One of my first Moore memories is a hallway conversation with Patti Phillips, back in summer 2018. We’d crossed paths in the restroom and she paused by the door to share how excited she was to have a talented writer as a colleague. I was, frankly, gob smacked that someone with such an outrageously prolific career and storied career as an author, curator, academic and administrator would so generous as to speak and collaborate with me as a peer.
Though she is not much for public praise, Patti’s impact at Moore in five short years has been incalculable—and students, alumni, faculty and staff, as well as community partners and friends throughout Philadelphia will surely agree. She leaves Moore at the end of June to enjoy the start of her next chapter, but as you might expect, she won’t be kicking back and relaxing. In fact, she’s already plotting her next moves.
Editor’s Note: This interview took place in March 2021 and has been edited for length.
Nicole Steinberg: In addition to your work at Moore, you’ve always done so much with museums and galleries, as well as curators and artists. What is piquing your interest right now in the broader art and design landscape, and what are you excited about in terms of artists or designers who are either coming up or later on in their careers?
Patricia C. Phillips: My habits have really changed due to COVID, as all of our habits have. I did go to the Fabric Workshop & Museum this past weekend and I've been to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but a lot of my engagement with culture has been, you know, webinars. And thank goodness that the art and design world has been responsive and created these online opportunities for all of us. I've always been kind of a cultural omnivore, fairly eclectic in my interests, and I’ve found that I'm even more eclectic right now. I'm trying to keep my mind open and stimulated. I've had to develop a habit that at the end of the day, if there's a really interesting webinar at 7 pm, I watch that, and it's a wonderful way to end the day and replenish me.
For artists that I think have been overlooked or ignored, there's a very big project going on at The Shed, in Hudson Yards in New York, and they're featuring the work of Howardena Pindell, who's a wonderful African American artist and who’s had a strong and steady creative career for many years. I've been paying a lot of attention to Simone Leigh’s work. Simone was somebody that I met at RISD; she was an adjunct until she became famous. She’s got a beautiful piece on the Penn campus now, and she's also the first woman of color to be selected to represent the USA in the Venice Biennale. Because we're planning a film program, I've been looking a lot at film and trying to focus on women directors. I haven't seen Nomadland yet, have you? It just won all those awards. I was so delighted to see that Chloé Zhao, the director, is getting all kinds of kudos. I love Miranda July's work and her latest film, Kajillionaire, was really quite terrific. So, again, I’m being an omnivore. I'm trying to keep engaged with world culture and I’ve branched out to some new things that I maybe wouldn't have, under normal circumstances.
NS: I'm impressed by how tapped in you remain to art and culture during COVID. How has your thinking about the artist’s role in society evolved, not just during your time at Moore, but over the course of your career, and now with COVID?
PCP: In my role as a critic and a writer, I feel emboldened. I've always been inclined to write about artists who engage in different forms of activism. I feel that it's more important than ever to be featuring and revealing and considering the work of artists who are getting into the fray. COVID has really amplified this attention to the needs and the urgent status of different parts of our world. I do think that artists, designers and creatives bring an interesting perspective and intelligence to some of these problems, because they can be very direct and concrete, in terms of materials and distribution of the work. But they can also deal with some of the more emotional parts of a crisis as well.
As a community, we need to do everything we can to support and encourage our students to be more externally facing and to catapult them into the world; to help them find interesting ways of engaging, in addition to the great work that they do with our faculty and our professional staff here on campus.
NS: How do you see Moore, and the community that exists in and around Moore, contributing to the broader discourse around art and design? And do you think about it differently now than you did when you first arrived?
PCP: I think we have to continue to do a deep dive in terms of mission and purpose. The College is getting very good at doing this. What is the unique role of a small institution at a time like this, and are there ways that we could more nimble and more responsive? What does it mean to be future facing and what do we keep doing that's the same and what are the things that we need to change? There’s something about the focus, concentration and scale of our ecosystem that breeds a lot of potential.
I don't think we want to get back to normal. We want to learn from the lessons, and some have been a little painful and difficult…but as we think about the future, let's make sure that we're not just retreating back and think about where we really want to go. We want to be back on campus and we want to have that sense of community again, but we also have great lessons about blended learning and hybrid teaching. That’s a pretty powerful dynamic. All of us have to rethink what our roles are, because our roles are changing. In a way, I think Moore is more powerful than it's ever been before. Moore is not diminished by this situation. Moore has the capacity to flourish and is flourishing.
NS: How do you feel that the role of the academic dean has changed over time because of COVID or otherwise?
