Honoring the Past and Enhancing the Future: A Conversation with Director Ian Wardropper

This article is reprinted from the Spring/Summer 2018 issue of the Members’ Magazine.

rendering of Frick Collection building plan


In April, the Frick announced plans to upgrade and expand its buildings, the institution’s first comprehensive upgrade since 1935. The project will make more of the historic mansion and library accessible to the public, while updating essential facilities to maintain the collection and better serve a twenty-first-century audience. Selldorf Architects, a firm internationally recognized for its renovations of the Neue Galerie and the Clark Art Institute, will collaborate on the project with Beyer Blinder Belle, a leading architectural firm for historic preservation.

Rebecca Brooke, Editor: Visitors to the Frick often marvel that they feel as if they are guests in a private home. Will the project change that?

Ian Wardropper, Director: One of our primary goals is for visitors to feel as if nothing essential has changed. Our galleries are often described as an oasis of peace and tranquility, and they will remain this way. The project will not alter the mansion’s existing galleries, beyond improving the infrastructure — upgrading the skylights, for example.

One of the major benefits for visitors will be the addition of new galleries on the mansion’s second floor, which will be open to the public for the first time. These rooms were originally bedrooms and sitting rooms, but were converted into offices for museum staff in 1935. The spaces still have many original architectural details — fireplaces, decorative moldings, and wood paneling — and these features will be incorporated into the new galleries.

RB: Unlike most art museums, the Frick doesn’t display works chronologically or by school. Instead, paintings, sculptures, and furniture are arranged to complement each other, as they would be in a private home. Will that style be continued in the new galleries upstairs?

IW: Yes, the “house style” of mixing objects is a Frick signature. A wonderful example is the Living Hall on the first floor, where European paintings are displayed with carpets from the Middle East, Chinese porcelains, Renaissance bronzes from Italy, and eighteenth-century French commodes. The room is a stylistic mix across time and countries that creates a harmonious whole and reminds you that there is the specific taste of an individual behind it. We will continue to display works this way in the second-floor galleries, although some rooms may be dedicated to a particular subject or medium, such as portrait medals or ceramics.

In recent years, the Frick has been given extraordinary collections of Meissen porcelain, Du Paquier porcelain, and portrait medals. We also have a marvelous collection of rare sixteenth- to eighteenth-century clocks and watches, from the 1999 bequest of Winthrop Kellogg Edey. The scale of these objects will suit the intimate spaces of the second floor. We may rehang some of our smaller paintings upstairs, and we have a distinguished group of prints and drawings — etchings by Whistler, for example—that are rarely on view. I’m delighted that the new galleries will enable us to share so much more of our collection with visitors.

RB: How will the renovations impact exhibitions?

IW: Currently, when we present special exhibitions, works from the permanent collection — often favorite paintings by Whistler and Van Dyck, for example — must be removed from view in order to accommodate incoming loans. Frequently moving works is not ideal, as it increases the risk of damage. A dedicated exhibition gallery on the museum’s main floor will mitigate these disruptions, and better enable visitors to make comparisons and connections to works in the permanent collection.

RB: What would Henry Clay Frick have thought of this project?

IW: I think he would have been wholeheartedly behind it. To begin with, we found the perfect architect for this undertaking, as did Mr. Frick when he hired Carrère and Hastings. Annabelle Selldorf has successfully worked with historic buildings, including her beautiful transformation of the Neue Galerie — also a Carrère and Hastings residence constructed in 1914, the same year as the Frick mansion. She is a modernist architect, yet she knows how to respond to existing historical structures.

We have assembled a top team of consultants, engineers, and specialists to work with us on this project, which is how Frick went about things. He also kept up with the latest technology, and much of what we will be doing is upgrading the building’s infrastructure, so that the wiring, the lighting, the humidity and fire control systems, all that—most of which dates to 1935—is replaced and modernized. These updates are long overdue. I am proud that we will be pursuing LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] certification for the project, for improving our sustainability and energy efficiency.

RB: What other facilities will be upgraded?

IW: Conservation is central to much of what we do at the Frick, and our conservators care not only for our collection and the house itself, but also for loans from peer institutions. While these receive excellent care, it is becoming harder to maintain the utmost standards with the museum’s current facilities. The conservation studio is on the third floor of the mansion, in a space that was originally bedrooms for the house’s domestic staff. It is too small and lacks basic necessities like running water and north-facing natural light. Many objects in the collection are too large to be transported to the studio via the original 1914 passenger elevators and through the third floor’s narrow hallways and doors. The project will see the construction of a purpose-built lab with ample work space and treatment areas, state-of-the-art equipment, and all the necessary amenities to provide the highest level of care that the collection requires.

RB: There is also a conservation studio at the Frick Art Reference Library.

IW: Book and paper conservation is an important aspect of the activities of the library, which has an unparalleled collection of books, drawings, prints, photographs, negatives, manuscripts, architectural plans, and other works on paper. Many of these are decades (if not centuries) old and very rare — 25 percent cannot be found at any other library in the world.

The library’s conservation studio is not large enough to care for its ever-expanding collection, and it too lacks proper lighting and technical resources. Digital lab activities are relegated to a cramped area within the book stacks, where support columns and low ceilings make it hard to work with oversized materials like blueprints and large-format books. The library’s new conservation lab will maximize efficiency by providing versatile workspaces for all equipment and activities.

RB: You mentioned digital conservation projects at the library. Can you talk more about the digital innovations there and how these activities will be affected by the project?

