Saturday, February 9, 2008

Dorothy Kosinski, who was named director of the Phillips Collection in December, was in Washington for just a few days last month, but she already understands pork. At least the kind depicted by French artist Paul Gauguin.

“Look at the way the white curve of the fat is picked up in the curved tips of the onions,” the 54-year-old curator said, marveling over “The Ham,” Gauguin’s 1889 still life in an upstairs gallery at the Phillips.

Once she assumes her new position in May, Ms. Kosinski, now a senior curator at the Dallas Museum of Art, no doubt will become familiar with the other kind of pork as she rubs shoulders with politicians and philanthropists. Her first priority is to secure the museum’s long-term financial stability by increasing its $18 million endowment, which generates just 8 percent to 9 percent of revenue toward operating expenses. According to a recent report from the board of trustees, the average endowment for comparable museums is $150 million to produce about 25 percent to 33 percent of annual revenue.

“This is an institution that is collection-rich and cash-poor, and that’s something we have to confront,” Ms. Kosinski says. “My biggest challenge is a financial one.”

At the Dallas Art Museum, where she has worked since 1995, the curator prepared for a future leadership role by taking on managerial and administrative duties. However, it quickly becomes evident from our conversation that Ms. Kosinski is most passionate about the history of modern art. “It is small enough here so I won’t have to forsake all my creativity as a curator,” she says of the Phillips. “The collection is just magnificent and speaks so directly to my professional expertise.”

A specialist in 19th- and 20th-century painting and sculpture, Ms. Kosinski co-organized “Matisse: Painter as Sculptor,” which closed earlier this week at the Baltimore Museum of Art. At the Dallas Museum of Art, she directed about 20 exhibits, including the popular 2006 show “Van Gogh’s Sheaves of Wheat” and a survey of Henry Moore sculpture.

Before joining that institution, Ms. Kosinski worked as an independent curator for art museums in London; Wolfsburg, Germany; and Basel, Switzerland. She is married to Swiss-born Thomas Krahenbuhl, a Dallas architect; their daughter Elean-or is a sophomore at Boston University.

The third director outside the Phillips family to lead the museum, Ms. Kosinski succeeds Jay Gates, who joined the institution in 1998. “She is ferociously intelligent and a perfect art-historical fit for the museum,” says Mr. Gates, whose accomplishments include a major campaign to expand the Dupont Circle mansion with the Sant Building, which opened in April 2006. Museum attendance rose as a result, from 153,983 visitors in 2005 to 172,434 in 2006, then declined last year to 133,253 visitors.

As for the image of the Phillips, Ms. Kosinski bristles at the idea that the cozy venue routinely organizes predictable shows focused on impressionism. “I know what the buzz is, but it’s unfair because when you look at the exhibition schedule, you’ll see a much broader reach,” she says.

What about “American Impressionism” and “Impressionists by the Sea,” the most recent exhibits at the museum? “That was an unfortunate title that sounds a bit light and frothy,” she says of the latter. “For me, it was exciting in being filled with pictures I didn’t know.”

Still, impressionism will remain a focus, she says, because “it is an important part of our collection.”

Future shows, organized to fill gaps in the 2009 and 2010 calendars, similarly may be spun off the Phillips’ holdings. Walking through the galleries, Ms. Kosinski points to a thickly painted abstraction by Russian-born French artist Nicholas de Stael, whose mid-20th-century works are considered unfashionable. “Should we go against the grain and include his work in a show of postwar painting?” she ponders out loud.

Ms. Kosinski also has a Vincent van Gogh exhibition in mind, driven by conservators’ technical analysis of his paintings. “As an art historian, there is so much that is new in interpreting the past,” she says. “The 19th and 20th centuries are much richer and more varied than people think.”

At the same time, she wants to broaden the reach of the museum with exhibitions devoted to contemporary art. “If you look at Duncan Phillips’ writings, he was so excited about the art of his time,” she says. “I think he would have cringed to think his museum had become static and staid. I want to change that perception.”

One of her ideas is to invite artists to undertake “interventions and conversations” with the collection through new pieces and installations mounted in the galleries. Another is to mount more exhibitions of paintings and photographs by living artists. As to showing newer media such as video and film, the new director doesn’t rule them out. She also would like to form alliances with local performing arts groups, as she did with the Dallas symphony.

While expressing the desire to make the Phillips more relevant and dynamic, Ms. Kosinski clearly wants to protect its identity as a small museum focused on its revered historical collection.

“I don’t want us to become interchangeable with every contemporary art museum in the Western world,” she says. “That would be foolish.”

Changes at the Phillips

Under Dorothy Kosinski’s leadership, you can expect to see:

• More contemporary art. Artists may be invited to create site-specific installations based on pieces in the collection.

• More postimpressionism. That will Include a show of works by Vincent van Gogh relating to his painting techniques.

• More exposure of the collection. Even such out-of-favor artists as Nicholas de Stael and Mark Tobey may get their due.

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