One Hundred Years at the Library: A Dedicated Staff

In celebration of the centennial of the Frick Art Reference Library, peek into the past one hundred years of the library’s remarkable history through important places, people, and objects from the collections. The objects featured are included in the commemorative publication One Hundred Objects in the Frick Art Reference Library and are available for consultation in our reading room.

In the first entry, we consider the dedicated staff of the Frick Art Reference Library, who shaped the institution in its early years and have introduced innovations and served a community of scholars and students ever since.

From its groundbreaking founding in the 1920s to today, the Frick Art Reference Library has become a leading center of art historical research, thanks to generations of knowledgeable and dedicated staff who have nurtured and cared for it through the decades.

Helen Clay Frick established the library after extensive consultations with art historical and library experts, and she staffed the nascent institution with graduates of prestigious library schools and academic programs. Equally influential in the early days were art specialists who served as agents in Europe and acquired many of the library’s photographs and publications. As the library evolved, photographers, conservators, archivists, and digital art history specialists have joined the catalogers, photoarchivists, reference workers, and countless other roles. The library is defined first and foremost by its staff, who are unwavering in their commitment to fulfilling the mission, as engraved at the library’s entrance, “to encourage and develop the study of the fine arts, and to advance the general knowledge of kindred subjects.”

Bound scrapbook with a New York Times clipping announcing the opening of The Frick Collection
Page from one of the library scrapbooks, featuring a 1935 clipping from The New York Times announcing the public opening of The Frick Collection. Photo: Joseph Coscia Jr.

Housed in the library’s archives, the scrapbook illustrated above is one of five compiled over decades by staff to document institutional and personal milestones for the library and museum. The volumes—covering the years 1920 to 1999—include correspondence, memoranda, press clippings, event invitations, and photographs. The scrapbooks were constructed by the library’s conservation department as rich snapshots in time for an ever-growing institution.

The details shown below are typical of the format and content of most of the scrapbooks, which include ephemera (such as charming drawings, below left) and other items of interest, both to the institution’s history and to members of staff. The scrapbooks provide rich insights into the evolution of the library over time, as well as personalizing the individuals who played key roles in its operations and advancements.

Cartoonish drawing of a cross-section of a library building, with labeled figures at work at various library tasks Righthand page of a large scrapbooks with a newspaper clipping featuring various works of art from The Frick Collection
Left: A 1955 drawing by librarian Doriece Colle preserved in the scrapbooks, depicting a lively cross-section of the library’s 1935 John Russell Pope building with staff hard at work. The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives. Right: Page from another scrapbook, featuring a New York Herald Tribune clipping dating from the opening of The Frick Collection. Photo: Joseph Coscia Jr.

Especially from the 1920s through the 1950s, the library and its burgeoning collections depended on a national and international network of scholars and dealers, who helped locate and acquire photographs and publications to add to the library’s holdings.

Black-and-white photo of a woman in a patterned dress and glasses, standing in a courtyard.
Clotilde Brière-Misme in Fontenay, France, July 1960. Madame Brière-Misme served as a freelance agent in France for the Frick Art Reference Library for nearly thirty years. The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives; gift of the Helen Clay Frick Foundation, 2015

Clotilde Brière-Misme (pictured above) was introduced to Helen Clay Frick by Sir Robert Witt, who first encouraged her to establish the Frick Art Reference Library. A librarian at the Bibliothèque d’art et d’archéologie in Paris, Madame Brière-Misme worked freelance for the library for nearly thirty years, scouring auction sales, booksellers, and private collections throughout France to purchase items for the library.

Additionally, her accounts of the trials of World War II (see below) were translated and shared with staff, a number of whom were also involved in cultural preservation during the war, from this side of the Atlantic. Helen Clay Frick expressed her clear admiration for Madame Brière-Misme with a dedicated plaque in the reading room, which reads: “In loving and grateful memory of Clotilde Brière-Misme, whose knowledge and constant help during the first twenty years of the Frick Art Reference Library were responsible for its growth and efficiency.”

Typed cable from Clotilde Brière-Misme to Helen Clay Frick
Cable (transcribed below) received March 16, 1941, from Madame Brière-Misme and her husband Gaston Brière to Helen Clay Frick. They decline her offer to bring them out of France, citing Mr. Brière’s obligations as head curator of France’s national museums. The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives

The photograph below shows the librarians and other members of staff very soon after the library’s founding, standing near the construction site of the first dedicated library building (completed in 1924). The photograph was taken by Ira W. Martin, who was hired at the library that same year to establish its department of photography—still a cutting-edge technology for the era—and who worked there until his death in 1960.

Records of the contributions of individual staff members are found throughout the library’s collections. Library staff over the years left lecture notes from art classes and scooped up leaflets, checklists, and invitations from exhibition openings all over New York City. They produced mounts of photographs of works of art, replete with provenance histories and scholarly annotations, and reviewed auction catalogs to follow the sales prices of works documented in the Photoarchive. And from the library’s earliest days, reference staff have welcomed researchers in person and organized comprehensive remote services, first via letter and now through email. All of these undertakings and more are testaments to the library staff and their work, and each endures tangibly or in spirit to this day.

Archival photograph of fifteen women standing in a line in front of a building.
Library staff photograph, 1923. Photo: Ira W. Martin (1886–1960). The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives

Indelible in every object, space, acquisition, correspondence, and record held in the Frick Art Reference Library is the devoted effort of its staff to ensure that the institution maintains and expands its ability to serve scholars, writers, students, and researchers. From its origins as a small group working closely with founder Helen Clay Frick to build the collections and to serve the art historical community, the staff scope has grown over the last hundred years to include scores of digital projects and virtual programs—offerings that could not have been conceived of in the 1920s but that fall perfectly in line with the abiding mission to develop and provide the best materials for the study of art and art history.

Custodians and sharers of resources for knowledge—that is the role of the library professional. Thanks to those individuals who have devoted their time and expertise to the Frick Art Reference Library, these same goals have not changed over the past century.

Learn more about the history and offerings of the Frick Art Reference Library at Discover all one hundred objects in One Hundred Objects in the Frick Art Reference Library. To explore more content celebrating the library’s centennial, watch our video series on YouTube, subscribe to our e-news, and follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

Link: Tags:
Facebook Twitter Threads