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When you visit DC, your “to do” list is long: Capitol, White House, Supreme Court. The Vietnam, Jefferson, and Lincoln Memorials. The Washington Monument. Seventeen Smithsonian museums. Not to mention the zoo.

The Phillips Collection might not make your initial list, but it should. I’m an art historical novelist, so I’ll admit I’m biased towards a good art museum, but trust me. This one is worth your time. Here are 10 reasons why this intimate museum should be a “don’t miss” on your next DC trip.

1: Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party


Visiting this icon of Impressionism is one of the highlights of my entire museum-going life. The painting positively glows, and you feel as if you’ve joined in on this party of businessmen, society women, artists, actors, shop girls… You can practically hear the clinking glasses and laughter. Marjorie and Duncan Phillips (pictured below) believed this masterpiece would be the most famous piece in their collection. They were right.


2: Rothko Room


A single room. Limited to eight people at a time. A Rothko on each wall. It’s like a shrine to Rothko, modernity, simplicity… I love Rothko’s blocks of color, bold style, and fierce independence. Even though art historians call him an abstract expressionist, he always refused to identify with any particular style; he stayed true to his own voice. And in this room, surrounded by his art, you, too, may feel free to be yourself.

3: Original House


Major Duncan Phillips, a Civil War veteran, and Eliza Laughlin Phillips built the original house in 1897. When Major Phillips died in 1917, his son Duncan Phillips was overcome with grief, but turned to his “love of painting for the will the live.” In 1921, Duncan, his mother, and new wife Marjorie founded the museum and opened the house to the public. Today, much of the collection still hangs on the walls of the original house, making the original Phillips residence an integral part of this intimate museum.


4: Music Room


In 1907, the Phillips added this room to the house, and for me, it’s the grandest part of the museum, transporting you back in time. I particularly admire the massive stone fireplace, surrounded by a floor-to-ceiling, hand carved oak mantle. Today, the oak-paneled library serves as a gallery space and intimate setting for concerts and other events. Attend a musical event in this room, and you’ll feel as if you were invited to the Phillips family home for an evening of music, community, and art.

5: Picassos and Cezannes and Van Goghs, oh my!


One of my favorite things about this collection is that it’s not organized by time period or artist. The paintings hang on the wall randomly as if — appropriately so — hung in someone’s home. Walk through one part of the museum and there’s a Van Gogh next to Picasso. Up a flight of stairs past a Monet then a Klee… then another Van Gogh. A Cezanne here, a Cezanne there. It’s a delight to walk through this museum and come across such masterpieces as if on a whim.

6: The Neighborhood: Dupont Circle


Visiting this museum makes for a good excuse to check out Dupont Circle (and if you’re a visitor to DC, a reason to see an area of town OTHER than the National Mall). The neighborhood around The Phillips is one of the most vibrant in DC. I wouldn’t drive through here if I could avoid it (the Metro is just a couple blocks from the museum), but I would highly recommend walking through here to soak up the lively atmosphere.

7: Gift Store


I don’t always mention museum gift stores, but this one delighted me and seemed a true trove of treasures. Perhaps it’s because it’s the end of October so the holiday season is already on my mind, but this seemed like a particularly good museum store to pick up a gift or two. Books, jewelry, and who doesn’t need a Luncheon of the Boating Party umbrella? 

8: Special Exhibitions


People on the Move: Beauty and Struggle in Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series is an engaging exhibition currently on display at the Phillips (now through January 8, 2017). Jacob Lawrence’s panels portray the Great Migration, the movement of over a million African Americans from the rural South to the industrial North in search of a better life between the two world wars (I have a soft spot for Great Migration stories because of the incomparable read, The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson). But even if you miss this one, the Phillips has a long history of hosting great exhibitions, so there’s always something to make you think or feel something new. And if nothing else catch the popular Phillips after 5 on the first Thursday of every month.

9: University of Maryland Center for Art and Knowledge


This inventive center (a collaboration between the Phillips Collection and the University of Maryland) offers conversations with artists, symposia, lectures, and more…  Duncan Phillips believed that “artists speak not only for themselves but for those of us who are intensely interested in other ways of seeing than our own” and this center helps those new perspectives spread through the community and the world.

10: Free Permanent Collection During the Week


You know I love a museum that allows people to engage with art for free… And every weekday, the permanent collection is free and open to the public. So on your lunch break, during an afternoon stroll, or when you need a break from single tracking on the Metro, stop by the Phillips Collection… it won’t cost you anything except your time — and there’s hardly a better to place to spend that.


When you visit the Phillips Collection, tell me about your favorite part!