Celebrating The Phillips Collection's 90th Birthday This year marks the 90th anniversary of The Phillips Collection, one of Washington D.C.'s premier art museums. Susan Stamberg reports on the man behind the museum, and what the space has meant to artists, writers and actors over time.
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Celebrating The Phillips Collection's 90th Birthday

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Celebrating The Phillips Collection's 90th Birthday

Celebrating The Phillips Collection's 90th Birthday

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

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

SUSAN STAMBERG: 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.

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.

DOROTHY KOSINSKI: 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: Alice Phillips Swistel.

PHILLIPS 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.

WILLIAM CHRISTENBERRY: Somebody once said the Phillips is like an easy armchair.

STAMBERG: 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.

ALFRED MOLINA: 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.

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.

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: 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.

JULIA ALVAREZ: 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.

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.

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.

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

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

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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: 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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