Article written by Lauren Hall, a graduate student in the dual MAAA/MPA program at SPEA. Lauren currently works as an Engagement Assistant for the IU Cinema. She is the Co-Founder of Indy Pulse and is an alumna of Teach for America-Indianapolis. Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Duncan Phillips, the founder of The Phillips Collection (TPC) professed a deep commitment to American democratic values—primarily education and inclusion. He opened his museum in 1918—making it the first Modern Art Museum in the United States of America (yes, even before MoMA). For a “constructive social purpose,” and to memorialize his deceased Father and brother, he created the Phillips Memorial Gallery, now called The Phillips Collection. Major Phillips, Duncan’s father, served in the Civil War and fought to preserve a democratic union. Duncan Phillips adored his Father and brother immensely. He adored them both for their military, business, and political successes, as well as for their commitments to their family, community, and country.
Duncan Phillips and I have similar understandings about our country and feelings about our family. I too have a father and brother who I celebrate for their successes and democratic virtues. Plus, even when I wager the profound injustices that America has, and continues to, afflict against its own people, I commit my life to striving towards America’s potential. To quote Bono of U2, “America is more than a country, it is an idea” (360° world tour, Chicago July 2011). I know that we—all of us, i.e. Americans of all races, social classes, backgrounds, and competencies—must activate the best in us to ensure that this America, this democratic “idea,” is not idealism, but becomes our reality.
In reading the writings of Duncan Phillips, I realized that he believed this too. See, his father and brother died in consecutive years, so Duncan Phillips turned to art as a means of survival. He looked to art “for a will to live.” His introduction to, A Collection in the Making, staccatos his two reasons for embracing to art. Art affects two essential experiences: escape and recognition of universal humanity. To Phillips, art is “the substance and romance of life”—a democratic, equitable life.
Now granted, there will always be caveats when we present-day individuals investigate the past—with our more informed, more socially conscious hearts and minds. Humans are, after all, profoundly affected by the social, cultural, political, and temporal environments we exist in. Phillips was an upper class white male who benefitted from his race, gender, and class. And this impacted, to a certain degree, his preference for art. Yet, he committed to:
Open-mindedness [which] must take the place of prejudice in regard to the “New Movements.” If beauty is, as I believe, a vital element, then its expression in art will change as we change. It is certain that art would die if it should cease to be expressive of the changes wrought by Time in our consciousness. (Phillips 12)
He believed that art should “be inspired out of fresh and individual intensities of our own life,” and it should offer a “fresh language” (Phillips 12). So, I think he’d be down with all the calls-to-action that our swiftly-diversifying American society, and globalizing world, call for. Certainly, we should be critical of history’s shortcomings, but so too we should celebrate the agents of change who worked to create counter-narratives during times when the zeitgeist tended towards prejudice, exclusion, and oppression. Point being, Duncan Phillips—despite having an allowance to go to Europe to buy art every summer (from his Steel Company owning father)—did not put-on-airs nor tilt his nose towards the sun. Rather, Phillips stayed grounded; he worked relentlessly to ensure that he contributed to the masterpiece of American democracy the best way he knew how. When his father and brother died, and he was “all but overwhelmed by sorrow,” he created the Phillips Memorial Gallery fully realizing that:
Something of even greater practical helpfulness than art might have been more appropriate. But I needed to put my own best powers to a coordinated purpose. And I saw a chance to create 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 3)
Phillips also demonstrated this in his art collecting. In 1923, he paid a record-breaking amount of $125,000 (the most he had spent on any other single work at the time) to purchase Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Renior’s Masterpiece is a vision of equity. Created in 1880, the luncheon depicts men and women, upper class and lower classes enjoying a new invention in the time of the Industrial Revolution: the weekend. Phillips’ decision was sound; Luncheon of the Boating Party has been an institutional stronghold since its purchase. The painting’s content embodies a democratic ethic. Phillips’ wife Majorie—a painter and partner in The Phillips Collection work—reflected, “in the light of time it does not matter much who the figures are. They are every man, all people” (phillipscollection.org). Note, the figures share a monolithic race: white. Yet, they represent different nationalities. Moreover, the inclusion of different social classes, and women placed as equals next to men, creates a counter-narrative.
In my work outside of this internship, I, like Duncan Phillips, am doing the best I can with what experiences and resources I have. I’m activating my strengths to better “achieve our country,” our American “idea,” our potential. I am keenly aware of American democracy’s shortcomings (check out my blog—particularly my post about Kanye West and “The Fierce Urgency of Now”); and also unrepentant about my will to go on, to move forward. I am a pragmatist. Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America is a major part of my inspiration for this point. You should all read it. NYTimes writer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt fittingly entitles his review of Rorty’s book as “ ‘Achieving Our Country’: How the American Left Lost Hope.” I haven’t. I use my capacities to prioritize beauty, to prioritize resilience, to prioritize hope.
Having taught in cyclically underserved communities, having experienced two school closings, I have seen countless examples that individuals point to for reasons to be jaded, to be inertly-skeptical of what “America” is and does. I digress, and stress that democracy takes work, from all of us. It also takes organizational structures that recreate civic understandings (e.g. reigniting citizenship education in K-12 education), and civic commitments (e.g. neighborhood councils and robust, inclusive community centers). So, I educate, support, and promote the voice of Indy Pulse (my org’s) youth. I and my fellow CoFounders are getting people to listen so that Indy Pulse changes our students’ lives, their communities, and contributes to our national conversation(s).
In sum, I’ve spent the beginnings of my internship doing a lot of reading—from Duncan Phillips, Educators, and writings of The Phillips Collection—to adopt their “institutional voice” so that I can begin the writing projects I will keep you all updated with. So, stay tuned because TPC updates are TBC, that is, To Be Continued…