August 1, 2014

The debate over the planned expansion of the Frick Collection



The Frick Art Reference Library Reading Room, The Frick Collection

New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman criticized the Frick Collection‘s plans for expansion in a column titled “The Case Against a Mammoth Frick Collection Addition” yesterday, drawing similarities to the controversial changes proposed at the Morgan Library and the New York Public Library:

New Yorkers have seen the consequences of trustee restlessness and real estate magical thinking, which destroy or threaten to undo favorite buildings. Not so long ago, the Morgan Library & Museum, another Gilded Age landmark, built an addition that flopped. The New York Public Library wanted to disembowel its historic building at 42nd Street before thinking better of it.

Kimmelman argues that the Frick doesn’t need to expand—that its strength is doing small intimate shows rather than popular blockbuster exhibitions. Plus, he doesn’t like that the current plan will mean the elimination of a garden on East 70th street designed by British landscape architect Russell Page—a space he calls “one of those little New York treasures.” He doesn’t see the Frick library as historically significant building and concludes the piece suggesting that if the trustees are “hellbent” on expansion, that he’d rather see the garden saved than the library.

Stephen Bury, the Andrew W. Mellon Chief Librarian at the Frick Art Reference Library, who is mentioned in Kimmelman’s piece as wanting to keep as much of the archives on hand for visitors and scholars, took to the Art Libraries Society of North America listserv to add his reaction:

We are proposing a very modest, un-mammoth-like extension to The Frick Collection. It does not include a tower—the addition will be two stories on the street and then step back to match the Library’s six stories—but rather is sensitively proportional to our existing and beloved buildings and our needs.
We have considered all of the alternatives Kimmelman proposes, in fact he learned of them from us, but rejected them as insufficient or unfeasible. The one suggestion of Kimmelman’s that we have never contemplated is to reconfigure the Library.  The Frick Art Reference Library is intricately bound to the mission and identity of the Frick.  Strengthening the connection between the Library and the Collection is in fact a major goal of our current plan.  On a practical level, the landmarked John Russell Pope 1935 building is purpose-built with short ceiling stack floors and could not be successfully converted to other uses.

The Frick Collection Director, Ian Wardropper said to our staff today: “By raising these alternatives the article reminds me of the centrality of the Library to the mission of the Collection and reinforces that our choice of site and the thoughtful nature of the plan is far and away the best solution to our pressing needs.”

I have probably no need to remind colleagues of the importance of the Frick Art Reference Library in the international art history infrastructure. And while we are helping to pioneer such things as web archiving, collaborative digitization and image-analysis of photo archives, we are convinced that physical materials will still have a significant part to play in our discipline, and that some of these must remain onsite for security, fragility or for service reasons.

While Kimmleman says that the Frick Art Reference Library only sees about 23 visitors a day, Elizabeth Gorayeb, a late-19th/early-20th century art specialist at Sotheby’s calls the month of July before the library closes each year in August to be “like Walmart on Black Friday, but with more books and less stampedes.”


Claire Kelley is a the former Director of Library and Academic Marketing.