Interview with Dr. Dorothy Kosinski, Director of The Phillips Collection

Have you heard about the new transatlantic collaboration between The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern, Switzerland? The two institutions are currently presenting the fine arts exhibition Ten Americans: After Paul Klee in Washington. This fascinating project is sponsored in part by the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia. To complement the exhibition, the Embassy of Switzerland in the United States will be supporting a series of co-hosted public events, including music concerts and literary performances.

We met with the Director of The Phillips Collection, Dorothy Kosinski, to find out more about this show, which has already been hailed as one of the “electrifying museum shows to see across the United States in 2018” by Artnet News.

The exhibition Ten Americans: After Paul Klee can be seen at The Phillips Collection from February 3 to May 6, 2018. What are the objectives of the exhibition? Can you tell us about your collaboration with the Zentrum Paul Klee?

The main goal of the exhibit is to contextualize Paul Klee to demonstrate that he’s not only a hero of Swiss German European Modernism, but also a figure who had profound international implications. It’s the first time that any exhibit brings together a very highly selected group of artists who were directly impacted by Klee.

For us at The Phillips Collection, it’s a very natural story really having to do with the history of this almost 100-year-old first American museum of modern art. Duncan Phillips was an early enthusiast of Klee and he bought his first work in 1930. Ultimately, there were 13 works by Klee in this museum, and he hung them together for many years in what became known as the “Klee Room.”

You find surprises in this exhibit, for example, from the Washington Color Field artist Gene Davis. Many people walk into this exhibit and say: “I wouldn’t think that this artist, with his mature style, his striped paintings, would have any connection with Klee.” To the contrary, Gene Davis wrote about his experience, about what he learned, about compositional techniques and color from Klee.

In a sense, this builds on what we know about Klee’s influence as a teacher at the Bauhaus for so long. His impact continues and goes on long after his death. I think that is really the unique contribution of this exhibit. I should also add that it’s very specific, it’s highly curated, and it’s an art-historical investigation. Therefore, it’s not just any artist who might have had some “flirting acquaintance” with Klee’s work or whose work looks like Klee’s. The exhibit is really trying to assemble artists who directly experienced his work here.

The collaboration with the Zentrum Paul Klee was essential to the success of the project. Fabienne Eggelhöfer, the curator from the Zentrum Paul Klee, visited early on doing research in our archives and beginning the process of crafting the concept of a show that she wanted to do. My response was, “It sounds like a wonderful show, but it would be perfect for us as well and why not collaborate?”

It was a fabulous working arrangement with Nina Zimmer, the director of the Zentrum Paul Klee, and Fabienne Eggelhöfer, the curator, working with Elsa Smithgall, one of my curators. It was seamless, right down to our mutual fundraising efforts in which we could go to Pro Helvetia together successfully and to the Terra Foundation, whose mission is to support the international study of American Modernism across the globe. It was one of the most seamless, happy, and productive museum-to-museum collaborations we have had, really — it was marvelous.

Can you tell us about one or two of the American artists whose work was chosen to be displayed with Paul Klee’s works and how they relate to Paul Klee?

I mentioned Gene Davis. We’re standing in a room with one of his mature, large-scale severe stripe paintings.

On the other side of the gallery, a wall juxtaposes a work by Klee with six of Gene Davis’s symbol paintings. Klee develops a vocabulary of signs and symbols. You can see so explicitly how a kind of snake-like shape is repeated in several of Davis’s works. In addition, Davis picks up this sort of cross-hedged structure that Klee introduces in his composition in terms of a very rigid checkerboard or the minimal, symbolic suggestion of a house or structure. I should hasten to add that I’m not saying that there was some sort of slavish imitation, but rather that Klee’s work was really a wellspring of inspiration. Adolf Gottlieb — we have several large-scale works by him in the exhibit. He similarly found an inspiration in Paul Klee for his own invention of pictographic vocabulary.

You are an art historian and have worked around the world as a curator at major institutions such as the Dallas Museum of Art and the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Since 2008, you have served as the director of The Phillips Collection. Have you perceived any major changes or shifts in your work and in the world of art over the years?

Change in my work? I had to step back from my much-beloved practice as a curator in order to become a director. That’s a self-evident shift to a different set of responsibilities. In terms of the art world, I think you would have to set aside a day so that we could discuss that. I think there has been such a dramatic shift in the past ten years in terms of the art marketplace, the perceived need on the part of museums to be responsive to communities, a difference in terms of the demand on museums, of their energy and their resources, in a sense to expand beyond a scholarly platform and instead to reach out to broader communities, in a sense to offer a safe place, a community place, offering a variety of activities (whether it is to children or the elderly or diverse communities). I think there is not one museum in the United States that doesn’t grapple with those challenges. That’s really a major shift. That, and the marketplace which, I think, can be a very distorting and not necessarily positive force in the life and vitality of museums.

In your experience, what is the biggest challenge that cultural institutions such as The Phillips Collection face today?

How to intelligently shift our focus to be responsive and relevant to our audiences of the 21st century. Happily, for us, when Mr. Phillips was asked in the 1920s what he was trying to accomplish, he described The Phillips Collection as an “intimate museum combined with an experiment station.” Thus, I think he gives us permission, even a mandate, to be very expansive and responsive to the demands of our time. After all, he was collecting contemporary art. Many of the works, be they European Modernist or American Modernist, were purchased so frequently, the very year or month that they were completed. Consequently, this idea of responsiveness and openness to the contemporary world and contemporary issues is part of our DNA. I would say, and it is a different reality for European museums, but the key challenge for an institution such as The Phillips Collection, especially in Washington, D.C., which is a city dominated by the federal government and federally-supported cultural institutions, is how to thrive in the 21st century.

We are going to celebrate our 100th anniversary in 2021. My role is to ensure that we thrive and excel in a new 100-year period and to make sure that we have the financial support to do that. That is just an existential reality of our stewardship, of a museum of this stature.

Do you have other Swiss artists in mind whose work you would like to display in future exhibitions at The Phillips Collection?

I know that in a little bit over a year, we will have the pleasure of presenting a group of Nabis paintings. Félix Vallotton, a Swiss artist, is part of that group. I learned from Nina Zimmer that there is going to be a major retrospective of Vallotton in 2019, which makes me a little bit jealous because he has been on my wish list. I, of course, have to be careful not to indulge in my particular, personal, and art-historical interest in Swiss artists. Therefore, we will hold that at bay. However, one could explore many other artists as well. Is it time for America to be introduced to Füssli?

Can you tell us about your personal connection to Switzerland?

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