Building on the Frick's garden (ctd.)

December 19 2014

Image of Building on the Frick's garden (ctd.)

Pictures: Huffington Post & WSJ

It seems that the great and good of New York are coming out to slate the Frick's plans to build an extension. I learn via the Grumpy Art Historian that the Wall Street Journal has an article on the latest developments, which is well worth reading. The Frick's proposed plans, to increase library and exhibition space, are still some months away from being put to the relevant city authorities, and evidently the institution is somewhat bruised by the reaction so far.

The opprobrium seems to centre on the building over of a small garden (above, which is not open to the public) designed by 'the world famous' British landscape architect Russell Page (1906-1985). I'd never heard of him until now.

In the WSJ article the current Frick director Ian Wardropper says:

“What I find frustrating sometimes, is people seem to brush right by the needs of the museum.”

Quite. I find it astonishing how reactionary some in the museum world can be sometimes. The fact is, going to museums has become far more popular than it ever was. Visitor numbers are soaring, which, to me, is a Good Thing. Now, large institutions like the Metropolitan Museum or the Louvre can - just about - cope adequately with the burgeoning numbers. But smaller institutions like the Frick cannot. They just don't have the space. Anyone who has been to the Frick recently will know that over-crowding is a real issue.

So the Frick has two options; either go down the route of some Italian galleries like the Borghese and introduce time-allocated ticketing (which in practice leads to either a disappointed trip, or a rushed one), or expand. Since the Frick has a great deal to offer the world, with both its cherished collection and excellent exhibitions, it would seem to me a great shame if it gave in to the New York culturati, shelved the expansion plans, and remained a 'boutique' museum. It's a shame to say it, but sod the garden. There's a much bigger one over the road anyway.

Update - my mother writes, saying she's worried about my education:

[Page] is an extremely well known English garden designer along with Gertrude Jekell. And if you say you don't know who she is...

It's spelled 'Jekyll', Mother, tut tut...

Update II - Nord Wennerstrom, Director of Communications for The Cultural Landscape Foundation, writes:

Per your recent post about the proposed Frick expansion, let me direct you to two articles in the Huffington Post written by Charles A. Birnbaum, founder and president of The Cultural Landscape Foundation -  Here's What's Missing in the Debate Over the Frick Collection's Proposed Expansion and That 'Temporary' Frick Garden - It Was Created to Be Permanent.  Together, they provide some context for why the Russell Page-designed garden is a central issue in this debate.

As for the physical addition, along with opening space on the museum's second floor, we know there will be a net increase of some 42,000 square feet, but be have yet to get an accounting of how all this space is being allocated. The most recent architectural rendering (attached) does not discuss the disposition of more than 35,000 square feet – how much of this addition is going for office space?  And, do all of the museum's components have to be contiguous? 

The Cooper-Hewitt, also sited in an historic Gilded Age mansion on Fifth Avenue,  just managed to increase their exhibition space by 60% without a massive addition or the destruction of their garden – and they moved some offices offsite to other properties they own on East 90th Street. 

The Guggenheim Museum has curatorial offices down in SoHo.

In addition, the Russell Page-designed garden is a site specific work of art, which Frick officials have deemed an interim land use. This is a particularly disconcerting aspect of the entire debate.  Cultural custodians are making a judgement about the worth of a specific work of art, and an entire genre – what are the criteria? On what basis is this unique work of art, a commissioned site specific work that is part of their permanent collection, being deemed of less value than other parts of their permanent collection?

[The Frick's director, Ian Wardropper, has said that the Frick currently has three gardens, and will continue to after the expansion because the Page garden will be replaced by a rooftop garden.  Ergo, gardens are all the same and interchangeable.  That's a devastating indictment of the entirety of landscape architecture and design – and because it's being rendered by otherwise esteemed cultural custodians, it will be taken at face value and not challenged.  Substitute building for garden and see if that response is still valid.  What if Wardropper said of their three Vermeers: because of space considerations we're replacing one of the three Vermeers with a newly acquired black velvet painting – don't worry, we started with three paintings and we end up with three paintings. That, in essence, is what is being proffered].

Nord also writes the ever valuable blog, Nord on Art.

First, 'contiguosness', if that's the right word, is important. I think the suggestion that the Frick's curators could work 'off-site' is a bad one. It's a mistake for curators not to be physically immersed in their collections. 

Second, I may well be a garden philistine for saying this, but I absolutely don't buy the idea that the garden is a fixed work of art comparable to a Vermeer. It wasn't created as a work of art, but as a garden. Something nice to look at, and occasionally go into. Gardens, by their very nature, are living creations which at some point do and must die. If the garden had been built by Henry Clay Fick himself, the situation might be different. But in this case, the space taken up by the garden has been decided by the Frick's staff and trustees to be more valuable in another purpose. And as the garden came, so, alas, it can go. Or perhaps be moved. Or somehow built over. 

Another reader points me to an interview with former Frick Director, Everett Fahy, who is opposed to the expansion, and wants the frick to remain a smaller-minded institution. The interview was conducted by Manuela Hoelterhoff, who says:

 [...] let’s ruin it! Let’s make it big and noisy and crowded! 

Alas the Frick is already crowded, that's the point. Hoelterhoff also says:

A big part of the [expansion] pitch is education. But last I checked the Frick doesn’t allow children under 10 and hopefully that won’t change.

Which gives you an idea of what the current Frick director is up against...

Update III - another (US) reader writes:

The Frick garden is charming but is an ornament which is viewed but unused. The museum has genuine needs which the addition will serve and will benefit the public. As you mention Central Park is just across Fifth Avenue.

Update IV - a former museum director tells me of the Golden Rule of Former Museum Directors:

Keep your mouth shut.

Update V - here's a good article by Christopher Gray in The New York Times, which sets out the history of the Frick's various additions and changes. It tells us that the neo-classical walls surrounding the garden were designed by three different designers. In other words (he says, provocatively), Russell Page just produced the trees, the pond, the little pots, and two small lawns. Hardly Versailles...

Gray writes:

The debate revolves around several points. Is the 1970s garden, given its recent vintage, important enough to be protected? Would the loss of the garden harm the townhouse character of the street — which historically had no such gardens? A really correct restoration would replace the three townhouses — why isn’t that on the table? Will the new wing overpower the original Frick, even though the original Frick long ago disappeared?

The lightning rod is the garden itself, a simple, innocent thing. With foresight the Frick has never made the garden public, and it’s “don’t touch” aspect is part of its considerable charm. But is it “charm preservation” we’re after?

In relation to the last question, I'd say 'no'. After all, New York is hardly famed for its preservation history. Or even, some might say, its charm.*

Update VI - Nord Wennerstrom writes in response to my response to his response, above:

I think the question is whether or not this garden (and by extension, landscape architecture) is considered a work of art – and not compared to works by Vermeer, Watteau, Franceso di Vannuccio, etc.  Is this art?  In deciding to demolish the garden, Frick officials have tacitly endorsed the idea that it's not.  Shouldn't it be incumbent on them, as cultural custodians to whom we look to for guidance, education and understanding and who we believe have a broader context, to outline their criteria and explain why they believe so?  The garden's fate is in their hands. Thus far, this has been absent from the debate.

* I mean architecturally, New Yorkers, not the people!

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