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November 3, 2008


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By Karin Tanabe for Bisnow on Business

From New York to Basel to Dallas and finally to Washington, the Phillips Collection’s new director Dorothy Kosinski is known in the art world as an exhibit maker. Leaving traces all over the globe of international exhibits and scholarly catalogues from the 19th to the 21st century, she comes to Washington ready to continue and expand on Duncan Phillips’ vision of art as a universal language.


At the helm of the Phillips since May 1, Kosinski served as a curator at the Dallas Museum of Art for the last 13 years. With a PhD in art history from NYU, Kosinski, a modernist art scholar, is leading a museum with an operating budget of about $12 million. Noted for a diverse collection, which includes works by Degas, Rothko, Bonnard, and Picasso, not to mention Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, a common misconception about the Phillips is that, as it has a personal name, Duncan Phillips left a large endowment. Instead, the maverick art collector spent all his money amassing over 2000 works. “For an institution of our size, we should have an endowment of $150 million. We have one of $18 million,” says the director. “Considering that, it’s amazing what this place has been able to do. We have to raise 92 cents out of every dollar.”


In the last few years, the museum opened the Center for the Study of Modern Art, expanded with the new Sant building, and unveiled its first auditorium. “Duncan Phillips was a radical pioneer collector,” says Kosinski. “He was very interested in the young artists of his time and called the Phillips an experiment station.” The Center for the Study of Modern Art is the museum’s black box theater. “It’s our incubator,” says Kosinski of the forum that serves the conversation of contemporary art. “It brings people from far-flung corners and gives them a setting. They’re hungry for it. Our last symposium was standing room only.”


Blending in perfectly with the houses on 21st Street, the museum is different from the large steel and glass IM Pei-designed museums we have grown accustomed to, Kosinski says. “It’s intimate, but that doesn’t mean small.” And small was certainly not the way that Duncan Phillips collected, and it is not the way Kosinski sees the world either. “I want our collection and the Center for Modern Art to be the arena for the most forward thinking,” she says.  “Mondrian, Kandinsky, Kupka, they were all Utopian idealists who thought art could change the world. In DC, art is one of the safe conversations that can transcend the vituperative exchanges that surround us.” But like anything, it takes a village, or in this case, a city. Kosinski hopes to double, triple, even quadruple the museum’s endowment in the next five to ten years. 

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