The Phillips Collection, America's First Museum Of Modern Art, Turns 100 The Washington, D.C., gallery turns 100 this year. Susan Stamberg has fond memories of visiting back in the '60s: "It was like visiting a really rich uncle with fabulous taste and a collector's eye."
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Happy Birthday To The Phillips Collection, America's First Museum Of Modern Art

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Happy Birthday To The Phillips Collection, America's First Museum Of Modern Art

Happy Birthday To The Phillips Collection, America's First Museum Of Modern Art

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A hundred years ago, America's first museum of modern art opened in a private mansion here in Washington, D.C. Founder Duncan Phillips was an early collector of Picasso, Matisse, Van Gogh. The Phillips was the first to buy a Georgia O'Keeffe. And The Phillips is special correspondent Susan Stamberg's favorite.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Newly wed, new to Washington, most Sunday afternoons in 1962, Lou Stamberg and I would walk down a hill with coffee and the paper, arrange ourselves on one of the Phillips brocade love seats, look up at a Matisse or Manet and light our cigarettes. It was like visiting a really rich uncle with fabulous taste and a collector's eye and ashtrays. Duncan Phillips had money, taste and the generous heart to help others see beauty. He believed in the healing power of art. A hundred years later, that belief still holds.

DOROTHY KOSINSKI: I was standing out in front of The Phillips.

STAMBERG: Director Dorothy Kosinski.

KOSINSKI: And in the fall, when we were open for a while, a woman came out and exhaled and said, oh, that was such a wonderful vacation.

STAMBERG: From the pandemic, the economic stresses, the political upheavals - a chance to breathe. I went to The Phillips right after 9/11 to be surrounded in the midst of that horror and confusion by some eternals, Renoir's amazing "Luncheon Of The Boating Party," Cezannes, Van Goghs - some healing comforts. Kosinksi and her staff have brought The Phillips into the 21st century - new works by women, people of color, new media - video, LED, pop-up near Bonnard and El Greco and Jacob Lawrence. The museum owns half of the sixty panels in his "Great Migration" series. Collecting goes on, so the museum doesn't become, as Kosinki puts it, a nostalgia piece.

KOSINSKI: That was not what Duncan Phillips wanted.

STAMBERG: A few years before he died in 1966, Phillips was buying oils for his Rothko Room, a small, silent space with Mark Rothko's big, dark, glowing canvases on all four walls. Alfred Molina once played the painter on Broadway. Molina told me on NPR that he didn't get Rothko when he first saw them in London. Then he visited the Rothko Room at The Phillips.

ALFRED MOLINA: I found it very emotional.

STAMBERG: And the actor understood how to say the line, I'm here to stop your heart. I'm not here to make pretty pictures.

Well, The Phillips has lots of pretty pictures, too, that gleaming Renoir, the only painting I ever wanted to be in, full of sun-kissed friends and family, finishing lunch on a porch near the Seine. Duncan Phillips bought it two years after he opened the museum. He paid $125,000.

ELSA SMITHGALL: He knew it would draw people from far and wide...

STAMBERG: This is curator Elsa Smithgall.

SMITHGALL: ...To make the pilgrimage to come see it.

STAMBERG: It's the star of the exhibition "Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects For A New Century." The show, scheduled to open next month, skips through decades' worth of old and new masterpieces. One definition of a masterpiece - it speaks to the ages. Duncan Phillips created this museum of marvels from tragedy, the deaths of his father and brother. In his grief, he decided their memorial would be a museum, free, open to the public in his own home. He decided art was a way to pull out of his depression - again, creativity reaching our moods and hearts. The writer Julia Alvarez found courage at the Phillips. On NPR, she told me it happened when she was 34, divorced, a migrant poet, she said, on a fellowship in Washington. Stressed, strapped for money, nervous about teaching, she spotted a small 1894 Bonnard, "The Circus Rider." That gave her strength.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JULIA 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: Behind the rider, sitting in the stands, are figures in black watching, like judges to Alvarez, just waiting for the bareback rider to lose her grip. But no.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ALVAREZ: She just stayed focused. And I thought, she's telling me how to do this. So all during that year, 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: Much later, by then a prize-winning author, Julia Alvarez visited the painting again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ALVAREZ: My eyes filled. And I said, so here we are. Here we are. And when no one was looking - I'll say this on public radio - I reached up, and I touched the canvas (laughter).

STAMBERG: For a hundred years now, The Phillips Collection, this intimate, welcoming museum, has touched and animated and excited visitors with the power of art.

In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg.

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