Dani Levinas is very proud of his Georgetown house, so much so that he’ll gladly welcome anyone who wants to see it. The moment you walk in, he starts talking about the history, the architect that created one large space out of two rowhouses, and a mysterious brick wall in the backyard that never seemed to have served any purpose. And then there’s the art. So much art. It’s everywhere: on the walls, hanging from the ceilings, arranged on the floor in the living room, atop the dining room table, in the yard. Levinas lives surrounded by works created by leading contemporary artists—people like Yayoi Kusama and Bernardi Roig. He especially likes collecting works by artists from Latin America, especially his native Argentina.
Although Levinas is known in art circles for his extensive collection, many D.C. residents first heard his name in connection to the Institute for Contemporary Expression, a kunsthalle that was supposed to open in the long-abandoned Franklin School building downtown, before the whole project was unceremoniously scrapped by then-newly elected mayor Muriel Bowser in 2015. Although the Franklin School stays empty, Levinas has moved on.
In June, Levinas was elected board chairman at the Phillips Collection. He invited Washington City Paper to his house to show off his prized artworks and talk about his longstanding connections to the D.C. art scene, the role of contemporary art at the Phillips, and what’s missing from the city’s museums.
Washington City Paper: Why did you start collecting art?
Dani Levinas: Collectors sometimes have the need to collect. You don’t decide you’re going to be a collector; you start buying and then you become a collector. I think I started collecting stamps before I started collecting art, because you can have a little bit of art in stamps, and you can buy a lot of stamps for very little money.
I was always interested in art. I studied art when I was young. I painted, and my brother Gaby had a very important art gallery in Buenos Aires, called Arte Multiple. It’s a gallery that started showing artists who now are very famous. My family was always involved with the arts. I started collecting when I was 22. I’ve been collecting for a long time.
WCP: You’ve been the chairman of the board at the Phillips Collection since June. What drew you to the position? And what have you been working on over the summer?
DL: I’ve been getting to know people who work at the Phillips, talking to the heads of different departments, other board members, and of course Dorothy Kosinski, the director, to learn more about the inside of what’s going on at the Phillips, anywhere from the financial to the art and the curators. I have been learning and listening, and I’ll do this for at least another four or five months before I can come up with some conclusions.
The reason I decided to accept this position was because this is one of the museums that I really enjoy the most. Even before I moved to Washington, when I was living in Argentina, I used to come to Washington for business at least once a year or every two years, and this was one of the museums that I enjoyed visiting. When we moved to Washington, I used to take my kids there, and now I take my grandkids there.
The Phillips is a beautiful museum. You can tell that it was a private collection, that somebody started this collection for himself and then decided to share it with the public. It’s like a house, like a home. I enjoy that, and I understand why Duncan Phillips did what he did. I’ve always had a connection to the Phillips one way or another—we’ve lent works to the collection, participated many times in their discussions, had dinners for the artists that were showing at the museum. So I’ve always been connected. I’ve known Dorothy for some time, and I admire her and think she’s doing a fantastic job at the museum. That’s why when I was offered this opportunity, I immediately said yes.
WCP: What’s your historical involvement in the D.C. art scene?
DL: When we moved to Washington in the 1980s, I started going to the museums and art galleries, trying to meet artists from the area. I got to know some of the artists, like Peter Charles and Bill Willis. I got to know the curators of the different museums, and I got involved with the Phillips and the Hirshhorn. I became very good friends with Olga Viso, who used to be the curator and then the director of the Hirshhorn. Many years later, they invited me to be on the board of the Hirshhorn, so I was on the board for five years. I resigned a little bit more than a year ago.
WCP: You were the mastermind behind the Institute of Contemporary Expression. Obviously it’s not going to be at the Franklin School, but is that an idea you still hope will someday become a reality?
DL: A lot of people ask me that question, and I say that good dreams never die. I don’t know if it’s going to happen, or if it’s going to happen the same way that I thought. I think something like that would be great in Washington, because there’s nothing like it here. This would have been a museum without a collection, showing contemporary and emerging art and big installations in big spaces. I think there is a need for that. It’s an idea that’s still floating there, and hopefully somebody will do it.
WCP: But you’re not actively trying to find a new space for it.
DL: No, because I’m totally committed to the Phillips now.
WCP: What did you learn from your experience with the Institute of Contemporary Expression that you can bring to your new position at the Phillips?
DL: The most important thing I learned is that there is more enthusiasm in the community for these types of exhibitions than I expected. The Phillips has a collection, and that collection is the most important thing in the museum, but if we can do a combination of showing contemporary art with the collection, then that’s great. There is a program at the museum called Intersections, that curator Vesela Sretenović puts together, and she’s already doing that. Intersections has done some fantastic shows, and that will continue and maybe even become bigger. There is a lot of dialogue between new art and the art that is already in the collection. I think that’s important.
You have to remember that Duncan Phillips was collecting contemporary art, and if you look at the time that he bought a certain painting and when the painting was done, it was two or three years later, so that was contemporary. If he were alive today, he would be buying contemporary art for his collection.
WCP: What do you think is missing from D.C.’s contemporary art scene?
DL: Museums in Washington don’t go into much art from Latin America. I would like to see more of that here. I think that the public needs to understand that contemporary Latin American art today is at the international level, same as what happened with Chinese art, and it’s happening now with African art. You see more and more contemporary African art in museums, and people are talking about it. I saw yesterday that a very important award in New York was given to an African artist from Zimbabwe. That’s good, because we’re used to always seeing the same kind of thing. I think the more we can show the public the better.
WCP: What about the Art Museum of the Americas? Although they seem to focus on political art…
DL: That museum is funded by the OAS (Organization of American States), so they don’t have a lot of money. It’s a nice building, but it was not built as a museum, so it’s not an easy place to work. They are doing as much as they can with the small budget they have.
There is a lot of contemporary Latin American art that is political, and the reason is because people are suffering for political reasons, and they express it through art. Not all the art is like that, and some countries are better than others, but there is always a political component.
WCP: Do you hope to one day, like Duncan Phillips, open your own museum for your collection?
DL: Wouldn’t that be something. I’m not at the same level as Duncan Phillips. He was buying really good and important works and he became very important himself. Hopefully my collection will be that way, too, but I don’t think about it. I really don’t.
My way of showing my collection is to invite as many people as possible to see it in my home. We’ve had visitors from museums in Europe, all over the United States, Latin America, and groups of collectors. They get my name and they call me, and if I’m here, I open the door. I enjoy them seeing the collection as much as I enjoy expanding the collection.