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Today, after nearly 30 years on the job and 40 years in the business the Phillips Collection’s chief curator, Eliza Rathbone, will step down from her day-to-day duties. It seems she’s not going far, however: She tells Arts Desk she’s already working on her next project for the museum. We chatted about the Phillips’ expansion, Rathbone’s family legacy of art curation, and the pieces she wishes the Phillips would acquire.
Your retirement announcement caught me by surprise. Why now?
Well, I’ve done a series of exhibitions in recent years: Morandi, Degas, Snapshot, Van Gogh, and so forth. It’s been exciting and very intensive and they are done. So I finally had a lull and a chance to look up from these expansive projects and realize that it’s a good moment in my life to take a breather and change the pace.
You’ll be taking the title of chief curator emerita at the Phillips. Is this like pope emeritus? Will you live as a recluse in a secluded villa somewhere, or will we see you around?
Oh you’ll see me around! I love the Phillips Collection and I love Washington much too much to give either up completely. In fact, I will be starting work on a project for the Phillips, an exhibition around “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” which is projected for 2017.
What else do you plan to do now that you might actually have some free time?
Well, I’m going to spend time at my house on the North Shore of Massachusetts, do some writing, and most importantly, of course, see more of my children and my grandbabies…just have more of a choice in how I spend my time.
Tell me about how the Phillips Collection has changed over your 30-year tenure.
The changes have been amazing. It has never stopped evolving and expanding its resources and outreach. For example, when I came, the expanded annex was still in the works. There was no proper storage, no proper conservation on the premises…Those things were achieved in 1989. More recently, the new Sant Building was completed, and along with those two expansions have come amazing strides forward. Much more ambitious exhibitions and what-have-you that could only have been achieved because of those expansions.
It’s no longer simply that charming little museum with the famous Renoir.
I suppose that’s true. But hopefully the Phillips will never get too big. Part of its beauty and its charm is the intimacy and informality that Mr. Phillips wanted you to experience. Some people come specifically to see “Luncheon of the Boating Party” and always will—-we get several calls every day about it—-but some guests do discover it here, not even knowing we had it.
I heard a great anecdote about that painting. Dr. Alfred Barnes, of Barnes Foundation fame, was visiting the Phillips and said something to Duncan Phillips to the effect of: “Shame this the only Renoir you have,” to which Phillips shot back, “This, my friend, is the only Renoir I’ll ever need.”
Exactly! That’s a great story, isn’t it? And to this day, it’s the only painting by Renoir in the Phillips Collection. But of course, the other side of that coin, is that Phillips knew that the people would come to his museum to see it. And that made him happy, not only because it was a great painting, but because he wanted them to come and see all of the other wonderful things that he had acquired by artists he passionately believed in.
Rathbones have been curating major American art collections since around 1940, right? Starting with your father Perry? Or does it go back even further than that?
Yes, it starts with my father in our family, who became director of the [St. Louis Art Museum] in July 1940. He was 29 when he walked in for his first day on the job. My siblings and I certainly grew up in that world, going to museums all the time and so forth. Of course, I couldn’t have imagined that I would be so fortunate to have a great job opportunity starting at the National Gallery just before the East Wing opened and then moving on to the Phillips. I’ve been part of these institutions at major turning points in their history, and I’m just so lucky. And it really did sort of become the family business: My brother Peter spent his career at Sotheby’s and became head of American paintings there. My sister Belinda is a writer and has, in fact, just finished a book about my father, which is due out in October.
Growing up with your father, did you meet any particularly notable artists?
Although I met many famous artists growing up, I suppose I would have to say that one that has stayed with me especially is Henry Moore. I met him at his home in England with my father. We saw works-in-progress and maquettes and also his own personal collection—-bones and shells and a beautiful Italian sculpture—-that he had in his house. He was such a delightful man, easy to talk to and with a wonderful sense of humor. I also met Alexander Calder with my father in New York. They were great friends.
