Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

    Related Items
Phillips Picks Director

By Jo Ann Lewis
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 15, 1998

  Style Showcase

    Rafi Zabor Jay Gates, Director of The Phillips Collection in June of 1998. (Tom Jenkins/The Phillips Collection)
After a four-month nationwide search, the Phillips Collection has hired a new director to replace Charles Moffett, who departed for Sotheby's in April.

He is Jay Gates, 52, director of the Dallas Museum of Art since 1993, and previously director of the Seattle Art Museum (1987-93), where he oversaw design, fund-raising and construction for the eye-catching $65 million museum designed by Robert Venturi. He also increased museum membership in Seattle from 7,000 to 28,000, something the 4,000-member Phillips would love to emulate.

In Dallas, where he pioneered the innovative use of new technologies – including fiber-optic lighting – Gates (no relation to Microsoft's Bill Gates) managed a newly expanded, 360,000-square-foot institution with a wide-ranging collection, a staff of 210 and an $11 million annual budget. The Phillips, by contrast, is only 50,000 square feet, has a staff of 130 and has an operating budget of $5 million. Gates also helped persuade the great 20th-century sculpture collector Ray Nasher to commit to building a sculpture garden next to the Dallas Museum, according to museum trustee and Dallas Morning News President Jeremy L. Halbreich.

"I'm terribly excited," board chairman Laughlin Phillips said yesterday. "I think he's going to be a superb director for the Phillips at this moment in time. He has the experience of being the leader of two outstanding museums, he's had great success and skill in fund-raising in both Seattle and Dallas, and he's also got solid administrative credentials. We wanted someone with experience in running a museum – a strong administrator – and someone with a real interest in expanding art education programs. We also wanted someone who would be an attractive and energetic figure in the Washington arts community, and he fulfills all of those goals."

But Gates's proven fund-raising ability, Phillips allowed, was crucial. Though the museum's budget is currently balanced, Phillips says "it is very dependent upon how well our major exhibitions go, so far as attendance is concerned, and we're trying to achieve greater financial stability so we can cruise through a bad year." To this end, he says, the museum is doing the preliminary work on a capital campaign to increase the endowment and help put the budget on firmer ground. He declined to say what the current endowment is or what the goal will be.

Gates, reached in Texas yesterday at the museum after car-pooling his 13-year-old son to school, seems eager for the challenge.

"The Phillips is obviously an institution which is virtually unique because of the nature and quality of its collections, and its intimate scale," he said. "It has already evolved from being a private collection on public display to a very well-run, professional museum. The care and feeding of a collection like that of the Phillips, the maintenance of a major exhibition schedule and a range of educational programs and services that the public has come to expect all require significant support. And developing the permanent resources for that support in the future is only prudent."

By all accounts of his admiring museum colleagues – including Moffett and fellow Kansan Elizabeth Broun, director of the National Museum of American Art – he is amply prepared. Broun, who has known Gates for 20 years, adds that he is also "totally charming, has a great sense of humor and is a delightful person to have around."

Gates is also given high marks for his interest in educational programs and teaching, which he says he hopes to get back to at the Phillips. After graduating from Wooster College in Ohio and doing graduate work in art history at the University of Rochester, he began what became a two-pronged career of teaching art history while running a museum. A native of Kansas City, he returned to Kansas to work and teach, first at the Nelson Atkins Gallery, and then at the Spencer Museum at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, his first directorship.

It was there that his career touched those of several other Spencer curators who have since come to Washington museums, including Broun and her predecessor Charles Eldredge, along with Marla Prather, 20th-century curator at the National Gallery of Art.

Former Phillips director Moffett has known Gates for 20 years, but was unaware of his appointment until a phone call from a reporter yesterday. "I think he's wonderful. He has all the skills: It's an outstanding choice," he said.

"I think he's the ideal person to come in and consolidate all our recent gains, and go on from there," said Phillips, chairman of the board and son of the museum's founders, Duncan and Marjorie Phillips. "Jim Fitzpatrick and I were co-chairs of the search committee, and had a search firm, Russell Reynolds. Forty people were considered, then it quickly got down to about six, whom we interviewed, and Jay really stood out.

"We feel quite lucky," Phillips concluded. And indeed he was: At least 25 American museums are currently seeking directors.

Gates, meanwhile, said the decision was so new – it was made only earlier this week – that he has not had time to work out the logistics of a move to Washington. But he did say that he would probably arrive in early June, ahead of his wife and son.

Yesterday, he was rushing to inform his trustees: "I want them to hear it from me," Gates said, "before they read it in the papers."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

Back to the top
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar