Remembering Helen Sanger, Frick’s First Mellon Chief Librarian

Color photograph of Frick Art Reference Library staff, around 1990.

On July 30, the Frick Art Reference Library lost one of the most influential and beloved members of its community: Helen Sanger (1923–2020), the institution’s first Andrew W. Mellon Chief Librarian, who passed away at the age of ninety-six.

Ms. Sanger held various positions at the library during her forty-seven years on staff, eventually rising to become the Mellon Chief Librarian in 1990, a position whose endowment she successfully secured. A resourceful, dedicated, and forward-thinking leader, she increased the library’s staff and introduced computerization, a major step into the modern age. She contributed to and edited Katharine McCook Knox’s The Story of the Frick Art Reference Library: The Early Years, which was published in 1979, and oversaw the establishment of the library’s Conservation Department in 1981. After Helen Clay Frick’s death in 1984, Sanger navigated the merger of the library with The Frick Collection, an undertaking that required significant fundraising and grant writing.

Sanger was not the only “first” in her family. Her sister Eleanor Sanger Riger was an Emmy Award–winning television writer and producer and the first woman network sports producer. Their parents, too, had pioneering spirits: Lonni Wheeler (born Louise Wernicke in 1891 in Berlin) met her future husband Richard “Dick” Sanger—an oil sales executive posted in Asia for almost thirty years—in 1919 while en route to Japan, where she planned to establish an English-language school. The couple married in San Francisco in July 1920. They soon relocated to Hong Kong, where they raised Helen, Eleanor, and their older sister Charlotte. Lonni and her daughters returned to the United States after the outbreak of World War II.

Sanger went on to study economics, history, art history, and art and commercial design at Smith College, graduating cum laude in 1946. She initially embarked on a career in commercial art, finding summer employment in New York City at a naval architecture firm and a wallpaper design company before working in Revlon's packaging department and for Saul Haupt, a leader in commercial typography.

Although she continued to pursue her interest in design part-time, her love for research and art history prevailed. Sanger joined the staff of the Frick Art Reference Library on November 10, 1947, as a photograph classifier for the Photoarchive. She transferred to Public Services in 1951 and enrolled at Columbia University, earning an M.S. in Library Science in 1953. In 1967, she became the institution’s Reference Librarian. She was appointed Assistant Librarian in 1970, and eight years later she was named Chief Librarian.

Photograph from Helen Sanger's retirement part, December 31, 1994

During her tenure, Sanger launched a range of initiatives, including the 1990 exhibition The Frick’s Other Collection: The 70th Anniversary of The Frick Art Reference Library, as well as the “Spanish Project,” the institution’s response to the federal government’s ambition to strengthen cultural ties between the U.S. and Spain in preparation for the Columbian Quincentenary in 1992, which resulted in the publication of Spanish Artists from the Fourth to the Twentieth Century: A Critical Dictionary (1993–1996). These projects often required travel, which was certainly a pleasure for Sanger, although the library was never far from her mind. Inge Reist, Director Emerita of the Frick's Center for the History of Collecting, remembers with fondness the gifts she purchased for staff while abroad.

Sanger’s small stature and quiet, thoughtful demeanor belied her determination and almost superhuman devotion to her work. Don Swanson, the former Chief of Collections Preservation & Graphic Designer at the Frick Art Reference Library, recalls how she would arrive at the library each day at 9:30 a.m. and not leave the building until well after 10:00 p.m., often working through weekends and vacations. Even after her retirement in 1994, Sanger continued to volunteer in the Photoarchive for many years, updating catalog records, continuing with her research on the eighteenth-century Chinese artist Spoilum (Guan Zuolin) and the limners of colonial America, and keeping in touch with friends and colleagues. She was thrilled when the Photoarchive won a series of multimillion-dollar grants to undertake the digitization of its collections, bringing its riches to a broader audience. Expanding access to the library’s resources was always at the heart of her work: Sanger’s integrity, ingenuity, and dedication shaped the development of the library in many ways, and her impact will endure for decades to come.


Staff of the Frick Art Reference Library, 1989 (Helen Sanger seated front center). Photo by Richard Di Liberto, The Frick Collection

Helen Sanger's retirement party, held in the Reading Room of the Frick Art Reference Library on December 31, 1994 (from left: Don Swanson, Inge Reist, Robert Goldsmith, unknown person, Mark Bresnan, and Ms. Sanger). Photo by FARL staff member, The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives

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