The Phillips Collection ought to be having a moment. On any given day, the museum’s selection of works by the likes of Georgia O’Keeffe and Arthur Dove make it an essential destination in the District. Late in February, the museum opened an especially challenging exhibit, one that traces the complex exchanges between European artists who looked to Africa for visual inspiration and the African American artists who engaged with these appropriated ideas from Europe. The Washington Post critic Philip Kennicott called the show “absorbing.”
Two weeks into the run of Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition, however, the coronavirus pandemic forced the Phillips Collection to temporarily shutter. Kennicott’s review ran just two days before the museum suspended operations on March 14. Another exhibit, featuring trenchant abstractions by Moira Dryer, ended in April behind closed doors. So will Riffs and Relations.
This fall, the Phillips Collection was planning to open a major exhibition on Picasso with the Art Gallery of Ontario—a prelude to a year of festivities at the museum. That show has been put on hold indefinitely. In fact, the Dupont Circle museum has canceled or postponed all exhibits, performances, and programs, though they may resume if it can reopen this year. Now, the Phillips Collection is weighing even harder decisions.
“We had to start with pay cuts,” says Dorothy Kosinski, the director and CEO of the Phillips Collection. “I led out the door with that, for me and my leadership team. Then we started with furloughs of part-time people.”
Next year is a mile-marker for the Phillips Collection: The museum celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2021. No other modern art museum in America can boast a centennial. Yet in the run-up to its long-anticipated birthday party, the Phillips Collection is cutting salary and hours for staff and furloughing other workers.
Making these decisions has been emotionally challenging, Kosinski says. She declined to answer how many staff members at the Phillips Collection have been furloughed, noting that the board is making decisions on an ongoing basis. “I’m working closely with trustee leadership so that we make smart decisions that will ensure the long-term health of our organization,” she says.
Many of Washington’s most beloved museums are guaranteed by the federal government. Art museums on the National Mall, including the Hirshhorn National Museum of Modern Art and the National Gallery of Art, have not yet made any staff reductions. All of them are suffering a loss of revenue from theaters, shops, and cafeterias—but their workers are safe, so far.
Smaller and local museums in D.C. that don’t have that federal backstop have had to make difficult calls. The National Museum of Women in the Arts, for example, has laid off workers in security, operations, facility rentals, and the museum gift shop. Most of the museum’s staff are able to work remotely, though, and the museum hasn’t canceled any exhibitions to date. Right now, the National Museum of Women in the Arts is pouring its energy into its virtual presentation, NMWA @Home.
Glenstone, the contemporary art museum in Potomac, is still sorting out its online offerings. While the private museum and its grounds are closed for the foreseeable future, Glenstone is still paying all its staff their regular salaries. The Kreeger Museum, a modern collection in D.C.’s Foxhall neighborhood, didn’t respond to questions about its status.
Downtown, the National Building Museum planned to reopen on March 13 following a three-month closure for renovations. That didn’t happen. Now, plans for the museum’s big summer spectacular are up in the air. Shakespeare’s Playhouse, a collaboration with the Folger Shakespeare Library and the University of South Carolina, is still tentatively scheduled to run from July 4 to Sept. 7. Prospects for seeing A Midsummer Night’s Dream inside the museum’s extravagant great hall this summer are diminishing.
Earlier this month, the Building Museum launched its Resilience Campaign, an effort to raise $100,000 by the end of May to support its operations. “We have definitely taken a financial hit,” says Chase Rynd, the museum’s executive director.
When the shutdown order in D.C. finally lifts, museums will have to scramble to sort out new calendars. Exhibitions take years of planning, especially big shows that feature works borrowed from other institutions. “Even just doing shipments—the kind of freight and movement and people and objects involved is going to be complicated for a good long time,” Kosinski says.
Logistics could hamper some of the Phillips Collection’s plans for its centennial. The museum is the last stop for Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle, a traveling exhibition organized by the Peabody Essex Museum. (It’s there now, behind closed doors, through April 26.) The show assembles 23 rarely reunited panels that Jacob Lawrence painted on the Revolutionary War; at the Phillips, they will join paintings from Lawrence’s masterpiece, The Migration Series, starting in June. A retrospective on Washington Color School artist Alma Thomas, another important exhibition, is scheduled to land at the Phillips in the fall.
“We still hope and intend to do these projects,” Kosinski says.
Otherwise, the museum’s plans for next year are still in the works. One project will focus on the museum’s growing contemporary art collection. While the museum has acquired new artworks for decades, in more recent years it has sought to prioritize artworks by women and artists of color. With a discretionary fund established in 2015 specifically for this purpose, the museum has purchased works by Zilia Sánchez, McArthur Binion, Alejandro Pintado, Simone Leigh, and others. The Phillips Collection has looked to local and D.C.–born artists, too, with acquisitions of works by Nara Park, Renée Stout, John Edmonds, and Sam Gilliam.
Right now, Kosinski says that she’s meeting constantly (virtually) with her board and senior staff to go over the museum’s short-term, medium-term, and long-term budget. Charting the course is painful work, she says, because she doesn’t have answers yet for furloughed workers. She never anticipated the possibility that the museum would spend much of its 99th year closed.
“The way things are, it’s so fluid. Five days ago I would have said something different,” Kosinski says. She adds, “I have every hope and determination that we’re going to have a wonderful celebration of the 100th anniversary of America’s first museum of modern art.”
Her focus is on making sure that staff can come back once the lockdown is over. To that end, the museum has launched a fund to support its workers and programs going forward. The museum is calling it the Sun After the Rain Fund, named after a painting by Marjorie Phillips, who founded the museum with her husband Duncan Phillips.
“It’s been so mind-imploding to pivot on a dime from how we’re going to celebrate to the next week when we’re closed and the world is falling apart,” she says.
This is not the first time that the Phillips Collection has faced an uncertain stretch even during Kosinski’s tenure. She came to the museum in 2008, when the Great Recession made fundraising and other nonprofit operations almost impossible. She says she is prepared to weather another storm. “I walked through the door in a crisis.”