Jonathan Binstock’s colleagues in the art world describe him as “young,” “youngish” and “youthful” for a museum director. He is said to be energetic, curious and a diligent student of the local art scene, no matter where he finds himself. And now, at 56, he has been appointed as the new director of the Phillips Collection, taking over one of the country’s finest small museums, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2021.
Phillips Collection hires art historian as new director
“My excitement to be the new director is founded on love, on passion,” Binstock, director of the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, N.Y., said Monday. Binstock’s career has intersected with Washington often over the past 30 years, including in the 1990s researching a dissertation on D.C. artist Sam Gilliam and as curator of contemporary art at the Corcoran Gallery of Art from 2000 to 2007. During his two stints in Washington, Binstock said, he became deeply familiar with the Phillips Collection, with its strong holdings of American and modern art, two of his specialties as a curator and scholar.
“He loves the Phillips, full stop,” said John Despres, chairman of the Phillips board.
Binstock, who assumes his duties March 1, succeeds Dorothy Kosinski, becoming the seventh director of the museum founded by Duncan Phillips and Marjorie Acker Phillips in 1921 and run by family members until 1992. Kosinski, who has led the Phillips since 2008, has increased the endowment from $18 million to $100 million, expanded the art holdings from 2,000 to more than 6,000 objects, and made diversity and inclusion a major focus of the museum’s exhibitions, staff demographics and community profile.
Despres said that the search for Kosinski’s replacement, which began in the summer of 2021, was “a very thorough and judicious selection process.”
“We wanted someone who shared the Phillips DNA, and I am confident that we have found that person in Jonathan,” he said.
The search began with 20 candidates, which was narrowed to 11 people who were interviewed on Zoom, and then to a shortlist of five. The finalists were asked, among other things, to suggest a hypothetical exhibition using materials from the Phillips Collection.
Binstock responded with a proposal focused on portraiture as an avenue for digging deeper into themes of representation and community engagement. Among his juxtapositions was a 2021 photograph by Carol Antezana, “Las Gringas,” paired with Thomas Eakins’s ca. 1891 painted portrait “Miss Amelia Van Buren,” both of which show women lost in thought or self-reflection.
“Those pictures have a lot in common, even though they are made at different times, in different media,” Binstock said. The larger goal, he said, was to get beyond simply representing diversity and focus more deeply on how art enables different communities to understand their own values.
The search committee was impressed with Binstock’s presentation, said Amy Meadows, who chaired the group. Among the skills they sought was a director who could balance and integrate the Phillips’s traditional focus on a legacy collection of late-19th century and modern art assembled by Duncan Phillips with the museum’s expanded focus on contemporary art and local artists. They also wanted a leader with strong managerial skills and immersion in the business of contemporary art.
“Part of the allure with Jonathan is the very equal balance between business acumen and art history chops,” Meadows said. “He has the encyclopedic understanding of art history, and he is very involved in contemporary art.”
Beginning in 2007, Binstock took what he calls a seven-year detour from the usual path of a curator to serve as a senior adviser on art matters for Citi Private Bank. His duties included accessing the value of private art collections that were being used as assets to secure loans, and advising clients on building and managing their collections. That kind of work — helping what Binstock calls “ultra-high-net-worth individuals” who think of art as a commodity — can be suspect in the museum world, especially among artists and curators committed to a socially progressive arts agenda. But Binstock said the experience enabled him to travel the world, see major exhibitions, attend important art fairs and biennales, and build a powerful Rolodex of contacts who have assisted him as a museum director.
This is only Binstock’s second position as head of a museum. “When he came here, he had never run an institution,” said Kathryn D’Amanda, president of the board of managers of the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester. “He was a curator, so we took a little risk in appointing him as director. But he brought a real excitement to MAG.”
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While in Rochester, Binstock secured major gifts to renovate the museum’s temporary exhibition space and endow a position for curator of contemporary art. He expanded the museum’s contemporary art holdings, and commissioned a multi-screen film installation from the British artist Isaac Julien, who focused on Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist leader who had deep ties to Rochester.
“It was pretty daring and probably pretty expensive, but it was incredibly well received by all the people who saw it in our community,” said Sarah Mangelsdorf, president of the University of Rochester. The Memorial Art Gallery is a department of the university and also functions as the main civic art museum serving the city’s residents. That creates challenges for the director, who must serve two distinctly different audiences. Binstock finessed that challenge with ease, Mangelsdorf said.
Serving multiple audiences is also a challenge for the leadership of the Phillips Collection. Since the Corcoran Gallery was swallowed up by the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University in 2014, the Phillips has been the de facto local art museum. But it is also an established player in the national and international art world. Managing the tension between those two roles, as well as different audiences for the historical collection and the growing focus on contemporary work, hasn’t always been easy. Despres, who became head of the Phillips board just this summer, said that different ideas about the museum’s identity have played out among board members.
“The serious dialogue about new directions will be up to him, and I am eager and anxious that that happen sooner rather than later,” Despres said. “It is going to take another at least six months, probably more like nine to 12, until a new direction or new ideas can really be vetted and adopted.”
But all signs are that the transition will be relatively smooth, with Binstock committed to the same diversity and inclusion efforts, and expansion of the contemporary focus begun under Kosinski.
“I think my successor’s background in African American art, new media, contemporary art, his knowledge of D.C., his passion for how a museum interfaces with its communities, all those themes and ideas speak directly to the things I cared about,” Kosinski said from Florida, where she was preparing to attend the Art Basel Miami Beach art fair. She officially becomes director emerita of the Phillips on Jan. 1.