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It’s been interesting to see how various institutions have pivoted to virtual programming during these unprecedented times; while many rushed to define their digital presence in the wake of physical closures, The Phillips Collection (a shining example of resiliency) took a more measured and thoughtful approach to mapping out a strategy. 

That’s not to say it was necessarily an easy process to maneuver the “new normal”. According to Head of Public Programming Miguel Perez, “We’d just opened an exhibition a week and a half before we decided to start working from home, and so you have to cancel everything. It’s a rapid change of course that I don’t think any of us were very prepared for. We ended up having to cancel everything we were planning on doing, and it took us a long time to figure out where to go from there.”

But it quickly became apparent that a slow and well-thought-out approach was the way to go in terms of planning next moves. “I think at first we felt like we had to get stuff out quickly, but then we realized it was more that teachers were being bombarded with so many resources,” says Hilary Katz, Manager of Teacher Initiatives. Erica Harper, Head of PK-12 Initiatives adds, “It was really important to us to put out quality content; we would rather wait and do something that we feel really great about, rather than rushing just because everyone is working from home and has shifted to virtual programming now.”

The pragmatic approach to innovation has paid off in the form of some ingeniously entertaining and informative online events. Digital Intersections, for example, kicked off with an exhibition from Luca Buvoli (who’ll be doing an artist talk tomorrow, Thursday the 13th at 5:30pm ET), and the museum has also been offering weekly guided meditations (the next one is today, Wednesday the 12th at 12:45 ET), digital Phillips After 5 programs, book clubs, and wellness afternoons for educators.

The latter was a direct development of actively looking for solutions to help teachers, who’ve been bombarded with expectations during this time. “We started offering wellness afternoons for educators because we recognized that they needed a break and needed to breathe,” says Katz. (This is very much in-keeping with the museum’s core values, which have always highlighted the important connection between wellness and art.)

Looking ahead to the upcoming school year, Harper notes that the focus will very much center on the wants and needs of educators, some of whom they’re in conversation with now. “Everything is still so up in the air with virtual learning, and a lot of it is going to fall on the teachers when it comes to figuring out how to make things work, so we want to make sure we’re addressing their needs. What kinds of virtual experiences can we create? Are there live experiences where we can engage with the students ourselves? So we’re trying to figure out what teachers need and what we can create.”

Katz adds, “We’re also helping teachers provide art supplies directly to their students that they might not have at home; there are a lot of opportunities that feel kind of special. We’re trying to look at and change what the opportunities are.”

While Perez is cautious in his optimism about when the institution will be able to get back to in-person programming, he notes that there are some clear silver linings to this at-home interim period. “One of the most exciting things about this is that our footprint, our audience, has grown nationally. Every program is a little different in terms of who it attracts, but we’ve started to see pockets of people popping up across the country, and I’m really excited about that. Hopefully what it means is that if and when they decide to come to DC (whenever that may be, whenever they feel comfortable) that they decide to come to The Phillips Collection because they’ve already started to build a relationship with us.”

Katz adds that another positive outcome from this experience so far is that it “almost sort of provided an opportunity to stop and rethink, talk more about what we want to continue and what we don’t.”

So far it seems that this approach has been working out beautifully for Phillips, which is just shy of celebrating its 2021 centennial; it’ll be exciting to see what imaginative ideas will lead the museum into the milestone new year.

In the meantime, stay tuned to all of Phillips’ upcoming virtual programming here, and remember to check out guided meditation today and/or Luca Buvoli’s talk tomorrow evening.