Women of Influence
Elmira Bier, Minnie Byers, and Marjorie Phillips
Women of Influence: Elmira Bier, Minnie Byers, and Marjorie Phillips examines the critical role that each woman played in the day to day activities of The Phillips Collection over six decades.
Elmira Bier, who graduated from Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland, was Duncan Phillips’s executive assistant from 1923 to 1972. Fiercely protective of Phillips’s time, Bier took on many responsibilities, including serving as the first director of the music program, beginning in 1941. Despite her lack of formal training, Bier quickly established a widely acclaimed concert series that highlighted new performers and innovative music, which paralleled Phillips’s support of contemporary art. An article about Bier’s role at the Phillips stated that “she ran the place.”
Minnie Byers was a powerful executive before women played that role. With a background in in business and knowledge about the stock market, she saved Phillips from the crash of 1929 by advising him to put his money in real estate. She started working for the Phillipses in 1918, initially providing financial advice to Duncan’s mother and later becoming treasurer of the museum. Byers commented, “I have a problem with Duncan. I can’t tell him how much money we have. He’ll go and spend it on works of art.” She warned Phillips not to pay too much for art, saying, “I invested their money wisely.” Byers retired in 1963.
Marjorie Phillips (1894–1985), a painter who studied at the Art Students League in New York, was integral to the formation of The Phillips Collection. She became co-founder of the museum following her marriage to Duncan Phillips in 1921. Duncan relied on his wife’s artistic insight in making acquisitions. Marjorie gradually took on more responsibility for exhibitions in the 1960s as Duncan’s health declined. Despite her many obligations as director after Duncan’s death in 1966, Marjorie stated, “I was happy as long as I had some time to paint every day.”