We recently wrote that we hoped TAI could offer an oasis in these troubled times, with culture writing that “is not so much diversion as nourishment.” In that spirit, TAI continues to interview members of its community who we believe embody well-rounded lives of service and achievement.
This week, Dorothy Kosinski—an art historian, curator, and Vradenburg Director and CEO of The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC—speaks with TAI about her life in the art world. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Jeffrey Gedmin for TAI: People who work in the arts frequently have some childhood basis for their career. What about you? How did you become interested in art?
Dorothy Kosinski: I am actually not like some of my colleagues, who can so vividly recall their first, life-changing museum visit. For me, the pivot to art history came as an undergraduate at Yale. Those were the classes that most excited me, because they synthesized many different strands of my interests, from languages to travel to history and aesthetics.
Earlier in my childhood, the pivotal impact came from my oldest brother, an architect who is 18 years older than I am, and his wife, who is a Hungarian linguist and a French scholar. As a kid of 10 or 12, being witness to their travels in Europe had a formative influence.
Then perhaps more obliquely, I grew up as a Catholic, and I always have appreciated the aesthetic experience of churchgoing—the music, the architecture, the colors, the sounds, and the smells of that kind of religious celebration. Those were the early points of departure for me.
TAI: How do you suspect that individuals become drawn to particular artistic forms—whether it’s architecture, painting, sculpture, or woodcarving? You’ve written about a wide spectrum of visual arts.
DK: I don’t know, maybe I’m guilty of finding refuge in the whole spectrum of creativity. I’m agnostic. I do find artistic schools of thought, like the Bauhaus or the Pre-Raphaelites, to be very attractive. For them, it’s not just about an isolated object or one kind of artistic activity, but a way of seeing life, a way of thinking, even a set of values. I find that compelling.
There is a moral facet to caring about the arts. At the Phillips, we keep going back to our genesis story, and the birth of this private collection in 1921 had so much to do with finding solace in the arts, and understanding art as a social good and a universal language. Now, you can either read those lofty thoughts from the 1920s and think that they ring naively idealistic, or you can choose to take them seriously and carry those principles forward with purpose.
TAI: Could you say a word, then, Dorothy, about the formation of the Phillips Collection? And how do you try to carry that legacy forward?
DK: Well, this particular economic and health crisis has a poignant parallel to the founding of the institution. Duncan Phillips opened his home and his quickly growing art collection to the public in 1921 as the Phillips Memorial Art Gallery. It was a tribute to his father, who had died in 1917, and his older brother, James, who died in the fall of 1918 as a victim of the influenza pandemic. I find that a breathtaking parallel as we’re approaching our centennial next year.
Phillips wrote very eloquently about finding solace, that art saved him from the depths of despair and gave him purpose. I think those sentiments can inspire us today. Like many museums, we create programs and initiatives around art and wellness. We work with veterans and kids, with elderly Alzheimer’s patients, in classrooms and art schools. The notion that art can have an impact on your soul and on your health, and on your capacity to learn, remains vital to our mission. When asked, “What are you trying to do?” Phillips said he was “creating an intimate museum combined with an experiment station.” Those are great words that give me, as the leader of the institution, the mandate to experiment.
He also offered a cultural space that was very welcoming to the African-American community in what was at the time a very segregated city. He purchased works by African-American artists early on, worked with faculty and students at Howard University, and inspired some of their projects. His commitment to diverse communities and to art as a universal language had a real political dimension.
At the heart of our work now, too, is a commitment to diversity and inclusion. I think I’m the first American art museum director to bring into our leadership a Chief Diversity Officer, whose work over the last several years has been transformative, impacting everything from our staff and our strategic goals to our hiring practices, our acquisitions, and our programs.
TAI: As a museum director, how do you approach those who may be put off by nonrepresentational art or the avant-garde? Perhaps you have visitors who want to see familiar artists like Renoir, but are resistant to experimentation.
