Changing times at Frick?

Art Thoughts
photo: Adam Milliron The solid mahogany doors of the Frick Art Museum now boast glass panels signifying an increased openness at the Frick Art and Historical Center—an aim of new director Robin Nicholson. The solid mahogany doors of the Frick Art Museum now boast glass panels signifying an increased openness at the Frick Art and Historical Center — an aim of new director Robin Nicholson.
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The Frick Art and Historical Center is the creature of Miss Frick (Helen Clay Frick was always called that), the daughter of industrialist Henry Clay Frick, and it sprang into existence after the reclusive 96-​year-​old grand dame died at Clayton, her childhood home in Pittsburgh’s Point Breeze in 1984.

Since 1970, there had been an art museum, small and beautiful, distant from Clayton, looking out over Frick Park, a 644-​acre tract given by her father to the city of Pittsburgh when his daughter became of age. The museum was the only public access on the Clayton estate: it was free to the public, filled with great paintings and almost as awe-​inspiring as the woman who founded it.

Behind it, kept up but also mothballed, was the original family home, with another historic collection of art, a working glasshouse, a garage filled with ancient carriages and motor cars, a children’s cottage with a bowling alley, family papers and memorabilia.

There were maintained gardens and, in a corner, a poignant little pet graveyard, the wooden tombstones topped with tennis balls. The Frick family tombs, including the patriarch, Henry Clay, his wife, and his daughter, Helen, and her siblings, overlook this setting from Homewood Cemetery about a mile away. There is an historic context here; not the whole Frick story, but significant pieces in a very complex puzzle.

The Center has had three directors, all of whom have been fortunate that the institution is securely endowed (it weathered the 2008 recession and has recovered from it). That alone has enabled it to restore Clayton to exacting standards, sustain the art museum’s continuing exhibitions, create and expand a car and carriage museum, build a visitor center, and embark on many educational and outreach programs that other museums might well envy. There have been many, many high points.

Nicholson, perhaps more than his predecessors, is looking at the campus as an “estate,” held together within the 5.5 acres of spacious grounds that need to be integrated.”

The third director, Robin Nicholson, in place for less than a year, comes to the Frick with almost no major problems to confront. His predecessor, Bill Bodine, discreetly put the house in order, especially financially, in uncertain times, launching a healthy capital campaign, which is on target and expected to conclude this year.

Nicholson is working on future initiatives. Sitting in the garden of the Frick’s café in the summer, he outlined his developing ideas about the place. He pointed out that there are few organizations like the Frick in America: a house museum that celebrates the early years of the successful, if controversial industrialist, who, to his partners’ concern, took a worrisome interest in art (his daughter almost belligerently sustaining that legacy); an art museum with a small group of absolutely choice paintings and sculptures that echo Frick’s greater achievements in his greater museum, the Frick Collection in New York City (also sustained by his daughter); and developing congeries — the car and carriage museum, the restaurant and, a little neglected now, but clearly in his eye, the 1897 Glasshouse, designed by Alden and Harlow, an exceptionally rare survival from Pittsburgh’s Gilded Age.

Nicholson, perhaps more than his predecessors, is looking at the campus as an “estate,” held together within the 5.5 acres of spacious grounds that need to be integrated. The historic main entrance to Clayton on Penn Avenue is to be re-​opened to pedestrians, alighting from the nearby bus stop. LEED Certification takes into account such things. Equally symbolic, the door panels to the art museum now have glass panes replacing the mahogany panels, opening the museum to the public gaze. Inside there are housekeeping matters to concern him.

In searching for the new director, the Frick trustees (there are 30, including six who are required to be direct descendants of Henry Clay Frick) took into account the fact that the institution needed to attract a younger and more diverse membership. That is the norm nowadays in all museums, but The Frick had more than a sufficiency of gray hair and good shoes. In Pittsburgh, The Andy Warhol Museum’s aims and the contemporary thrust of The Carnegie Museum of Art are perhaps ahead on that score.

Programming and social activities are expected to change significantly. Nicholson’s previous posts at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts — head of exhibitions and deputy director for art and education — culminated in a spectacularly successful show he supervised: Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée Picasso. It had a quarter of a million visitors and an estimated $30 million in financial benefit to the Richmond region. In Pittsburgh, his first foray will be next year with an exhibition currently travelling America: Killer Heels: The Art of the High-​Heeled Shoe, a survey of shoes from the 16th century to contemporary, more “pervy” models. A different kind of shoe for the Frick!

Nicholson’s trajectory in the art world is somewhat unusual. After Cambridge (no harm there) he worked for the venerable Fine Art Society in Edinburgh and London but found it less to his liking than his next job, which flowed from it. As curator of the Drambuie Collection in Edinburgh, Scotland (Drambuie, the sticky Scottish liqueur), he showed Jacobite material, including fine Jacobite glass. That collection, as with many corporate collections, was sold at auction for record prices. In America, his career has been on more conventional museum lines.

Perhaps until now. The hunch is that heels will soon be a kickin’ at the Frick.

Graham Shearing

Graham is a collector, critic, curator, consultant and writer who has lived in Pittsburgh for nearly 20 years. After studying law at the University of Cambridge and reading for the English Bar, he was distracted by the lure of art and has been so ever since.

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