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.”