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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 frick.org/library. 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.
Copy of cable received March 16, 1941 from Vichy Office of Guaranty Trust Company:
Campbell has communicated with Mr. and Mrs. Gaston Briere who send following message to Miss Helen Frick quote We are deeply grateful for your kind offer but are unfortunately unable accept. Stop. National museums still need my husband who cannot leave task he has undertaken. Stop. On other hand our interests have much suffered since beginning of war and our departure from France now would ruin them. Stop. Life here has not been very hard until now and we often think of you.