The world is currently facing unprecedented challenges, and the arts can provide a measure of relief. Now that we are unable to interface with our communities physically, we in the field need to be thoughtful about how we move the wellness aspects of the museum experience online. Recently there has been a movement towards thinking of museums as places of solace and meditation, and this is something we need to continue to focus on beyond the Covid-19 crisis. But it is often assumed that this is something new. The institution I lead, the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., is proof that art has been associated with wellness long before the current focus on this connection.

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The Whitney Museum.

Even before the advent of this global health crisis, “wellness” had become a buzzword, enveloping everything from mindfulness to exercise. Research has demonstrated a strong link between the creative arts and beneficial health effects, and art-based therapies are tied to positive health outcomes for ailments ranging from diabetes to anxiety to PTSD. These ideas are not usually immediately associated with museums, which are generally considered to have been founded to preserve history and enlighten and educate audiences about art.

The Phillips Collection, however, from its very inception focused on the healing power of art. Nearly a century ago, in 1921, Duncan Phillips established the Phillips Memorial Gallery, a place of solace and a memorial to his father who died in 1917 and brother, James Laughlin Phillips, who succumbed to the Spanish influenza epidemic in 1918. The museum was founded on the principles of the deep connection between art and wellness, with Duncan Phillips determined to create a collection of art for the community.

“There came a time when sorrow all but overwhelmed me,” Phillips wrote in his 1926 book A Collection in the Making: A Survey of the Problems Involved in Collecting Pictures Together with Brief Estimates of the Painters in the Phillips Memorial Gallery. “Then I turned to my love of painting for the will to live … So in 1918 I incorporated the Phillips Memorial Gallery, first to occupy my mind with a large, constructive social purpose and then to create a Memorial worthy of the virile spirits of my lost leaders—my father … and my Brother …. I saw a chance to create a beneficent force in the community where I live—a joy-giving, life-enhancing influence, assisting people to see beautifully as true artists see.”

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Dorothy Kosinski, the current director of the Phillips Collection.
Courtesy the Phillips Collection

Phillips’s mission was not to establish an encyclopedic collection, but rather to bring together works that moved him, and therefore create a positive, even healing experience. It was with this intention that Phillips deliberately opened his home in Dupont Circle to all, wishing to share the beauty of his collection and saying, “Pictures send us back to life…with the ability to see beauty all about us.”

To this day, the health and well-being of our community has been a top priority. For years, we have engaged in activities directly linking arts and wellness, from our Creative Aging program, an initiative focused on bringing older adults in contact with art, to our partnership with Children’s Hospital to our annual Artists of Conscience Forum, which last year focused on veterans engaging in art therapy to combat traumatic brain injury and other post-combat challenges. Creative Aging participants visited the Phillips last summer and were entranced by artist Beverly Buchanan’s small shack sculptures made of wood. They imagined Buchanan’s houses filled with life, and inspired by Buchanan, in the art therapy studio, the participants collaboratively built a house, each contributing a piece to the whole. Through smiles and laughter, they shared stories of homes they lived in, loved, and left.

The Phillips Collection recently launched a new program called “Meditation in the Galleries” which builds on the museum’s Contemplation Audio Tour. Through mindful looking at art, meditating while focused on art, and reflecting on this experience, we hope that participants will connect deeply to self, community, and the world.

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Duncan Phillips, the founder of the Phillips Collection, ca. 1922.
Clara E. Sipprel/Courtesy the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

As Phillips wrote in A Collection in the Making, “Art offers two great gifts of emotion—the emotion of recognition and the emotion of escape. Both emotions take us out of the boundaries of self…. At my period of crisis I was prompted to create something which would express my awareness of life’s returning joys and my potential escape in to the land of artists’ dreams.”

In this time of social distancing, billions of people are online, connecting through social media. Performance, visual, and culinary artists are engaging with audiences and sparking moments of joy and creating new bonds. Similarly, art institutions all over the world are looking for ways to reach beyond their closed doors and make their collections and resources accessible online. Through virtual gallery tours, social media, and online programming, audiences have been able to access amazing art and art experiences. Browse #MuseumAtHome or #MuseumMomentofZen to see how museums around the world are contributing to this effort. It is critical for organizations in the art world to do this now in order to increase accessibility to the benefits of the arts.

Beyond personal health benefits, the arts have always had the power to break down barriers of language and culture, and create points of commonality to build empathy and enhance compassion. These values are always compelling, but perhaps especially now very much needed, when the world is divided not just in rhetoric but people are physically separated from their communities. Duncan Phillips recognized how colors and forms came together to “take us out of the boundaries of self.” While we’re all at home, I encourage you to look at a piece of art in your home—whether a poster or your child’s latest creation—and take a quiet moment to appreciate its beauty. As the coronavirus crisis continues to evolve, although our doors are temporarily closed, our hearts and spirits remain open and we are undeterred in our mission to share great art and art experiences with our audiences. We look forward to opening our doors again soon, and hope to welcome you back to continue this tradition of bringing art and wellness to our visitors, our community, and the world.

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