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Early Modern Art Collectors
Here's a trivia question for you. Name the first museum of modern art in this country. If your first response is the Museum of Modern Art in New York, you'd be wrong. The first museum dedicated solely to "modern" art, that being from the Impressionists through the first two-thirds of the twentieth century (roughly 1870-1970), was upstairs in a private home in Washington, DC. It opened to the public in 1921, known then and now as the Phillips Collection. The MoMa in New York didn't open until the summer of 1929. In 1930, Duncan Phillips, the wealthy heir to the Jones and Laughlin Steel fortune moved from the traditional family home at 1600 21st Street NW, leaving the entire Georgian Revival mansion to be used as a public showcase to promote his passion for Modern Art. The Collection began with some 230 works by such artists as Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Gauguin, Cézanne--a virtual "who's who" of nineteenth century modern art; and continued into the twentieth century with work by Braque, Klee, Prendergast, O’Keeffe, Marin, Dove, and Hartley, to the point that when Phillips died in 1966, it had grown to more than 1,800 pieces.

Although he didn't start his own museum, in Detroit, about the same time, another collector, Robert H. Tannahill, was busy assembling his own collection of modern art. His tastes were similar to that of Duncan Phillips and his pockets just as deep. He was heir to the J. L. Hudson department store fortune. During the 1920s, Tannahill began collecting works by Cézanne, van Gogh, Seurat, Brancussi, Matisse, Renoir, Degas, Picasso and Gauguin. There was some overlap but some striking differences too. Tannahill seems to have much preferred the Post-Impressionists and had definite leanings toward the more abstract qualities of modern art than did Phillips. Rather than start his own museum, Tannahill adopted one, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and founded a group he called Friends of Modern Art which sought to spread his collecting fervour to his friends, all of whom were encouraged to donate at least one work of art per year to the Museum. Over his lifetime, Tannahill himself donated over 450 works to the museum. And when he died in 1969, he also left them most of his fortune and his entire private collection of 400 more pieces.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
6 December 2000

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