Over the past year, Elsa Smithgall and her colleagues at the Phillips Collection have gained new appreciation for founder Duncan Phillips’ decision to honor his father and brother by establishing an art-filled permanent memorial in the immediate wake of the world’s last pandemic, the 1918 influenza.
“Art can uplift the soul and can be a source of healing and connection, particularly after loss,” Smithgall says. “It’s a pretty amazing thing to be a museum that can actually speak to that from its own beginnings — truly, sincerely, bringing urgency to why Phillips wanted to open the doors to what was still his home at that time in 1921.”
A century later, a different pandemic has dramatically impacted what is now considered America’s first museum of modern art, ultimately helping to propel it forward into another century. The current pandemic also helped give shape to the museum’s centennial celebration.
“The pandemic and all the civil unrest and reckoning around systemic racism and upheaval prompted a really important moment of reflection around, ‘How to build out an exhibition that is relevant and speaks to this time?'”
For help, Smithgall, senior curator at the Phillips, turned to a 13-member community advisory group. “The dialogue with the community advisers prompted a really meaningful but necessary shift in coming up with…the overarching concept for the show, and the thematic structure that went with it, the ever-changing world through the beautiful way that artists see.”
The result, Seeing Differently, the museum’s centerpiece centennial exhibition, highlights nearly 250 artworks in a range of media drawn from the permanent collection, spread throughout the museum, and organized around four different themes pertaining to self and identity, history and relationship to the past, place and the lived experience, and the human senses. “All the multisensory experiences that art can ignite,” says Smithgall.
Smithgall recommends museumgoers plan “a minimum of two hours” to take in the expansive exhibit, which is also the first from the Phillips enhanced for viewing online using 360-degree technology.
“If you’re looking at a point in history [of] turning 100, you want to celebrate that, but you also kind of want to signal the future,” she says. One way Seeing Differently does that is by featuring several recent acquisitions, “really terrific works” added as part of a “modest, intentional [effort] to diversify the collection over the last decade especially.”
Perhaps even more important for the future is the kind of engagement symbolized by the Phillips’ community advisory group, established before the pandemic. “They’re to make sure that we’re responding to the changing needs in the community [and] bringing in community voices,” Smithgall says. “I’m excited about the way that aspect has been integrated.” –DR
Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century runs through Sept. 12 at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW. Timed-entry tickets are $16 and are required. Call 202-387-2151 or visit www.phillipscollection.org.
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