America’s First Modern Art Museum

  • Arts & Culture
  • 1921

Duncan Phillips was the son of a Pittsburgh businessman, and had a passion for art along with family economic means. In 1914, six years after his graduation from Yale, he published his first book, The Enchantment of Art. He then managed to talk his parents into giving him a “collecting allowance,” so he could start assembling works he admired.

He and his mother were shattered by the death of Duncan’s father in 1917. They channeled their grief into the founding of a memorial to the senior Phillips: America’s first museum dedicated to modern art. The Phillips Collection, said Duncan, should be “an intimate museum combined with an experiment station.” The cadre of artists whose work was gathered included Degas, van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, and many more.

The museum opened in 1921, originally located in the Phillips’ home in D.C.’s Dupont Circle neighborhood, which the family eventually vacated to make its full space available for art. Phillips worked with his wife to extend and organize the collection, and continually built friendships with living artists. He remained involved in directing the museum until his death in 1966. It has grown through building expansions in 1989 and 2006, and remains one of the finest privately owned museums in America..

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