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Museum | History of the Gifts of Duncan Phillips

Gifts of Duncan Phillips, a Rich History

Arthur Dove, Green Light

Arthur Dove, Green Light, 1941. Gift of Duncan and Marjorie Phillips.

The Gifts of Duncan Phillips exhibition showcases the major artworks he gave directly and indirectly to American University's Watkins Memorial Collection, as well as works by the early Department of Art faculty members Phillips helped recruit and encouraged. Learn more about the rich history between Phillips and the university with information collected by American University Museum Director and Curator, Jack Rasmussen. There is an ongoing research effort to understand the sequence of events in the 40s and 50s that shaped American University, The Phillips Collection, and Washington, DC. Please email additional information to



The Phillips Memorial Art Gallery (later renamed The Phillips Collection) was established by Duncan Phillips in 1921 as a museum of modern art and its sources, the first such museum in the United States. The Phillips Gallery Art School began regular courses in instruction in 1931. C. Law Watkins, a former classmate of Duncan Phillips at Yale, became the museum’s Director of Education, as well as serving as Associate Director of the Museum beginning in 1929. In 1930, after organizing several exhibitions, he established the Phillips Gallery Art School at the museum and later Studio House. In the early 1940s, Watkins was assisted by several younger artists, including Sarah Baker, William H. Calfee, and Robert Gates. Karl Knaths participated in the program as a visiting artist.


American University’s Department of Art was founded in 1925 under the direction of Will Hutchins, who served as chair until 1941. Art classes were held in Hurst Hall, supplemented by classes at the Corcoran School of Art, until the United States entered World War II, and Hurst Hall was rented to the Red Cross. At the invitation of Phillips, the Department of Art moved to the Phillips Gallery Carriage House. 

The university entered into an agreement with the Phillips Gallery Art School in 1942 whereby students could take classes in the mornings at the gallery and regular college courses in the afternoon at the university. Watkins re-organized American University's Department of Art, enabling students to earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree in fine arts. By this arrangement, AU became one of the first institutions of higher learning in the United States to offer undergraduate and graduate degrees in fine arts.

Following the war, AU’s Department of Art returned to campus to a temporary building left vacant by the Department of Defense. The efforts of Phillips and Watkins, Baker, Calfee, and Gates formed the nucleus of the newly expanded Department of at American University between 1945 and 1946, founded on the principles he originated at The Phillips School and stated in its course catalog: 

The wisest and best teachers are the masterpieces of ancient and modern art, and the logical art school is in direct association with a great collection.

Watkins was appointed chair of the art department in 1944, but died unexpectedly the following year, whereupon Calfee took over as chairman and served in that capacity until 1954. Karl Knaths, Herman Maril, and Jack Tworkov also taught as visiting artists in the new program.




In 1945, AU’s Department of Art faculty and artist friends of Watkins contributed gifts of art to establish the Watkins Memorial Collection as a tribute to their friend and mentor. Phillips wrote an essay for the first exhibition catalogue of the Watkins Memorial Collection, and between 1950 and 1952 contributed works by Milton Avery, Eugene Berman, Rockwell Kent, John Marin, Louis Marcoussis, Harold Weston, and Arthur Dove to the collection.

The Watkins Memorial Collection continued to grow through the influence of Phillips. In 1952, following Katherine Dreier’s death, Marcel Duchamp offered Phillips the works in her personal collection. After much deliberation, Phillips selected seventeen works for The Phillips Collection, and suggested that twelve paintings and sculptures be given to the fledgling Watkins Gallery at American University to honor his long standing friendship with Watkins.¹ This gift included works by Werner Drewes, Joseph Stella, Heinrich Campendonck, Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, Kurt Schwitters, Jacques Villon, and David Burliuk. Over the next fifty years, the Watkins Memorial Collection has grown to over 4,800 objects.

In order to promote an awareness of modern art in the nation’s capital, the art department faculty opened the Jefferson Place Gallery near the Dupont Circle in 1957. Artists shown included members of the New York Abstract Expressionists as well as the Washington Color School. By the 1960s a younger group of artists including Ben Summerford, Luciano Penay, Helene McKinsey Herzbrun, Robert D’Arista, and Lothar Brabanski joined the faculty of American University’s art department. Collectively they made a lasting contribution to a younger generation of artists who are still active today.

¹Erika D. Passantino and David W. Scott, eds., The Eye of Duncan Phillips: A Collection in the Making (New Haven: Yale University Press), 1999

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