IW: The library has always been ahead of its time in terms of technology. For instance, it had central air conditioning in 1935, as well as an automated writing system that enabled staff on different floors to send communications back and forth. Now, eighty years later, the digital revolution is a catalyst for change in libraries around the world, and the Frick library has been a pioneer in the field. To continue to lead, the library staff needs the latest and best resources.

We plan to create a digital art history lab with workspaces for digital asset management and preservation, as well as areas for visiting scholars to conduct research and collaborate with colleagues and staff. When the project has been completed, the library will be both one of the world’s great repositories of traditional art historical books and documents, as well as digital information.

RB: The library is one of New York’s hidden gems. Will the renovation make this great resource more visible to the general public?

IW: Many may not be familiar with the library’s vast holdings, its beautiful reading room, or even the fact that it is open to everyone, free of charge. This is partially because there is no public passage between the museum galleries and the library. This project will physically connect the two buildings so that visitors can pass easily from one to the other. It will enhance the library’s visibility and functionality.

RB: Education is central to the Frick’s mission: Mr. Frick stated in his will that the museum was intended to “encourage the study of the fine arts and kindred subjects.”

IW: Yes, he was interested in opening wide the doors to a broad public. A primary goal of this plan is to make the museum more accessible, both physically through a larger reception hall, coatroom, and so forth, but also through our educational programming. The phrase that Mr. Frick used, which I love, is that the museum should be open to “all persons whomsoever.”

Particularly in the last twenty years, our education department has been increasingly creative in presenting programs that cater to a range of ages and diverse interests, from middle school students to graduate students, from avid art lovers to first-time visitors. We have ongoing partnerships with various schools throughout the city, which aim for deep engagement with students, cultivated not just in a single afternoon field trip, but through multiple visits with our curators and educators over the course of a semester or even an entire school year.

Up until now, our educators have presented all of these programs with very little space — we do not have a dedicated classroom, for instance, and there is no place for students to hang their coats or store their backpacks during their visit. I’m really pleased that this project includes plans for an education center where school groups can gather, settle in, and have an orientation session before visiting the galleries. The new education center will include a seminar room overlooking Russell Page’s garden on 70th Street. It will be a flexible space that can be adapted as needed, for ever more interesting and inventive programs as they are developed.

The project also includes plans for a larger auditorium with state-of-the-art acoustics to present concerts, lectures, symposia, and other programming. Right now, concerts regularly sell out, and talks by top scholars and artists often have waitlists. The new auditorium will provide more seating to better respond to public demand, and improved acoustics will enable us to produce high-quality simulcasts and recordings to reach a wider, virtual audience.

RB: You mention the 70th Street garden. In 2014, many people were concerned that it would be destroyed.

IW: The garden was created by Page in 1977 at the same time that the current reception hall and garden walls were constructed, from a design by Bayley, Poehler, and Van Dyck. In 2014, we had plans to expand on the garden site, but we have revised those plans in response to public feedback. Our new proposal not only restores and rehabilitates Page’s garden, but celebrates it. Annabelle and her team have created multiple vantage points within the new reception hall, education center, and café so that people will be able to view Page’s garden not only from 70th Street, but from several places within the building.

We have engaged Lynden Miller, a distinguished garden designer and landscape architect who has worked for decades in New York City, to restore the garden following the construction period. Together with Beyer Blinder Belle, she is studying its history in order to adhere as closely as possible to Page’s original design. Over the decades, many of the garden’s features have changed; trees failed to grow, plants died or were replaced. This is an opportunity for us to restore Page’s vision and, at the same time, improve the garden in practical ways. It needs a better irrigation system, for example.

Lynden has the good fortune to be collaborating with Galen Lee, the Frick’s horticulturist, who was hired by the institution in 1977 and worked with Page personally. He knows every inch of the garden and will be working closely with Lynden on the restoration project.

RB: When old houses are transformed into public institutions, they often lack certain amenities, such as wheelchair ramps. How will the project address this?

IW: Everyone should enjoy easy access to the Frick — not just when entering the museum or library, but throughout the duration of their visit. Those in wheelchairs currently must take a circuitous route through the mansion’s basement to reach the galleries. This project integrates a ramp that will allow all visitors to enter the museum through the front door on 70th Street. The library’s entrance, on 71st Street, will be modified to accommodate patrons in wheelchairs, as well as school groups. New elevators will provide access to all levels of the museum, including the second-floor galleries and new auditorium.

RB: Will the museum close during construction? What will happen during that time?

IW: We expect we will need to close for part of the project and will have a better sense of this timeline by early next year. In the meantime, we are exploring venues around the city to display a portion of our collection so our members and the public can continue to engage with the works they’ve come to love. It would be wonderful to partner with museums in boroughs outside Manhattan, so that we can reach the widest audience possible. This is a rare chance for some of our works to be viewed alongside similar works from sister institutions or perhaps displayed alongside art from different periods and schools, which is an exciting departure from how they have traditionally been seen. We are looking forward to the creative opportunities this transitional period will provide.

RB: Apparently, some people mistakenly think the Frick has already closed for construction.

IW: Not at all. We are open our regular hours and have a full calendar of exhibitions and education programs, as usual. There is more going on than ever. I am so grateful for the support and feedback we’ve received since we announced the project, and I look forward to sharing developments as our plans continue to evolve.

Updates and further information about the project can be found here, which also includes a contact for comments and questions.

Image: Courtesy of Selldorf Architects

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