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Published: Saturday, 10/15/2005

Art museum chief curator was painter in early life

Robert F. Phillips, 73, an Abstract Expressionist painter who brought that sensibility to the Toledo Museum of Art as its first - and, until his retirement in 2003, only - curator of contemporary and modern art, died of cancer Thursday in his Denver, N.C., home.

Mr. Phillips, formerly of West Toledo and the Waterville area, was also the museum's chief curator.

The crowning moment of his career was the opening in 2001 of the outdoor sculpture garden, said Roger Berkowitz, retired museum director. The sculpture garden features pieces spanning the museum's then-100-year existence.

"That's something he worked tremendously hard for," Mr. Berkowitz said. "He was responsible for the acquisition of many of the works. He worked out where every piece would go. He worked with the landscape architects. It brought together the experience of his whole career.

"He was smart, and he had a very good eye," Mr. Berkowitz said.

Mr. Phillips approached artists, donors, and community members with equal ease.

"Bob was a wonderful warm, witty person," said Carol Bintz, chief operating officer of the museum. "He could sit down and talk with anybody. He was definitely not a stuffy museum type. He could be quite a jokester."

Mr. Phillips was responsible for the museum's acquisition of key works by Picasso, Leger, and Mondrian. He was hired in 1971 by then-museum director Otto Wittmann. He was a former director of the Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, Wis.

A native of Birmingham, Ala., Mr. Phillips received a bachelor of fine arts degree from the Newark Academy of Fine Arts.

He came to Toledo with 20 years' experience as an artist who was "a good painter, but not great," Mr. Phillips told The Blade in 2003. "I found curating just as creative as hands-on art. Building and organizing a collection or an exhibit uses the same sorts of talents."

He was on the board of the Arts Commission of Greater Toledo and was on a design review group for the new Maumee River crossing.

Surviving are his wife of 28 years, Jill; sons, Greg and Rob Phillips; daughters, Lisa and Angela Phillips, and eight grandchildren.

No visitation or services have been scheduled. Arrangements are by the E.F. Drum Funeral Home, Lincolnton, N.C.

The family suggests tributes to the Hospice of Lincoln County, Lincolnton, N.C., or the Blumenthal Cancer Center, Charlotte, N.C.

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