Stop ‘Awful’ Plan to Expand Frick, Says Ex-Director

Little has galvanized New York’s cultural community like the Frick Collection’s eager proposal to stick a squat tower in a pretty garden as part of a huge expansion.

With its hushed atmosphere and superbly selective Old Master collection, the Frick is a very special place.

Steel magnate Henry Frick (1849-1919), who lived upstairs, left enough money to transform his Fifth Avenue mansion into a private museum.

There are plenty of museums on the planet, but none like the Frick Collection. Where else can you contemplate Bellini’s “St. Francis in the Desert” and then slip out to the lushly planted interior courtyard to sit and dream a little on a marble bench?

So let’s ruin it! Let’s make it big and noisy and crowded!

That’s the plan as presented by director Ian Wardropper and his trustees. They want a bigger auditorium, fabulous cloak room, bigger gift shop, more offices, more exhibition space and educational facilities and, very likely, a restaurant.

I spoke with Everett Fahy about the proposed expansion. The highly regarded Renaissance scholar was director of the Frick from 1973 to 1986.

Now a consultant to the auction house Christie’s, Fahy lives with his books, catalogues, clip files and paintings in a quiet, dimly lit, high-ceilinged apartment across Central Park from Frick’s arched and stately residence. He liked to commute by bike.

Much Smaller

Hoelterhoff: What was the Frick like back then?

Fahy: So much smaller. I was there with two curators and wore many hats, including chief fundraiser and events planner. They now have some 15 people fundraising.

Hoelterhoff: The expansion would eliminate the garden that was created during your directorship by Russell Page.

Fahy: He was a genius. I remember he had a first, final and funny meeting with the Frick’s garden committee -- the wives of the trustees, who all had opinions on lantana and impatiens. And he said, “If you hire me, this will be our last meeting.” They did and left.

He took me around the Fifth Avenue garden and also did wonderful work bringing it back to its original shape, with a lot of pruning.

Hoelterhoff: The Frick’s Website includes a letter by Wardropper about the master plan that doesn’t mention Russell Page and only says that “a small garden was created, which has never been accessible to the public.” Does that matter? It’s as beautiful as an art work.

Fahy: They need to visit Europe. You don’t need to walk around. It’s ingenious how he raised the garden so that when you look at it from the street, it seems bigger.

Miss Frick’s Library

Hoelterhoff: What about the Frick Library, which was founded by his daughter in a separate building on 71st street?

Fahy: I combined the library with the museum, opening the door between the two -- that was Miss Frick’s door. If you really need to expand, start here. Young people use the Internet to write their papers. Very few come into the library.

There are 11 floors -- lots of office space. And the reading room -- it’s quite grand. There’s no reason why that can’t be used for lectures or large gatherings.

Hoelterhoff: A big part of the pitch is education. But last I checked the Frick doesn’t allow children under 10 and hopefully that won’t change.

Fahy: And why should it be on site? Same thing for the proposed conservation center. Works of this quality aren’t handled in-house. Masterworks are sent to specialists.

Huge Crowds

Hoelterhoff: There’s a fancy mansion next to Page’s garden that was the Berry-Hill Galleries, which went bust. While the Frick hasn’t said what the master plan would cost, the mansion would have been a fraction. I think it’s being turned into apartments now.

Fahy: Wardropper told me that the space didn’t work. But I don’t understand that, since the gallery had sales and exhibitions.

Hoelterhoff: The show of pictures from the Mauritshuis in The Hague attracted huge crowds and is cited as an argument for a bigger space.

Fahy: What I see is that he or the trustees want to do everything that a large museum does. One doesn’t need another place like the Met.

Something else that bothers me: The acquisition of works that really shouldn’t be there. Already years ago, the art historian John Pope-Hennessy was so irritated that the Frick was buying little tchotchkes, diluting the place.

Frick bought major pieces. He didn’t fool around with stuff by artists you never heard of or unrepresentative work.

My Big Obit

Hoelterhoff: What motivates trustees?

Fahy: Flattery. Not all, I must say. But for a number, it’s all about prestige. They are thinking of their obituaries.

Hoelterhoff: Let’s get back to the mission of the Frick.

Fahy: It’s a house museum. If it were kept as a house museum it would serve its purpose.

Hoelterhoff: Resistance to this proposal seems to be growing in part because the expansion of the Morgan Library by Renzo Piano is so gross.

Fahy: At the very least, the architects have to go back to the drawing table. I can’t believe anything close to the current designs would be approved by Landmarks Commission.

It’s awful. That intimacy and atmosphere would be lost.

This conversation was adapted from a longer interview. Manuela Hoelterhoff is an executive editor at Bloomberg News. Any opinions are her own.