The past year has required a deep attention to so many things. There’s been this deeper sense of humanity in our work that we have to contend with and nurture every day. The Moore community is more vibrant, in a strange way, because of all these challenges.
NS: You’ve spearheaded a lot of projects and initiatives during your time here, not just in collaboration with internal colleagues but also outside artists, curators and organizational partners. What’s been the most rewarding or memorable part of this work?
PCP: I've always been about collaboration. I think we do our best work together rather than alone, which is a very paradoxical thing to say, because I’m a writer. That work does take a certain kind of concentration and sometimes isolation, even if you're dealing with ideas that are very much in the world. But it's something I sought out to balance—that interiority of writing with the exteriority of meaningful partnerships and collaborations. My curiosity about other people and the culture of different organizations…that's just so incumbent of higher education and makes it so much more dynamic.
It was a real treat for me, and I hope for others as well, to have Mierle Laderman Ukeles embedded here for eight days in Philadelphia [in November 2019], and to partner with Pew and Temple Contemporary and Penn, on a significant anniversary of her Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969!, which she wrote in Philadelphia. It was very meaningful to honor this iconic, feminist artist and her work, which seems to feel more and more important all the time—the kinds of things that she was embarking on as a very young artist and with a lot of courage and pushback and disappointment along the way.
Art Education and its focus on Disability Studies has been very rich. When Moore hosted the second International Conference on Disability Studies, Art & Education [in October 2019]—and it was almost 450 people at that conference, it was remarkable—the purpose and the alignment of those practices and theories was so important. I've certainly enjoyed my collaborations with Daniel Tucker and the ongoing conversations that he has had, which have brought really interesting people and important ideas to the College. Game Changers [Moore’s annual Animation & Game Arts event]…these are just highlights; I could go on. The Walentas Fellowship is also an important initiative, to make connections in the city of Philadelphia and to bring an interesting person into Moore’s community for two years to engage in unprecedented work. We don’t have any strict guidelines for what a Walentas Fellow should do; it’s something that gets created and imagined.
NS: Are there any other takeaways from your time at Moore that you would be willing to share?
PCP: I'm big on de-siloing—again, I think we do our best work together and not alone—and I'd like to make sure that those silos, if they still exist in some way, are highly permeable and let ideas filter in and emanate out in interesting ways. That’s important for Moore’s continued health.
The lessons I've learned, being in all these different schools, is that if you're going to be a successful leader, you have to work successfully with your faculty. You don't succeed in these positions if faculty doesn't trust you. We keep getting to a higher level at Moore. I think faculty governance is at a much richer and more robust place than it was five years ago. I'm not saying it's because of me, but the faculty is working together as an orchestrated group of people, and governance is having a significant impact on the College.
NS: Knowing how active you are beyond your work at Moore—and you told me this will be your last academic job, but I know it won't be your last job—what is the first thing you’re going to do on July 1?
PCP: Well, I can’t sleep late because I have a rescue dog that I have to walk early. [laughter]
I think I'm going to engage in acts of gratitude. I want to take some time to acknowledge the significance of the moment. Forty years in higher ed is a long time, and I want to understand that and then embrace some other creative opportunities. I have some exciting writing projects lined up and I’m working with RAIR [Recycled Artist in Residency] here in Philadelphia. They got a Pew Center for Arts & Heritage grant to look at this eight-acre Superfund site on the Delaware River. I'm a curatorial advisor for them and also a site respondent. I have a nice little cluster of independent projects.
But I want to take time to feel and express gratitude for my time here at Moore and the wonderful people that I've worked with, and what we've been able to achieve together. It’s never enough; I'm a terribly harsh critic of myself. I think there have been good changes. There could have been more, but it’s just the way it is. I've been at five different institutions and I have very dear friends from all of those places that are still important parts of my life, so I want to take time to celebrate that. And then, maybe I’ll begin to plow ahead with some other projects, with a little less distraction than I feel right now.
I will always be interested in higher ed. I'm sure I'll read all the time about it. I'm very interested in theorization about higher ed and where it’s going to go in the future, what's it's going to look like because of COVID, and all kinds of other things, so I'll probably always be some sort of active participant or spectator.
NS: So first thing, acts of gratitude. Second thing, getting to work and reading up on higher ed. [laughter]
PCP: I guess so! I'll also be a new grandparent, so that will be a fun thing to throw into the mix. So yeah, that will be exciting, to be with friends and family. It will be really, really wonderful.
NS: Maybe one day you can go to the beach in the middle of all that.
PCP: Be spontaneous! With our jobs, it’s hard to do that. But, you know, I hope I learn how to be spontaneous.