You’ve worked with some greats as well.
Well, when I first came to the Phillips my first project was Susan Rothenberg. I came in March, and there was to be a Rothenberg exhibition in September, and it was my baby. And I’d never met her before, so I went to meet her first in New York at her gallery, and then I went up to Sag Harbor where she was summering at the time. Turns out, she is a very delightful person with a great sense of humor. This little house she was renting at the time had a pool and she asked if I’d like to jump in, to which I replied I didn’t have a swimsuit with me. And she says “Oh, well that doesn’t matter.” We just had a lot of fun. She’s a wonderful artist, of course, and a wonderful human being. It was a great way to start my time at the Phillips.
I love that. I picked up a copy of a book about Duncan Phillips and the collection written years ago by his wife Marjorie following his death. There’s excerpts of some fascinating correspondence in it between Mr. Phillips and your father. Phillips was asking him for advice about the collection before you were even born! So they were acquainted?
Yes, they were! Of course, I never met Mr. Phillips, or Marjorie Phillips, for that matter, but it’s so lovely and there definitely was a mutual admiration between the two men. My father was younger than Duncan by a fair amount, so I think he looked at what he was doing with great admiration. They also shared multiple enthusiasms…my father loved Nicolas De Stael, loved Paul Klee, and other artists that particularly enchanted Mr. Phillips. And then later, when my father was at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, he worked with Marjorie on a great Cezanne exhibition in 1971, around the 50th anniversary of the Phillips Collection, and that was a Boston-Phillips Collection-Chicago exhibition. It was a really great exhibition.
So your father lived to see you become chief curator at Phillips, then?
Yes, he sure did. He was thrilled about it.
I got to watch you up close while you were putting together the acclaimed “Van Gogh: Repetitions” show. I could not believe the work that went into making that happen. Being a chief curator requires a lot more than being really smart about art, right? What would you say to a young person with visions of a curatorial career dancing in his or her head?
You’ve got to have a real passion for it. You must find the whole process, which can take years, to be stimulating. There are lots of surprises, lots of searching for things you never find (and things you do find, which is always thrilling) but the ability and willingness to research and work is critical. Being a curator requires the ability to do many things: You acquire work; you are charged with their care and preservation; you have to work with conservators on how it is cared for…you get into a rich environment that really draws on every skill you have. It’s both solitary and collaborative. It’s an incredible world to be a part of.
Tell me about some of your favorite paintings.
Oh wow…Well, I have so many favorites in the Phillips Collection that that is still an almost impossible question. I know that sometimes I focus on a pastel by Degas called “After the Bath.” It’s just a magical work. A tour de force. Breathtaking. It hardly ever leaves the Phillips Collection, as it is really one of the true treasures of the place. The two works by Matisse in our collection are just great, and whenever they are not here, it feels as if one of the pillars of the building itself is missing.
If there is one painting out there that you feel really belongs in the Phillips Collection that’s not there, what would that be?
Christian! This is an even harder question! Oh goodness.
OK, I’ll stop.
Well, OK, wait. There’s no Pissarro in the Phillips Collection. Such a wonderful artist who was so supportive of his fellows and taught them so much. And the only Seurat in the collection is a small, early painting. So I’m just very conscious of those absences. But I think it would be fabulous if we had a Van Gogh self-portrait. Would it not? Or a great Cezanne self-portrait…and then…the only thing that would be missing is what Duncan Phillips always was searching for but never got for his collection, which was a great Rembrandt, and I think he was thinking self-portrait there. Because, you know, he really cared about sources of inspiration to more recent artists.
I’m glad that you wont be disappearing entirely. Has your successor been announced, by the way?
No; I don’t think the museum is looking to hire a chief curator, per se…the Phillips is well prepared to carry on with wonderful shows, and I’ll be very much involved in its future—-just in a slightly new capacity.
Top photo by Eric Kelley. Third photo by D.C. Janssens.