Frick Expansion Has Another Opponent

| 18 May 2015 | 06:09

As famed artists added their names to the growing list of opponents to the Frick Collection’s proposed expansion, one of the city’s influential preservation organizations also expressed its dismay with the plan.

The Municipal Art Society of New York, a 120-year-old planning and preservation organization that has previously evaluated proposed expansions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, The New-York Historical Society and other museums, officially opposed the existing plan in a May 7 letter to museum director Ian Wardropper.

In an echo of a now-familiar sentiment, the letter notes that the organization will oppose any renovations that include the loss of the museum’s 70th Street viewing garden built by landscape architect Russell Page in 1977.

“While MAS is not necessarily against an expansion, we will oppose any plan that places the Page garden in its crosshairs. We urge the Frick Collection to explore alternative solutions — most obviously, the reference library — that do not require the loss of such a beloved work of landscape architecture and treasured urban greenspace,” the letter states.

Municipal Art Society representatives first met with Frick officials almost a year ago, shortly after the museum revealed its expansion plan, which includes the construction of a six-story building to the east of the historic mansion, on the footprint of the Page garden. The organization’s preservation committee had early reservations, said Margaret Newman, executive director of Municipal Art Society. Though initially the group planned to wait for a revised design before releasing a formal statement, Newman said it was time to speak on the issue, as a refined plan has yet to come.

“We felt from the beginning that there wasn’t a clear statement by the Frick as to why they needed this additional square footage,” said Newman. “The justification has never really been explained.”

While the letter to the Frick suggests the museum’s art reference library, a separate building on 71st Street, as a potential location for expansion that would leave the garden intact, Newman noted that more information from the Frick is needed in order to propose a logical alternative.

“There are many ways to solve a problem,” she said. “If you don’t know what the problem is, it’s hard to know how you’d come up with a solution.”

Since releasing its plans in June 2014, Frick officials have maintained that the expansion, which will yield 42,000 square feet of additional space, will allow the museum to better accommodate visitors, who have increased about 35 percent in the last decade, by enlarging its reception hall and by opening galleries on the mansion’s second floor, which are now used as office space. The museum also hopes to add dedicated classrooms, a larger auditorium and new conservation facilities, among other amenities.

The Frick continues to work with architecture firm Davis Brody Bond to hone the design, and has yet to schedule a presentation to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, which must approve the plan. Though the release of the updated design is still months away, Frick officials stress that the library remains central to the mission and work of the institution, a connection that would only become more prominent following the proposed expansion, which would allow the public to access the library directly from the museum.

Newman is unsurprised by the public’s reaction to the proposal, with some adversaries coalescing into a visible opposition group, Unite to Save the Frick.

“I think people feel a great deal of affection for it,” said Newman. “People who like the Frick really love the Frick.”

Jonathan Brown, a professor of fine arts at New York University, where he’s taught for 44 years, supports the museum’s expansion efforts and partially attributes the strong public response to the addition to what he calls the “Penn Station syndrome,” suggesting that change, especially to one of the city’s most beloved institutions, will inspire skepticism.

For Brown, the Frick’s library has been an essential research tool for several decades, but he readily acknowledges that the library, which was built by John Russell Pope in 1935, is little used outside of the arts community.

“It’s a clandestine operation because it’s used by relatively few people compared to the collection,” said Brown. “This is, so to speak, my bread and butter.”