Hey, Fat Cats, Keep Your Mitts Off My Frick: Hoelterhoff

Artists keep making more art. How will this end?

I just walked past New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which continues expanding to keep up with the ceaseless activity of thoughtlessly prolific artists.

MoMA has just finished ingesting the site of the hapless American Folk Art Museum, which defaulted on its debt and was purchased by its rich neighbor.

When, last winter, I went to a town hall meeting of mostly stunned New Yorkers who questioned how one museum could destroy a smaller one, a curator explained why this had to be.

She said an unimpeded circulation would best tell the story of modern art. The folk art museum was in the way and it had to go.

At least the new expansion will obliterate traces of the depressing expansion only finished in 2004.

Edward Hopper might have inspired the lobby with its alienating atmosphere and people in uncertain transit. Roll up to the fifth floor for the masterpieces including Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” and you hear the clink of cutlery and smell food. Why does there have to be a feeding station around the corner from Cezanne’s apple still life?

Isn’t there an obesity crisis in this country? Why do museums have to be in the food business? Yes, I know food makes money, but so would gambling tables.

Endless Expansion

When the expansion with its 40,000 new square feet opens in 2018 or 2019, MoMA will need to expand once more to accommodate the art piled up in the meanwhile and the frightening army of performance artists chasing over the Brooklyn Bridge.

Is Radio City Music Hall, just down the block, too small? What about that old-looking Saint Thomas Church, which hugs a desirable Fifth Avenue corner and attracts useless Episcopalians and homeless people?

MoMA’s art challenges are not unique.

When the Whitney Museum of American Art moves into its gigantic new building by the High Line in 2015, it cedes its modest bunker on Madison Avenue to the Metropolitan Museum of Art so the Met can show more modern art than it does now. I’ve never met a person who goes to the Met expecting to see a thrilling assortment of works from the Jeff Koons atelier. Why be encouraging?

More Mummies

Here was a missed opportunity to make world news by issuing a statement saying the Met was shrinking: “We will cede the world of the living to new museums and show more mummies.”

Which brings me to an announcement that’s provoking widespread fascination: The Frick Collection’s plan to attach a massive six-story addition with roof garden to its Fifth Avenue mansion.

As most any visitor appreciates the minute they hear the burbling water in the courtyard, the Frick is a special place. Elegantly positioned across from Central Park between 70th and 71st streets on the east side of Manhattan, the Frick casts a spell. It’s a wondrous melding of intimate and grand.

Children under the age of 10 are not admitted.

Adults rarely wait long to enter, unless the Frick is hosting a blockbuster special exhibition which turns it into just another museum and not the magnificent legacy of Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919), the industrialist and prodigious art collector. It is said that he liked to wander through his gallery at night in quiet contemplation.

Singing Saint

A feeling of serenity is what infuses us, too, when we stand in front of Giovanni Bellini’s late 15th-century “St. Francis in the Desert.” As he opens his arms to sing an ode to the beauty of the world, you can almost hear him.

Just why does the Frick need to expand? Have exiting visitors fumed: “Very disappointing! I will never come back until you build a bigger gift shop and let me see Mrs. Frick’s bedroom”? Has there been a survey?

Opening up the second floor’s residential rooms is part of the proposed expansion plan, which will mean more people downstairs standing in front of St Francis.

Why would I want to see her bed? Or the rooms of their ill-humored daughter, who built the Frick’s library and archive and made me and all female art-history students wear skirts in the 1970s? The downstairs dining room is sufficient.

This proposed tower rises from the garden that extends on the east side of the Frick, a lovely spot viewable from the street and a living monument to the skills of British landscape architect Russell Page. If the Frick’s trustees can look at the bloated beaux-arts plans for the addition and decide to destroy the garden, maybe we need some new trustees.

Bulking Up

Over the decades, the Frick has implemented sensitive changes to the mansion. This expansion changes the mission and atmosphere of the museum by bulking it up with more coat room, more shopping, more special exhibition space and more offices.

Why not lose a few staffers instead? How many hundreds of people need to work here? Why not focus on the gem-like shows the Frick has always done so well, featuring a masterwork from the collection augmented by a treasure from abroad.

The current small loan show devoted to Parmigianino’s mysterious painting of a “Turkish Slave,” borrowed from Parma’s National Gallery, strikes me as just perfect.

For a system-shocking example of how pushy, rich and clueless trustees can ruin a New York City landmark, visit J. P. Morgan’s Library further south on Madison Avenue. The financier (1837-1913) didn’t live here -- his beloved books and manuscripts did, though the original building expanded in stylistic harmony after his death.

Garden Killers

In 1991, an acceptable expansion featuring a glass-covered garden court linked the library with a family brownstone on the northern corner.

That just wasn’t big enough. The $40 million expansion was torn down to make way for a lobby with a facade like a gigantic Sub-Zero refrigerator finished in 2006 by the overextended Renzo Piano (the new Whitney is also his).

What a horror. Walking into the anonymous hall the other morning, the first thing I heard were chairs being pushed into cafe formation. In the evening, the vertiginous little concert hall tests the balance of oldsters. The inconvenient library, tucked off to the right, no longer exudes its upholstered grandeur inside this sterile environment.

Right now, as is bound to happen, rich patrons with fine collections are dropping dead. Before they do so, could they not be persuaded to set up their own museums and leave the ones we have alone?

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is an executive editor for art at Bloomberg News. All opinions are her own.)

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