they're a bit dark. They're a bit gloomy.

STAMBERG: Preparing to play Rothko, Molina read up on the painter and then visited the Phillips' Rothko Room, a small and silent space - simple wooden bench in the center, big, dark, glowing canvases on all four walls.

Mr. MOLINA: I found it very moving, looking at those paintings in that room, the sense of getting lost inside them. I found it very emotional.

STAMBERG: Just what Rothko wanted, says Alfred Molina.

Mr. MOLINA: He didn't want a room full of rational people saying, yes, oh, I like the way the blue turns into green. He wanted someone to be moved, to be, you know, to be changed by them.

STAMBERG: I'm here to stop your heart, says Rothko in the play. I'm not here to make pretty pictures. And in the Phillips' Rothko Room, actor Molina came to understand how to speak the line.

Another artist, author Julia Alvarez, found courage at the Phillips. You see how many connections people make there? At the age of 34 - divorced with no children, so a failure in her Dominican Republic culture - Alvarez had spent years as a struggling writer.

Ms. JULIA ALVAREZ (Author): In face, I called myself a migrant poet. I'd go anywhere where I got a job teaching poetry in the schools, in prisons, nursing homes, wherever.

STAMBERG: In 1984, she got a teaching and writing fellowship in Washington. Each day, on her way to school, she passed the Phillips. One day, Alvarez decided to go inside.

Ms. ALVAREZ: I went in there and I wandered into this big, wood-paneled room, and I fell in love.

STAMBERG: She spotted a small painting from 1894 by Pierre Bonnard called "The Circus Rider." See it at npr.org.

Ms. ALVAREZ: That little circus rider was on top of this horse that was such a powerful steed, that it was racing out of the canvas. The canvas cut it off at the neck.

STAMBERG: The rider, in her pink tights and short, white costume, lies on one hip along the horse's back. She is holding on, not exactly for dear life, but with great purpose. Behind her in the stands, some circus-goers all clad in black. To Julia Alvarez, they looked like judges, just waiting for the rider to lose her grip - but no.

Ms. ALVAREZ: She just stayed focused. She didn't look down, because she would get terrified if she did and fall off. She didn't look up at the figures of judgment, because she would've gotten scared that they were being critical of her. She just stayed focused. And I thought: She's telling me how to do this.

So all during that year, whenever I had to give a big reading, whenever I had to go in and teach a workshop, I'd drop in and get my little infusion of hope. And I really think she carried me through that year.

STAMBERG: Now a published, prize-winning author, Julia Alvarez returned to Washington recently and went back over to the Phillips. The museum had changed and grown since her last visit. There's an admission fee, plus several additions to Duncan Phillips' original home.

So Alvarez had to do some hunting before she found her circus rider once again. And when she did...

Ms. ALVAREZ: My eyes filled, and I said so here we are.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ALVAREZ: Here we are. And when no one was looking, I'll say this on Public Radio, I reached up and I touched the canvas.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STAMBERG: Julia Alvarez tells her students at Middlebury College about the Phillips Collection and its "Circus Rider." There's a great lesson in it, she says, that it's all about the work - not about what people might say, not about how dangerous it might get, but about staying focused on what you do and what you love.

Duncan Phillips lived that lesson, as he began giving beauty to the public 90 years ago. The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. remains a repository of lessons about beauty and generosity.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And this is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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