By MARSHA MERCER
James Phillips was 34 when he perished in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, just 13 months after his father suddenly died. James’s younger brother, Duncan, 32, was devastated.
“There came a time when sorrow all but overwhelmed me,” Duncan Phillips later wrote. “Then I turned to my love of painting for the will to live.”
In his grief, Phillips resolved to create a memorial worthy of his brother and father, who enjoyed collecting art. He would create a small museum that featured the “art of our best men…open at all times to the people of Washington and the strangers within our gates,” he wrote a friend.
Using his inheritance – his maternal grandfather was a co-founder of the Jones and Laughlin Steel Co. -- Phillips opened his gallery dedicated to modern art in his family’s mansion near Dupont Circle in 1921.
He devoted his life to the project. When he died of a heart attack at 79 in 1966, Phillips had a collection of nearly 2,000 paintings, 1,400 by American artists. The most famous painting is “Luncheon of the Boating Party” by Renoir, an early acquisition for $100,000. Phillips left us one of the nation’s finest private museums.
His life, like that of many other 20th century philanthropists, has largely faded from most Americans’ memory. Now, however, The Phillips Collection’s “Made in the USA” exhibit freshens the story of his extraordinary role as a patron of the arts -- and not a moment too soon.
There’s much concern in the art world about whether the next generation will support art museums the way their predecessors did. As boomers leave the stage, museums worry how to appeal to digital-centric young benefactors. The young also seem more drawn to solve social problems than to support the arts. Phillips was willing to wait for history to judge whether his paintings were great art. Millennials like to see immediate results of their contributions.
And then there’s the moral question. Say you have $100,000 to give. Which is the better use of your $100,000 donation: your local art museum for a new wing to better display its collection or a group working to reduce trachoma, an eye disease that affects children in developing countries and leads to blindness?
That is the provocative question posed by Peter Singer, a bioethics professor at Princeton, in an op-ed last year in The New York Times. It’s hard to argue with Singer’s conclusion that the health expenditure leads to a bigger improvement in the lives of those affected.
And yet, people give with their hearts, not just their heads. Phillips had a personal connection with art; he and his brother had begun to collect paintings and to advise their parents on purchases. He knew that visiting an art museum nourishes and expands our human spirit and inspires us to think beyond ourselves.
“Art offers two great gifts of emotion—the emotion of recognition and the emotion of escape. Both emotions take us out of the boundaries of self,” Phillips wrote.
Phillips took a leap of faith, opening his gallery before American art and modern art were appreciated. The Phillips opened before both the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
Phillips bought and exhibited paintings by little-known artists, often giving a young painter his first museum show. (Yes, they were mostly men.) He also supported struggling artists with annual stipends, including Arthur G. Dove, who wrote Phillips: “You have no idea what sending on those checks means to me at this time…It has been marvelous.”
“Made in the USA” includes more than 200 works by 120 American artists, including Thomas Eakins, Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper, John Marin and Georgia O’Keeffe. It reflects Phillips’ determination to be a “beneficent force in the community where I live” because “art is part of the social purpose of the world.”
If you can’t stop by the exhibit before it ends Aug. 31, visit the Phillips website, www.phillipscollection.org. I’d love to hear what you think.
© 2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.