Philip Barlow

Washington, D.C. | by February 11, 2013

Philip Bar­low and I are neigh­bors. We both live in Adams Mor­gan, a neigh­bor­hood in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. known for its multi-​​ethnic his­tory and lively bar scene. And though I occa­sion­ally spot his dis­tinc­tive 6’4” frame walk­ing down Colum­bia Road or 18th Street, I see him more often at the gallery open­ings he faith­fully attends as an avid col­lec­tor and sup­porter of D.C. area art and artists. I recently vis­ited Philip—who is the Asso­ciate Com­mis­sioner of Insur­ance for D.C.’s Depart­ment of Insur­ance, Secu­ri­ties and Banking—in the co-​​op apart­ment he shares with long-​​term part­ner and co-​​collector, Lisa, to talk about his col­lec­tion and phi­los­o­phy as a collector.

As most local artists and art pro­fes­sion­als will tell you, D.C. isn’t known for its abun­dance of art col­lec­tors. Philip attrib­utes this in part to the tran­si­tory nature of D.C.’s res­i­dents, “A lot of peo­ple think of Wash­ing­ton as a spot where they will be only temporarily—that’s what I thought when I came here—and col­lect­ing art is some­thing peo­ple are more inclined to do when they’re set­tled.” But Philip did put down roots in 1992, when he and Lisa bought their co-​​op. And in the inter­ven­ing years, they amassed a col­lec­tion of over 300 art­works, almost all by D.C. area artists, includ­ing Simon Gou­verneur, Robin Rose, Linn Mey­ers, and Gra­ham Cald­well. (Full dis­clo­sure: Philip also owns work by me and other TSV contributors.)

Philip began col­lect­ing in 1990 after a pay raise for­tu­itously dove­tailed with the lack of a rent increase. “All of a sud­den I had extra money left over at the end of the month and so I thought I would buy art with it,” Philip explains. After a lit­tle research, Philip iden­ti­fied work he was inter­ested in buy­ing at the Brody Gallery in Dupont Cir­cle. “I called the gallery up on the phone because I had no idea what I was doing. I fig­ured I could ask stu­pid ques­tions over the phone and then dis­avow any knowl­edge of it if I made a com­plete fool of myself.” Philip went to the gallery’s next open­ing and ended up buy­ing his first work in Jan­u­ary of 1990—Phoenix Ascend­ing by James Lesesne Wells.

In his early days as a col­lec­tor, Philip mostly nav­i­gated the art scene on his own. Com­mit­ted to see­ing art in per­son, he relied on local news­pa­per list­ings and the now defunct mag­a­zine Museum and Arts Wash­ing­ton, to iden­tify poten­tial artists and upcom­ing open­ings. Now the Inter­net serves that role, but Philip remains adamant about expe­ri­enc­ing work in per­son. “I can’t even con­ceive of the idea of buy­ing some­thing I haven’t seen in per­son,” Philip says. “That baf­fles me. One thing I have learned is that once I see an artist’s work [in per­son] I can gen­er­ally under­stand an image of it. But, if I start with an image of the work I really can’t make the con­nec­tion in my head as to what exactly it is I’m look­ing at until I’ve seen it in per­son. … The only thing I rely on the Inter­net for is to point me to where the shows are.”

Though Philip’s faith­ful atten­dance at art open­ings is well known, he thinks that gal­leries should find other ways to encour­age new col­lec­tors. “[Gal­leries] need to find cre­ative ways to get peo­ple into the gallery.  Open­ings are gen­er­ally par­ties and not really good to intro­duce new peo­ple to pur­chas­ing art, so they should find ways to get groups in with the oppor­tu­nity to ask ques­tions and engage in con­ver­sa­tions. This will allow them to under­stand the excite­ment of collecting.”

While there is a type of work Philip grav­i­tates toward—much of the work belies an inter­est in obses­sive, system-​​based patterns—what ulti­mately unites his col­lec­tion is its focus on the local art com­mu­nity. Philip explains, “To me [the col­lec­tion] tells a story: the story of our inter­ac­tion within the D.C. art world and what’s been going on here over the last twenty years.” So rather than col­lect­ing work by artists already in the col­lec­tion, Philip tries to “take oppor­tu­ni­ties to com­plete the story,” by seek­ing out work by new, younger artists as well as work by artists whose work influ­enced con­tem­po­rary D.C. area artists, but were active in the area before Philip arrived on the scene.

And focus­ing the col­lec­tion on local artists allows Philip to get to know artists’ per­sonal sto­ries. “I think it helps. I enjoy that part of it. … I do get the chance to meet them. What I really think is impor­tant is the abil­ity to watch their work develop over time and that’s eas­ier when [the artists] are local. … When I look at a piece of art I see more than just the image. I think about what work the artist did lead­ing up to that piece and what work they’ve con­tin­ued to do after that piece. All of the pieces have more of a story than just the image that’s there.”

But Philip demurs when asked if he con­sid­ers him­self a patron of the local art scene: “If I thought I could afford to be a patron then I would be a patron. But it’s impor­tant to me to have a vari­ety of artists. I’m not going to focus enough on any one artist or gallery to be finan­cially sig­nif­i­cant to them on my own. But the idea of help­ing to sup­port and pro­mote the Wash­ing­ton, DC art com­mu­nity is very much a part of why we do what we do. That’s a phi­los­o­phy I have for more than just art. Almost every­thing I do, I do because I think that Wash­ing­ton, D.C. is a great place to be and I want to make it bet­ter for me and the peo­ple who live here now and the peo­ple who come after me.”

 

 

 


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