The Frick Art Reference Library was founded in 1920 by Helen Clay Frick (1888-1984) as a memorial to her father, the industrialist and art collector Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919). Responding to the interest shown by Henry Clay Frick in learning more about the artists whose works he had purchased, Helen Clay Frick conducted research on her father's behalf. After his death, Miss Frick founded the Library to further his goals for The Frick Collection: “to encourage and develop the study of the fine arts, and to advance the general knowledge of kindred subjects.” Until her death, Miss Frick was steadfast in her devotion to the Library and continued to attend to every detail of its development and management.
Helen Clay Frick was inspired by Sir Robert Witt's Library of reproductions, now part of the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. Adapting Witt's systematic classification and detailed documentation of photographs, Miss Frick also collected bibliographic material to establish a research center for the public where image and text could be used together to gain a comprehensive understanding of all aspects of Western art. To achieve this goal, Miss Frick obtained the advice of countless scholars and experts.
From 1920 to 1924 the Library was housed in the bowling alley in the basement of the family residence (now The Frick Collection). For the next decade, it occupied a single-story Indiana limestone structure designed by Thomas Hastings at 6 East 71st Street, the site that had been intended for Frick's sculpture gallery. The Library opened its doors to the public at its present location, formerly 10 and 12 East 71st Street, adjoining the Collection, in 1935. The new structure, which is equivalent to a six-story building, was designed by John Russell Pope, who transformed the residence during the same period as part of an overall project to create two important public institutions dedicated to the study and appreciation of art. It incorporated the latest technologies. The floors were supported by the shelving pillars. There was air-conditioning in the book stacks. A dumbwaiter lift moved books between floors, and there was a Telautograph, an electrical writing system used to communicate written requests for materials. Unusually and farsightedly, there was room for seventy years growth in the collection. The firm of Buttrick, White, and Burtis renovated the third floor Reading Room and the sixth floor office spaces in 1996.
As early as 1922, Helen Clay Frick commissioned photo-expeditions to record significant and seldom reproduced works of art in Europe and America. With characteristic determination and resourcefulness, she gained access to otherwise inaccessible private collections with the help of art experts and photographers such as Lawrence Park, Mario Sansoni, W. W. S. Cook, and Mme Clotilde Briere. Over the next four decades, the Library amassed a collection of more than 56,000 negatives that are today among its most valued resources. In many cases, these negatives record works that have subsequently been damaged, altered, lost, or destroyed. They are part of the Photoarchive collection and many of the images can be accessed online.
During World War II, the Committee on the Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas of the American Council of Learned Societies was based at the Library. The Committee used the Library's visual records and location indexes to help pinpoint sites of important works of art that should be spared the devastations of war. For six months, the Library closed its doors to the public in order to serve the war effort. After the war, these records were used to aid in the repatriation of art and continue to be used for this purpose.
In 1984, the Library, which was its own institution and financially supported almost entirely by Helen Clay Frick, became an integral part of The Frick Collection.
In 1997, the Library established an Archives department that organizes and makes accessible the institutional records of The Frick Collection and manuscript materials acquired by the Library related to the history of art and collecting such as the Loewi-Robertson, Rosenberg and Steibel, and Peter Johnson archives.
In 2001, the Library established a digital preservation program under the supervision of the Library Conservation department, which was founded in 1980, to scan or photograph images, books, and ephemera from the collections of the Library. These items can be accessed online.
Since 2006, the Library has been a partner in the New York Art Resources Consortium (NYARC), along with the libraries of the Brooklyn Museum and The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). The three libraries share a catalog and a web-archiving program.
From 2007 to 2021, the Library supported the Center for the History of Collecting to encourage and support the study of the formation of collections of fine and decorative arts, both public and private, in Europe and the United States from the Renaissance to the present day. The Center offered fellowships and seminars, hosted symposia and study days, published symposia proceedings, and created tools to assist with accessing primary documents generated by art collectors and dealers. A list of its publications can be found in Library's catalog.
In 2014, the Library established a digital art history program to provide art historians with the digital tools and data necessary to explore new methodologies and to stimulate collaborations between art historians and specialists from a variety of fields.
In 2015, the Helen Clay Frick Foundation donated the Frick Family Papers, which had been on deposit since 2001, to the Library.
Barker, Nicolas. "The Frick Art Reference Library." The Book Collector, Summer 1992.
Bury, Stephen J., Ed. One Hundred Objects in the Frick Art Reference Library. Axminster: Uniformbooks, 2022.
Knox, Katharine McCook. The Story of the Frick Art Reference Library: The Early Years. New York: Frick Art Reference Library, 1979.