DK: Well, it goes back to Duncan Phillips again. He bought some of the great icons of the collection, like Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” as anchors that would bring the public in like pilgrims. But at the end of his life, he was collecting some of our most challenging items, like Mark Rothko’s pure abstractions, and creating a whole room devoted to them. There was a trajectory of growth in confidence and experimentation before his death in 1966. He would probably say something like, “You have to meet the picture halfway,” which is a generous, gentle admonition to invest your own creativity in the process.
One of the things that we do at the Phillips is to mix the old and the new to reveal paths of connectivity. One exhibit that we’re going to curate online—we had to postpone it for the summer—brought together the French Post-Impressionist Pierre Bonnard with the contemporary painter Jennifer Bartlett around a poetic examination of their garden scenes. It’s a subject that I think everybody can relate to, bringing one late-19th/early 20th-century master with a familiar style together with an artist who uses a more abstract vocabulary.
We’ve also extended two current shows through the end of the calendar year. One is called “Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition.” That relationship goes back and forth, where Picasso borrows from African sculpture, and Hank Willis Thomas either responds appreciatively or slaps back at a great master like Matisse. It’s a really creative give-and-take over a hundred years of art history. There, we offer something very familiar, like the great Matisse in our own collection, “Interior with Egyptian Curtain,” and then a work by a living artist in response to it. I think those avenues of approach are very helpful.
My feeling is, you don’t have to like it. You don’t even have to understand it. But, relax, you know? Go upstairs and sit in front of the Renoir if you’d like. Our purpose is never to make someone feel ignorant, but rather to entice them to want to learn more. Last summer, we had an exhibit that tackled head-on the themes of migration and displacement. It encompassed everything from conceptual art to good, old-fashioned painting to photography to installations, and drew a lot of attention and thoughtful engagement. It’s a dialogue.
TAI: Fundamentally, the museum experience involves seeing art in a physical space. How are you adjusting to this time of social distancing? Has this been a time for more experimentation in terms of online exhibits and virtual resources?
DK: Needless to say, we’re thinking and working hard around these issues. I remain firmly convinced that we human beings need to be with people and feel that shared experience. That’s not going to go away.
But we are very busy now. I now lead an Art Talks series aimed at some of our key donors and members. We do member tours. The curators are presenting some of our most popular programs online. We were in the midst of transformation well prior to the pandemic; we’re redesigning our website so it’s more user-friendly and dynamic, reflecting the multiplicity of programs and partnerships that we’ve undertaken. So you can click “stay connected,” and any number of these online opportunities unfold.
I think that online engagement is important and will remain de rigueur for a museum or a cultural institution going forward. Whether you’re at home or you’re sitting in our gallery with your mobile device, we want to help you access information, to take the time, and dive deep.
TAI: Is there an artist or artwork that has especially excited you recently?
DK: It seems like ages ago, but I was in Florida to give a lecture, and I visited the new Rubell Museum in Miami. I was terrifically inspired by the paintings especially by artists like Amoako Boafo and Tschabalala Self. There was also a great juxtaposition of works by Thomas Houseago and George Condo.
In our own museum recently, there are a couple artists I would mention. One is Hank Willis Thomas, whom I have already mentioned; Sanford Biggers is another one. These are artists who are in dialogue with the African-American quilting tradition, connecting that art form with thoughts about early modernist art history, while incorporating contemporary motifs, like the numbers on sports jerseys. There’s an exciting vitality there.
Last year, too, I was briefly in Venice to catch a glimpse of the Biennale. One experience that really stood out was the Lithuanian Pavilion. It was a sort of opera performance, and the setting was people lazing around on a sandy beach with their kids and their sandwiches, their blankets and their iPads. But the libretto was all about nature being destroyed, that we are tearing into the heart of the natural world. It was this incredibly painful and bizarre clash between the grinding banality of the everyday, and this huge, symphonic, terrifying note of destruction. I have to say that the ecological situation, our attack on the natural world, looms huge in my mind. I’m drawn to works of art that address that.
