Extreme Makeover: Museum Edition


Great museums are living institutions. They grow by acquiring quality art consonant with their own (think of the Met in New York), or reshape themselves for greater access (think of the Louvre and I. M. Pei’s pyramid). Those that aspire to achieve greatness sometimes emphasize presentation at the risk of neglecting content (think of Richard Meier’s Getty or Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao).

In 1921, when Washington, D.C.’s, Duncan Phillips and his wife Marjorie Aker opened their 1897 Georgian-revival home as a museum dedicated to “modern art and its sources”-the first museum of modern art in America-it could scarcely have been considered great. Yet, in that “golden age of American collecting,” when, as Lawrence Gowing has written, “a considerable part of the fortunes like those of Morgan, Altman, and Frick were being invested in great masterpieces,” Phillips (1866-1966) was a serious collector of contemporary American painting and later of modern Europeans. After the deaths of his father in 1917 and his brother the following year, Phillips had the idea of a memorial gallery that would be “a beneficent force in the community where I live-a joy-giving, life-enhancing influence, assisting people to see beautifully as true artists see.”

Phillips envisioned “an American Prado” (that most national of museums), filled with “nothing but the best.” The enterprise was blessed by his remarkably independent vision...

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About the Author


Leo J. O’Donovan, SJ, a frequent contributor to Commonweal, is president emeritus of Georgetown University.