Women of Influence: Elmira Bier, Minnie Byers, and Marjorie Phillips examines the critical role that each woman played in the day to day activities of The Phillips Collection, beginning in 1918 [Minnie Byers], 1921 [Marjorie Phillips] and 1923 [Elmira Bier] and continuing until 1963, when Minnie Byers retired, and 1972, when Elmira Bier and Marjorie Phillips retired.
Elmira Bier, who graduated from Goucher College, was Duncan Phillips’s executive assistant from 1923 to 1972. Fiercely protective of Phillips’s time, Bier took on many responsibilities, including serving as the first director of the music program, beginning in 1941. Despite her lack of formal training, Bier quickly established a widely acclaimed concert series that highlighted new performers and innovative music, which paralleled Duncan Phillips’s support of contemporary art. An article about Bier’s role at the Phillips stated that “she ran the place.”
Minnie Byers was a powerful executive before women played that role. With a background in business and knowledge about the stock market, she saved Phillips from the crash of 1929 by telling him to put his money in real estate. She started working for the Phillipses in 1918, initially providing financial advice to Phillips’s mother and later becoming treasurer of the museum. Byers commented, “I have a problem with Duncan. I can’t tell him how much money we have. He’ll go and spend it on works of art.” Byers educated herself and cautioned Phillips to not pay too much for works of art. “I invested their money wisely,” Byers said. Byers retired in 1963.
Marjorie Phillips (1894-1985), a painter who studied at the Art Students League in New York, was integral to the formation of The Phillips Collection. She became the co-founder of the museum following her marriage to Duncan Phillips in 1921. Phillips relied upon his wife’s artistic insight in making acquisition decisions. Marjorie gradually took on more responsibility for exhibitions in the 1960s as Duncan Phillips’s health declined. Despite her many obligations as director after Phillips’s death in 1966, Marjorie stated, “I was happy as long as I had some time to paint every day.”
Karen Schneider, Head Librarian, Phillips Collection