New York City’s Frick Collection, a house turned museum constructed by Henry Clay Frick in 1912, is set off from busy 70th Street by a serene pocket garden designed by architect Russell Page in 1977, which would be destroyed by the museum's planned expansion. While the museum describes the 42,000-square-foot addition as something that would “further fulfill Henry Clay Frick’s long-standing vision to offer public access to its works of art," others, including a group of 51 prominent artists and architects — Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, and Frank Stella among them — think it would undermine exactly what they love about the place.
Under the banner of Unite to Save the Frick, this group sent a letter to the city, copied to the museum, expressing their displeasure. Provided exclusively to SEEN, the letter demonstrates a clear concern for the future of the museum’s integrity. “As professionals working in the art world … we strongly believe that the Frick’s effectiveness as a display space lies in its intimacy,” the letter reads. “Replacing the hall and garden with an institutional 106-foot tower will indeed destroy the famed Frick experience for artists and art lovers around the world.” Last year, the Page garden was named to the Cultural Landscape Foundation’s list of the most endangered art landscapes in the United States.
While the new architectural plan will preserve the original building’s gallery spaces, add a rooftop garden, and open up the house’s second floor to the public for the first time, the letter’s signatories are worried about the museum’s larger context as an architectural complex. It is that context, with its meandering mansion rooms and views out to the garden barricading the street (the museum's lawn facing Fifth Avenue will remain under the plan), that makes the Frick unique among New York’s increasingly behemoth museums — the new Whitney Meatpacking District building included — which prize space and flexibility over nostalgic ambience.
“I was super shocked to hear about the plan,” says Richard Phillips, one of the letter’s signatories. “The Frick was important to me in my formative years as an artist, right up until now. It can’t be understated in terms of the special quality that it has in the midst of Manhattan.” Disrupting the overall flow of the museum as an artifact, in other words, would change it irreparably. “To destroy this sanctuary that does have this intimate space just for the propensity to build would be irresponsible,” Phillips says.
Artist Rachel Feinstein, who marshaled much of the group behind the letter, argues for keeping a piece of history as-is. The proposed Frick expansion comes in a moment of ambitious museum-making that sometimes feels like museum space for the sake of museums. “It’s more about the architect than the artist. The spaces are so gigantic, don’t look at the beautiful little Manet or Degas or Picasso on the wall, instead you’re looking at the sheer drop of some window. What is the point of that?” The critique is an emotional rather than logistical one, to be sure (and not specific to the Frick). But shouldn’t New York’s artistic community save some space for nostalgia? “You can’t throw out everything. It pains me to go by Madison Square Garden every day and imagine what used to be there,” Feinstein says. “I think everything is always better the way it was.”
Critics have also spoken out against the renovation plan, including New York Magazine's Justin Davidson, who wrote that the Frick needs a third way, "somewhere between slavish reproduction and slavish opposition. There should be a modern equivalent for the craftsmanship, detail, and luxury materials of a century ago. The problem is, there isn't." "Great public places and works of landscape architecture deserve to be treated like great buildings," the Times's Michael Kimmelman wrote of Page garden in an article titled "The Case Against a Mammoth Frick Collection Addition."
Yet the Frick is not preserved as it was as a robber-baron's home, back when Frick himself strolled the halls. Expansions and additions occurred in 1977, when the garden in question was built, with a coat check and other museum facilities, as well as in 2011, with an exterior corridor transforming into a gallery. The need to expand isn’t the problem so much as an execution that will leave the museum bereft of what once set it apart. “It’s one of the few structures in New York that have the presence of a free-standing building,” says Peter Pennoyer, an architect and trustee of the Morgan Library (which has been added to, too). “It’s really hard to force this large museum expansion onto the original building. It will simply diminish the experience for everyone who goes.”
The letter’s signatories urge the Frick to look into alternatives to the tower, though the group hasn’t settled on a single proposal. Pennoyer points out the “underutilized” Frick Art Reference Library building, the potential of underground excavation, and the use of timed entry tickets as possibilities. Other options include acquiring ancillary space, as the Cooper Hewitt has done with its recent expansion. Thus far, “the institution has done a great job of being stewards of the original building,” Pennoyer says. “I suspect that they have opportunities to exploit what they have without transforming it.”
