Service of Ears to the Ground: Boards that Listen

June 11th, 2015

Categories: Big, Education, Listen, Museums

Last September I wrote a post “Service of Bigger is Better,” about institutions feeling pressure to grow bigger no matter what or how, a kneejerk impulse I disagree with.

At the time the school I attended from first through 12th grades was seriously exploring a move to a larger building. Responding to uproar from alumnae the board of trustees subsequently scotched that move. Good for them! My guess: trustees feared a deafening sound–the click of closing purses–although there were countless other sensible reasons to stay put.

In that fall post I also mentioned the Frick’s plans to expand which are again derailed. Granted the reason for the turnaround was to save the garden, not a protest over expanding simply for expansion’s sake. It  certainly counts as an example of directors listening.

Sarah Cascone shared details in in “New York Times Reports Frick Museum Board Backs Down Over Plan to Destroy Garden.” She quoted an anonymous museum official: “There was just a number of voices out there, and we heard them.”

This is the fourth overturned Frick expansion since 2001. Cascone referred to all the other fat cat museums–Whitney, MoMA and The Metropolitan Museum of Art–and their dramatically increased exhibition space that must sorely tempt the Frick to follow suit.

Cascone wrote that her publication “was among the first to advocate for the preservation of the garden as an important green space and visual respite in the neighborhood” followed by the president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, Charles Birnbaum, who let it be known that the garden was the only example in NYC of landscape architect Russell Page’s work. Bringing up a 38 year old press release, Birnbaum parried Frick Museum director Ian Wardropper who called the garden a “temporary placeholder for an addition.” The release described the “garden as a permanent addition to the institution’s grounds.”

The list of voices against destroying the garden grew louder, from a former Frick Museum director to a “Unite to Save the Frick” initiative involving high profile protestors such as architects Robert A.M. Stern and Maya Lin as well as former directors of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Quoting Wardropper, Casone wrote: “Preserving the unique residential character and intimate scale of the Frick will remain our top priority.” And that’s my point.

Have you seen happy endings like these? Do you think the Frick trustees will try for a fifth expansion? If an institution can’t grow physically, what does an art museum director or president do to make his/her mark? Is growth and change necessary to keep an institution alive?

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2 Responses to “Service of Ears to the Ground: Boards that Listen”

  1. JML Said:

    The Frick has been my favorite museum in the world for well over a half century, for frankly elitist reasons. It has somehow remained, at least on most rainy weekdays at the right time of day, a comfortable, unhurried, gracious place to contemplate at leisure a cross section of western art, especially paintings, of almost uniformly exceptional high quality.

    Up until now, The best thing that happened to the Frick in my lifetime was the confirmation of its Cimabue, a marvelous picture, as being by that artist. That was a great job of true art scholarship. The worst was the conversion of that loggia in front on the garden into a gallery to exhibit a bunch of tchotchkes. (They would be better off if they gave that stuff to the Metropolitan where it would fit in nicely with all the other miscellanea they have, and restoring the loggia,)

    Now this good news tops it all! A board came to its senses and blocked an unnecessary expansion which would still further degrade a beautiful place.

    There is hope yet.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    A childhood memory: I was visiting the Frick, squatting down to better see something that was behind a rope and hearing a reprimand from an observant guard who asked me to stand up. I wasn’t near anything nor was I up to anything nasty but I was startled and jumped up.

    I have no idea what Mr. Frick had in mind for his collection and house: Did he want people to fiddle with it? If so, there are so many creative interior designers and architects who have honed their expertise on making small spaces expand to serve all sorts of purposes that didn’t exist when a place was first built. Before rushing to expand, I’d suggest institutions call on these specialists and listen to their suggestions.

    I also like your idea of giving away pieces that would be more fitting in another institution.

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