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Duncan Phillips married painter Marjorie Acker (1894-1985) in 1921, shortly before the museum opened, and she became his partner in developing The Phillips Collection. Born in Bourbon, Indiana, and raised in New York State, she was encouraged by her unclespainters Gifford and Reynolds Bealto pursue art; she studied at the Art Students League in New York City. Duncan and Marjorie met at an exhibition of his collection at The Century Club in New York in late 1920. After they were married, Marjorie painted almost every morning, ran the household, and served as Associate Director of the museum. She helped him gain insight into the artist’s process, and over the course of their lifetime together they collected nearly 2,500 works of art. When Duncan died in 1966, Marjorie became the museum director, continuing to develop close relationships with artists and the artistic community of DC. She held that position for six years. 

From the outset, the vision for The Phillips Collection was “an intimate museum combined with an experiment station.” As a collector, Duncan Phillips was noted for his willingness to deviate from the art museum standard of displaying works together based on shared nationality and geography, interpreting modernism as a dialogue between past and present. He collected the work of his contemporaries at a time when art that did not follow traditional, academic standards was not widely accepted as aesthetically and culturally valuable. This philosophy of taking risks allowed for Phillips to be the first to collect and exhibit artists who were not well known at the time, such as Milton Avery, Pierre Bonnard, Georges Braque, Jacob Lawrence, Grandma Moses, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Rufino Tamayo.

Their son, Laughlin (known as Loc) (1924-2010), succeeded Marjorie Phillips in 1972, serving as Director until 1992 and Chairman of the Board until 2002. Under his leadership, the museum underwent extraordinary growth and transformation; he turned his parents’ personal and original creation into a professional museum by creating a formal collection database, launching a membership program, and doubling the footprint of the Goh Annex to include a store room and a conservation studio, as well as increased gallery space. 

Charles Moffett, a renowned curator of French Impressionism, served as director from 1992-1998. Jay Gates served as director from 1998 to 2008, overseeing the major renovation that included the addition of the Sant Building. Gates established the Center for the Study of Modern Art in 2006, fulfilling a hope of Laughlin’s that the Phillips would create a scholarly center at the museum that would bring students, scholars, curators, critics, and artists together in shared conversation through lectures and informal talks as his father had always envisioned would become part of the Phillips’s educational program.

Under the directorship of Dorothy Kosinski since 2008, the Phillips has worked to diversify its collection, exhibitions, programs, and staff, notably hiring a full-time Chief Diversity Officer and expanding its collection and exhibitions to include more contemporary art and more works by women and people of color. The museum launched a major partnership with the University of Maryland in 2015 and opened a satellite campus in Southeast DC at the Town Hall Education and Recreation Campus (THEARC) in 2018. 

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An Intimate Museum

The Phillips family home, built in 1897, has been expanded to accommodate additional galleries, an auditorium, a library, a conservation studio, additional staff offices, a café, and a courtyard. 

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