With the cultural force of the city’s artistic community against the expansion, the museum may find it has more value pursuing its own path than trying to play catch-up. “It’s already great. It doesn’t need to be greater,” Richard Prince added in a statement. The letter acts a public critique of museums’ attempts to be universal, appealing to international audiences of tourists, rather than specific. “If it is the Frick, which it is, then that’s how it is,” Phillips says.
The full text of the letter is copied below.
May 5, 2015
Dear Mayor de Blasio and Chair Srinivasan:
The residential scale of the Frick Collection exerts a special power over those who walk its halls. To have visitors experience the feeling of living with art was the intention of founder Henry Clay Frick as he envisioned his personal residence being opened to the public. Up until now, the Frick’s fidelity to its founder’s vision of a “house museum” has been laudable. Those of us in the art world who cherish the unique and tranquil ambiance offered by the Frick are urging the Frick to withdraw its proposed plan and consider alternative methods of expansion that would preserve the character essential to its appeal.
As professionals working in the art world (sculptors, painters, critics, journalists, dealers, gallerists, financiers, and more), we strongly believe that the Frick’s effectiveness as a display space lies in its intimacy. Viewing highlights of the collection—whether the photorealism of Vermeer’s Officer and Laughing Girl or the diffused softness of Renoir’s La Promenade—we are transported by the gallery’s serene environment, and encouraged to reflect on what it means to let art inhabit one’s daily life. It’s personal at the Frick, and that is a rare achievement.
The ensemble the Frick wishes to raze, composed of the Reception Hall Pavilion and the Russell Page-designed Viewing Garden on East 70th Street, is a masterstroke of the evolving museum’s design, positioning the mansion in counterpoint to the Manhattan street grid, and optimizing the “house museum” experience. Replacing the hall and garden with an institutional 106-foot tower will indeed destroy the famed Frick experience for artists and art lovers around the world.
The Frick is revered for its wise curatorial and architectural decisions, and we hope that your guidance will ensure that it does not break with this tradition. Please deny the Frick’s current expansion proposal and urge its leadership to consider the many worthy and reasonable alternatives for modernizing this one-of-a-kind gallery so beloved in the international art community.
Jeff Koons, artist
Chuck Close, painter
Rachel Feinstein, artist
John Currin, painter
Helen and Brice Marden, artist
Frank Stella, artist
Richard Prince, artist
Cindy Sherman, artist
Claude Lalanne, sculptor
Inez van Lamsweerde, artist
Vinoodh Matadin, artist
Ben Kinmont, artist
Deborah Kass, artist
Marie Lalanne, painter
Dorothea Rockburne, painter
Sean Landers, painter
Cecily Brown, artist
Walton Ford, artist
Lisa Yuskavage, artist
Rudolph Stingel, artist
Jessica Craig Martin, artist
Nird Hod, artist
Matvey Levenstein, artist
Richard Phillips, artist
Marianne Vitale, artist
James Capper, sculptor
Laylah Ali, artist
David Salle, artist
Makoto Saito, artist
Jackie Buechner, painter
Sofia Coppola, filmmaker
T.J. Wilcox, filmmaker
Marc Jacobs, fashion designer
Sarah Morris, artist
Paul Branca, artist
Julian Lethbridge, artist
Miranda Brooks, landscape architect
Simon Thoresen, architect
Irving and Jackie Blum, gallerist and art dealer
Zoe Lescaze, art journalist
Adrian Dannatt, art/architecture journalist
Nina Griscom, arts journalist
Paul Kasmin, director, Paul Kasmin Gallery
John B. Koegel, art law attorney
Barbara Chu, Emigrant Bank Fine Art Finance
Offer Waterman, gallery director, London
Eric Zetterquist, gallerist
Allegra Thoresen, Di Donna Gallery
Courtney Conway, Di Donna Gallery
James Sharp Brodsky
Bruce and Maria Bockmann
cc: Senator Charles Schumer; Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney; Councilmember Daniel Garodnick;
State Senator Liz Krueger; Assemblyman Dan Quart; Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer;
Manhattan Community Board 8; Margot Bogert and Ian Wardropper, The Frick Collection;
Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen; Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris