Charles S. Moffett, 46, the senior curator of paintings at the National Gallery of Art, is expected to be named today as the next director of the Phillips Collection.
No vote has yet been taken, and the job is not yet his, but sources close to the Phillips believe that Moffett -- a native Washingtonian whose field is the painting of late-19th-century France -- will be offered the position when the Phillips's board convenes today.
If so, he would become the first non-member of the Phillips family to direct the institution. Moffett would replace Laughlin Phillips, 67, who announced Nov. 18 that he'd decided to relinquish day-to-day control of his family's museum -- whose plant he has renewed, whose facilities he's modernized, whose administration he's transformed.
In his 20 years of service there, the last 12 of them full time, Phillips has rebuilt that much-beloved museum, which his parents founded during World War I. Its operating budget increased from $264,000 in 1972 to $4.1 million in 1990, its staff grew from 30 to 130, its attendance rose from 63,000 in 1972 to 155,490, and its endowment nearly doubled -- to $5.6 million. But Phillips, a former CIA officer and magazine publisher, has never been regarded as an innovative scholar. Moffett is, in contrast, a much-admired art historian.
Moffett has helped organize a number of the grandest exhibitions of French painting seen anywhere in recent years. At New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art -- where he worked for seven years, first as associate curator, then as curator of French paintings -- he was instrumental in arranging both "Monet's Years in Giverny" and a superb retrospective of the paintings of Manet. In 1983 he went to work at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (first as curator in charge, then as senior curator). While in California he began to organize "The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886," which opened at the National Gallery in 1986. That remarkable exhibition was much more than just a group show: It was a partial painting-by-painting re-creation of the original impressionists' first eight exhibits held in Paris.
Moffett is a graduate of Middlebury College and holds a master's degree from New York University. In 1987 he joined the National Gallery, where he now supervises the curators of paintings.
His departure for the Phillips would give the National Gallery's new director-designate, Earl A. "Rusty" Powell of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, another major job to fill. One of the gallery's curators of 20th-century art, Nan Rosenthal, recently resigned to join her husband in Manhattan, and its last chief curator, Sydney Freedberg, a scholar of Italian art, has yet to be replaced.
The National Gallery, where Moffett has lately been at work on the systematic catalogue, has art historical facilities -- a mighty library, a vast collection of reference photographs -- that, of course, surpass those available at the Phillips. Should Moffett be selected, those two fine museums, once close to one another, seem likely to grow closer. Their potential links are strong. His colleagues describe him as among the best-liked of the gallery curators. As such he may be able to remind the gallery of the debt it owes its sister institution, whose founder, Duncan Phillips, was one of the original trustees and a founding benefactor of the National Gallery of Art.
Laughlin Phillips, reached yesterday, would not confirm that Moffett had been chosen, nor would James Fitzpatrick, the Arnold & Porter attorney who has chaired the search committee. Moffett would not comment.
A number of other candidates were considered by the Phillips. Among those interviewed were Charles Millard, formerly of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; and Charles F. Stuckey, the exceptional scholar who preceded Moffett as the gallery's curator of French painting and is now in charge of 20th-century art at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Though the Phillips was founded as a museum of "modern art and its sources," its days of busy acquisition seem to be behind it. Its permanent collection appears relatively set. Though Moffett is a specialist in early modern painting, he is known to have keen interest in Picasso and Matisse, and in newer art.
The Phillips is not rich. Moffett, if appointed, will no doubt be expected to spend much of his time increasing its endowment. Though Laughlin Phillips will stay on as chairman of the board, he is expected to relinquish his duties as director sometime in the fall.