The long-awaited, much-touted new era at the Phillips Collection is about to arrive.
Months of special events linked to the museum's five-story expansion begin today with the announcement that the Phillips has raised $29 million in its first-ever capital campaign -- $2 million more than the goal and two years ahead of schedule.
In December, the museum receives the keys to its new building, next door to its intimate Dupont Circle home, which will add 3,000 square feet of gallery space and an auditorium. This sets the stage for the first exhibit in the new space in February, as well as the return this spring of 60 masterworks, including Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party," sent on tour during the renovation.
"We are now better equipped to carry out our mission as a place for people to engage with great works of modern and contemporary art," said Jay Gates, director since 1998, in an interview in his office.
Gates said he hopes the new pieces will fit together with the existing galleries in a way that meets modern expectations but maintains the intensely personal feel of the museum, founded in 1921 by collector Duncan Phillips, whose grandfather was a steel and banking magnate.
"Mr. Phillips said he didn't want a conventional art museum," Gates said. "His favorite verb was 'to linger,' meaning to spend time and listen, to learn the vocabulary of the painting. This is something you don't want to mess with."
Loyalty to that tradition helped make the fundraising such a success; most of the money was raised locally. The goal was reached without the lure of a named architect and with few multimillion-dollar gifts, and the drive came at a time when 80 other art museums were planning expansions, Gates said. Funding projects at Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Kennedy Center were scotched, by lack of public or congressional support.
"People like it like it is," said Gates. "There is a threshold you can't cross and remain the Phillips Collection."
Said George Vradenburg III, chairman of the board: "I think those people who were attracted to supporting the Phillips found that residential scale very appealing. We are not the National Gallery of Art, which is large and vibrant, the aircraft carrier of the American art experience."
The fundraising effort, launched in December 2001, was greatly aided by a $9 million challenge grant from local philanthropists Vicki and Roger Sant. "Everyone has a sense of ownership of the Phillips," said Vicki Sant, now honorary chairman of the board and president of the National Gallery. "For me, it was love at first sight." She has been engaged in the workings of the Phillips, particularly its education programs, which are extensive despite a small staff and limited space.
"We gave our gift in two phases," Sant said. "After the first $3 million, the campaign reached a logjam, and it was clear we needed a major gift from somewhere." The Sants kick-started the fundraising again with $6 million more.
"We really didn't want to lose the spirit of the Phillips, but enhance it," she said.
When Phillips started the museum 84 years ago, the National Gallery and the Museum of Modern Art didn't exist. Phillips invited Washingtonians to view works by Picasso, Klee, Monet, Matisse and Degas in his home. Since then, the house-turned-museum has been a draw for lovers of impressionist and modern American and European art. A $7.8 million annex was added in 1989.
As the Phillips planned its latest changes, it had to deal with its neighbors. Those who live along 21st Street NW have had a love-hate relationship with the museum. Having Renoir on the street was a plus. But for almost 20 years, says Vince Micone, chairman of the neighborhood liaison committee, the two sides battled about traffic, parking, catering trucks and noise.
Several years ago, the neighbors and the museum sat down to figure out a better way to coexist. Out of protracted talks, which went to a mediator for nine sessions, they worked out guidelines on 54 points, including the times events should begin and end.
"We are in a residential neighborhood, and by history and right, they have a right to exist there. But they didn't care much for the neighbors' peace of mind," said Richard Suisman, a member of the liaison committee. Now things have changed, he said.
All of the changes and expansion have taken place without closing the museum, but portions had to be closed temporarily.
"Revenue shrank. Attendance shrank. Membership shrank," Gates says. "But it sustained a level of quality."
During the scale-back, annual attendance dropped to 95,000, from a pre-construction attendance of 160,000. This year it rose to 167,000, with the three-month Modigliani exhibit bringing in 74,000.
Construction on the expansion, which will add a total of 30,000 square feet, started nearly two years ago. Two levels -- two-thirds of the building -- are underground.
The architects of record, Cox, Graae & Spack, had to shoehorn the new features into a narrow space and excavate down into the rock. Preservation rules kept the blond facade of the old apartment building, but the Phillips gutted everything behind that.
With the expansion, the Phillips will have a 180-seat auditorium, a new library and archive, conservation laboratory, classrooms and new areas for student exhibitions. The cafe has been overhauled and will face a new sculpture garden.
The new gallery space will provide room to show the collection of post-1950 contemporary art, much of which consists of canvases larger than the core impressionist collection. A room in the older part of the Phillips that was dedicated to the work of Mark Rothko has been disassembled and re-created in the new addition.
Accommodations for the museum's busy education programs are central to the new addition. The Phillips trains 700 teachers a year, and has been doing so without a classroom.
The first exhibition in the new space will be "Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Sickert: London and Paris, 1870-1910" in February.
During the construction, the Phillips sent many of its greatest paintings, including the famous Renoir, on tour. The exhibition, which includes 11 stops in the States and abroad, has drawn nearly 2 million people and provided substantial revenue for the Phillips.
The masterworks return home April 15.