The Phillips Collection
You might think that America’s first museum of modern art graces New York or perhaps Chicago. But an elegant venue near D.C.’s Dupont Circle claims that distinction. Beloved for both its artwork and its atmosphere, The Phillips Collection (page 18) was founded in 1921 by Duncan Phillips. A published art critic, he collaborated with his wife, painter Marjorie Acker, to acquire works that were considered quite daring at the time and display them in a public gallery within their 1897 Georgian Revival mansion (above, middle). By 1930, the collection had grown so much in size and popularity that the couple moved out and transformed the entire residence into a museum.
Now it has more than 4,000 works of modern and contemporary European and American art—think van Gogh, Cezanne, Bonnard, Picasso, Homer, Hopper and O’Keeffe—on rotating display throughout the mansion and two later additions. Enter into the Goh Annex, and pick up a map in the lobby. Then head up the curved staircase to the second floor’s Rothko Room (above, right), which opened in 1960 as the first public space devoted to the artist’s work. Phillips collaborated with Rothko on its design, an intimate gallery with one large painting on each wall and a wooden bench in the middle. The saturated colors—ochre, red, green, tangerine—seem to fill the space and stir the emotions.
In another room nearby, find the museum’s most famous work, and one that’s been the backdrop for a few marriage proposals: Renoir’s luminous “Luncheon of the Boating Party” (above, with the Phillips circa 1954). The cell phone audio tour (look for the symbol next to many of the artworks) reveals fascinating details like the fact that Renoir included his future wife, Aline, and the artist Gustave Caillebotte in the scene.
Next, enter the mansion by heading down a set of stairs, past stained glass windows, and into the grand oak-paneled Music Room. A piano sits at the ready for Sunday concerts (October–May) and the popular Phillips After 5, a monthly gathering with music, drinks, gallery talks and themed activities. Continue through the mansion’s foyer and into rooms with bay windows and tiled fireplaces that make an elegant setting for paintings like Degas’ “Dancers at the Barre,” van Gogh’s “The Road Menders” and Homer’s “Girl with Pitchfork.”
Because curators regularly mount special exhibitions and rotate art from the permanent collection, no two visits here are the same. The staff also continues Phillips’ penchant for displaying works of different periods and styles together to spark “visual conversations” and his affinity for the experimental. In 2013, they debuted the Laib Wax Room, a small chamber with walls of fragrant beeswax. For a meditative experience, try the room’s “contemplation” audio tour. Then peek into the first floor’s sculpture-adorned courtyard, and make a final stop at the gift shop for artful souvenirs like prints and magnets of your favorite works.