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New Slick Frick: Improved Circulation, Bigger Gallery Space, More Concert Seats (Banished Library Books)

I had a sense of déjà vu when I heard that the Frick Collection’s expansion plan grew out of the necessity of repeatedly de-installing portions of the its renowned permanent collection to accommodate major temporary exhibitions, such as…

View of the Frick’s Oval Room during its 2016 Van Dyck show
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

We had to take down two permanent-collection galleries to make our current Canova exhibition happen,” noted Ian Wardropper, the Frick’s director, during his wide-ranging conversation with me about the Frick’s expansion/renovation plans.

This brought to mind the Kimbell Art Museum’s similarly motivated 2013 expansion (which I reviewed for the Wall Street Journal). It took years for both the New York and Fort Worth museums to make the multiple design changes that ultimately calmed the stormy opposition from the preservation-minded critics who championed the museums’ beloved original indoor and outdoor spaces.

That said, the Kimbell had one major advantage over the Frick: It had a large tract of adjacent land on which to realize its ambitions:

Kimbell director Eric Lee, on the Piano Pavilion’s green roof, at the time of the addition’s opening
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The Frick needed to shoehorn its aspirations within a constricted urban footprint. Below is a rendering (still being tweaked) of the new 70th Street main-entrance façade, as shown in the 82-page compilation of Presentation Views that the Frick shared with the Landmark Preservation Commission at its May 29 public hearing. (The LPC approved the plan on June 26.) The right side of the rendering shows the planned increase in height on the east—most notably, a seven-story addition that matches the height of the Frick Art Reference Library’s existing building, behind it on 71st Street. It will include classroom space, library support space, library conservation space and other functions.

The Frick’s existing facilities were manifestly inadequate, not only for display (prompting the creation of claustrophobic subterranean galleries), but also for providing contemporary museum amenities (cramped, corridor-like museum shop; no café). It is undeniable that an institution as distinguished as the Frick should have such expected (but lacking) facilities as a dedicated space for education and a well-equipped, modern conservation lab.

An urgent, long overdue improvement is easy wheelchair access: “Everyone will be able to come in through the front door,” Wardropper promised.

To preserve the Frick’s intimate character, while improving functionality and visitor flow, architect Annabelle Selldorf orchestrated what she calls, “interstitial architectural interventions.”

Annabelle Selldorf at the Clark Art Institute, where she designed alterations to the room layouts in the original building, in conjunction with the 2014 Tadao Ando-designed expansion
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The reconfiguration “makes for a much better flow for people,” according to Wardropper. “Most people will continue to go, as they always have, through the [original] galleries,” which will remain unchanged. But alternately, visitors may proceed directly from the expanded reception hall to the new (expanded) special exhibition space. A new passageway will lead from the museum, through the new education center, to the Frick Art Reference Library.

Having gotten their way with the preservation of Russell Page‘s garden (which would have been eliminated under a previous plan), some critics are now expressing dismay over the planned relocation of the so-called Music Room (actually more used for lectures than for concerts). It will be relocated from the main floor to a purpose-built subterranean space beneath the garden. The circular space that the Music Room currently occupies will be transformed into new rectangular gallery space.

Below are images showing what some of the below-garden space looks like, as shown in May’s LPC presentation. If there were ever an argument for addressing a building’s infrastructure deficiencies, this is it:

The verdict on the new concert hall will ultimately depend upon its acoustics, which are still being tweaked and tested by Arup, a multi-faceted firm that includes acoustics design under its very wide umbrella. Anthony Tommasini, the NY Times‘ chief music critic, recently decried the plan to supplant the Music Room with new galleries, saying that the current concert hall (147 seats, compared to the new one’s 220) is “the closest thing to a 19th-century music salon this city has to offer.”

Maybe so, but “the Music Room can be terrible for the spoken word,” Wardropper insisted. “I get complaints on a pretty regular basis from people saying that they couldn’t hear a lecture, depending on where they’re sitting. Musicians don’t complain about it as much, partly because it’s an intimate room and they like being there. But the quality of the sound, if you ask them, is not perfect in a circular room.”

Wardropper told me that “we spent a lot of time thinking about” demolishing the Music Room. “It’s just very difficult to hang flat paintings on curved walls. We love the space, but there are some things that are going to have to be sacrificed in order to make this all work: It’s a very tight plan.”

The shape of the new auditorium, still in-design, will be “curvilinear,” he said. Here’s a rough diagram (see lower right) from the Frick’s LPC presentation:

One advantage of relocating the auditorium is that it will be in “a much more contained area [away from the galleries], so we can have more evening events. We can let it out to community groups,” Wardropper explained. “Right now, if you go to a concert in the music room, we have to have guards in a large part of the museum. That makes it more expensive and it makes us more reluctant to have events there.”

I’ll reserve judgment on the new auditorium until I see and hear it.

Planned changes to the esteemed Frick Art Reference Library triggered traumatic flashbacks to the heated controversy over the planned removal of stacks at the New York Public Library (NYPL), which the late Ada Louise Huxtable singlehandedly quashed in her searing Wall Street Journal critique.

Wardropper told me that the Frick plans to “extract some of the lower levels of the stacks of the library,” to free up some space “for common purposes of the whole institution. We currently have about 25% of our books offsite. We will increase that to a maximum of 50%….It’s partly just technical: Each stack supports the one above, so we can only take out units of them [shades of the NYPL]. If we’re going to take out one unit, we have to take out several stacks. So it just made sense to take out units of the lower stacks.”

Perhaps, but that’s a lot of books to be requested in advance by impatient scholars.

Entrance to the Frick Art Reference Library on 71st Street
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Part of the reason for displacing stacks is to create room for a “digital art history lab,” providing “ways in which new digital techniques can be applied to traditional art history,” in Wardropper’s words.

For the general public, the crucial question remains: “Will there be improved opportunities for viewing art?”

According to the museum’s press release, the new Frick the space for display will increase by 30%. Happily, the old downstairs exhibition galleries will be downgraded to more suitable uses—coatrooms and bathrooms. To more than compensate for the loss of that unappealing display space (which could not accommodate large works), new, versatile galleries will be created on the museum’s main floor (including the space released by moving the Music Room) and the intimate second-floor rooms, previously off-limits to visitors, will be used to display small paintings, drawings and objets d’art (as previously shown to me by Wardropper in the tour that he gave me for the CultureGrrl Video at the end of this post).

A former upstairs bedroom suite, used for meetings of the Frick’s board
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Those who want the Frick to remain exactly as it was will never be on board for a major capital project. But the Frick is already not “what it was.” This plan will allow it to better realize the activities, programs and erudite exhibitions (almost always related to the permanent collection) in which it is already brilliantly engaged.

CORRECTION: A prior version of this post erroneously reported that the Oval Room would be demolished. Wardropper was referring to the Music Room, not the Oval Room, when he spoke to me about the need to demolish a room because it was “very difficult to hang flat paintings on curved walls.” The Oval Room stays. My apologies for this misunderstanding.

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