CIA officer and art museum chairman Laughlin Phillips, 85, dies

Laughlin Phillips, shown here in 1975, called himself
Laughlin Phillips, shown here in 1975, called himself "weak on art history." Still, he helped guide a resurgence of the Phillips Collection. (Larry Morris/the Washington Post)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Laughlin Phillips, 85, who left the CIA in 1964 to launch Washingtonian magazine and then spent decades helping to revive his family's venerable contemporary art museum, the Phillips Collection, died Jan. 24 at his home in Washington, Conn. He had complications from prostate cancer.

Known as "Loc," Mr. Phillips was in his 40s before he took on a leadership role at the museum. He had served in Army intelligence during World War II and spent his early career with the CIA, including stints in Saigon and Tehran, before starting Washingtonian with a friend from the clandestine agency. He sold the publication in 1979 to devote himself to the museum, which he called "a family responsibility" that had deteriorated markedly.

He came to the job with no particular qualifications other than his blood ties to the founders. He dabbled in art as a young man but said he lacked talent and passion to make a career of it. He bluntly called himself "weak on art history" and said he "did not have the collector's instinct."

But by many published accounts, Mr. Phillips's administrative skill helped guide what had been a deteriorating jewel box of a museum, housed in the family's red brick mansion at 1600 21st St. NW, into a far more financially stable position.

The museum's current director, Dorothy Kosinski, said Mr. Phillips had "figured out a new trajectory for the museum," spending years repositioning the public perception of the collection from "private, cozy, secure" into a museum that could attract and retain much-needed public and private financial support.

The Phillips Collection, which opened to the public in 1921, is widely considered the first American museum devoted to modern art. Although much smaller and less comprehensive than the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Phillips Collection developed a formidable reputation for the high quality of its 19th- and 20th-century European and American paintings.

Mr. Phillips's father, Duncan, was the heir to the Jones and Laughlin steel fortune and became one of his generation's foremost arts patrons. He established himself as a force in collecting when he paid $125,000 for Pierre-Auguste Renoir's impressionist masterpiece "Luncheon of the Boating Party" while touring Europe. At his death in 1966, he had amassed thousands of works by famous and struggling artists including Renoir, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Degas, Klee and Rothko.

His father left a $3 million endowment, which Laughlin Phillips called a "princely" sum at the time but which inflation and other costs had made insufficient to maintain the facility.

As museum director from 1979 to 1991, Mr. Phillips said he sought to transform the Phillips Collection from "an idiosyncratic, underfunded family-run museum with a superb collection of modern art into a full-fledged professional institution."

Mr. Phillips, who served as board chairman from 1966 to 2001, supervised multi-million-dollar fundraising campaigns, starting charging admission, established corporate and personal membership programs, and sought arts endowment grants that the museum had seldom if ever pursued.

The museum professionalized its staff, at one point hiring the renowned art historian Sir Lawrence Gowing as chairman of the curatorial department. In 1989, the museum opened its $7.8 million Goh exhibition and storage space annex -- named after the Japanese industrial and his wife who were the project's leading donors.

Moreover, Mr. Phillips took steps to end the museum's casual approach to art cataloguing and conservation, having been appalled many years previously to find some pieces of art being stored in restrooms and closets. He made sure proper humidity control was installed, one of many crucial steps need to maintain art treasures in a building that dated to 1898.

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