TAI: You mentioned opera, and I know that the Phillips Collection has connections to the music scene. What can you tell us about that?
DK: This is the 80th anniversary of our weekly Sunday concert series, and we also offer music as part of our Phillips After Five programs on the first Thursday of every month. We have an important partnership with the University of Maryland, bringing in current international composers who oversee a performance of their composition at the Phillips, and then the next day go up to teach at College Park. It’s an opportunity for those students to have a meaningful interaction with a practitioner. Having a huge research organization affiliated with this intimate museum really brings wonderful opportunities to both sides, allowing us to scale up and communicate effectively outside our walls.
It’s true that music has always been a critical element of our programming. Glenn Gould did his U.S. premiere in our music room. That interdisciplinarity is important, and it’s not just art and music—we’ve done staged readings of plays and dance performances, too.
TAI: You’ve worked extensively on both sides of the Atlantic. What are your differing impressions about the European and American art scenes?
TAI: There are profound and fundamental differences in support for the arts. It’s scripted into almost every European country’s core budget via the Ministry of Culture, and there is always a hefty subsidy for the arts and art education. That reflects a clear value system.
That’s why the Phillips Collection, like so many museums, has over decades tried to fill the gap in the United States by investing and raising private funds to improve the quality of education in our public school system. We jump into the breach with investment and innovative thinking. Our methodology is to become allies with teachers, to work with them to help them teach their core subjects even better through art.
I should say that one element in this country, which comes from having to be so entrepreneurial and scrappy, is a sense of creativity. You dare not sit back and become complacent if you’re running an institution like ours. You really have to think creatively about your impact in society, your relevance, your evident contribution to the public good, and how you are communicating that to the philanthropic community. That presents challenges, but opportunities as well.
TAI: How do you respond to people who say, “I like art, but when it comes to the budget, we have to be practical. It’s not a priority”?
DK: Well, we all have to make choices, but I don’t think that this can be reduced to a zero-sum game. There is documented proof that studying piano, reading literature, or painting has an impact on your cognitive abilities. There are innumerable longitudinal studies showing that engaging with the arts makes people stronger students and more creative thinkers. That doesn’t mean you’ll become Picasso tomorrow, but art shapes people who are able to engage in creative problem-solving, to hold contradictory thoughts in their mind, and to have nuanced debates that do not devolve into a reductive “either/or” binary.
We started out alluding to architecture. The great architects, engineers, and designers are essentially artistic. They know how to make a bridge that won’t fall down, but they also make it beautiful. Roebling made the Brooklyn Bridge an inspiring icon for New York City.
There was an article in the newspaper recently about how this pandemic will impact what people want in their living quarters—whether it’s flexible space, access to outdoor space, or a foyer rather than walking straight into your apartment. That may sound banal, but it shows how lived experience will have an impact on design, and vice versa. Design is an artistic expression, but it will also solve problems for the future. I also can’t help but think back to the FDR era and the Works Progress Administration, when we enlisted artists to make lived environments better and to offer art interventions as points of civic inspiration, education, or beautification.
Apart from all that, there’s a very practical, direct impact. My intimate museum employs almost 200 full-time and part-time workers. They pay taxes and rents; they go to restaurants and movies and raise kids. According to the American Alliance of Museums, the arts support more than 726,000 American jobs, and contribute $50 billion to the economy every year.
TAI: Finally, what are you reading or listening to during lockdown? Any recommendations for us?
DK: I am a bit of an addict of the podcast “On Being” with Krista Tippett, because she considers these issues about creativity and our inner life. She recently sent me off reading poetry by Wendell Berry, because I had heard him reciting his poems on her show. I have been reading quite a lot of poetry, actually.
As for music, I don’t know how I got into this, but there is a group out of Charleston, South Carolina, called Ranky Tanky. It’s a jazz group with their roots in Gullah music, an indigenous African-American tradition. Those are two sources of inspiration and joy I’ve found in these stressful times.