Phillips Collection is moving ahead with exhibits after fire damaged galleries

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Phillips Collection is bouncing back from its damaging fire.

In the two weeks since a fire destroyed offices and damaged galleries in its original house, the Phillips has managed to open a new exhibition, keep to its original date for a string quartet concert later this month and proceed with another major exhibition in October. It has also launched two small-scale fundraising appeals.

As a result of the fire on Sept. 2, which was contained to the roof and uppermost floor of the historic mansion, the oldest section of the museum has been closed and admission charges to the entire facility lifted for the month.

"Almost everything had something damaged," Dorothy Kosinski, the director, said Wednesday about the 1897 building. "The fire was contained in the fourth floor offices, but the water cascaded from the fourth to the basement."

All in all, about 12 galleries were damaged to some degree. The art, including masterpieces by Renoir, Monet and C├ęzanne, was carried out by the staff when the fire broke out and no work was damaged, Kosinski said. No staff member was injured.

The Phillips, located in the Dupont Circle neighborhood, is a block of three buildings, the most recent of which, the Sant, just opened in 2006. The art, as well as 40 staff members, was moved into the two annexes. "We have lots of staff sharing offices and working from home. That is disruptive, because people are creatures of habit," Kosinski said.

The Phillips, despite its priceless art and historic luster, is not a rich institution. Its endowment hovers around $34.5 million, and its annual budget is $11.5 million. The exterior restoration that had already been underway on the original building was estimated to cost $1.5 million. Museum officials did not know how much revenue was lost because of the free admission and fewer rentals and purchases in the gift shop.

The cost of the damages has not been determined because of negotiations with insurers and "some layers of complexity," she said.

The new fundraisers, Kosinski said, were responses to inquiries from the public, patrons and museum colleagues about how they could help. The museum started a "give by cell" campaign for supporters who want to give $5 or $10 through text message. The mechanism was already in place as part of the collection's projects to mark its 90th anniversary next year. The second appeal, in a letter from Kosinski to members and donors, thanked people for their "patience and support" and directed them to an online donation site. "It was an efficient way to reach out to those people and acknowledge their concerns," Kosinski said.

The first reclaimed space will be the Music Room in the mansion, where a string quartet from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music will appear in conjunction with the exhibition "Side by Side: Oberlin's Masterworks at the Phillips." That show opened Saturday in the Goh Annex. The museum's major fall exhibition, "TruthBeauty: Pictorialism and the Photograph as Art, 1845-1945," is scheduled to open in the Sant Building on Oct. 9.

The museum will resume charging admission in October.

The staff has not decided when the entire house will be repaired and reopened. "Our goal is to get back into those galleries as quickly as possible," Kosinski said.

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