Frick Leader to Step Down After a 14-Year Run

After 14 years running the Frick Collection, during which this art museum finally realized a controversial expansion of its Gilded Age mansion on Fifth Avenue — and temporarily took up residence in the modernist Breuer building on Madison Avenue — its director, Ian Wardropper, said he would retire next year.

“My goal is to leave the institution in good shape programmatically and financially and that will be the case,” Wardropper, 72, said in a telephone interview. “I’m hoping I can turn it over to somebody with fresh ideas.”

The announcement is the latest in a series of significant resignations by long-serving leaders of major museums, including the Guggenheim, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. In addition, the contract of Glenn D. Lowry, the longtime director of MoMA, expires next year.

Such leadership transitions have presented cultural institutions with the opportunity — or even mandate — for a reset, particularly at a time that the job description has become increasingly complex and concerns about diversity have grown more urgent.

The Frick is especially associated with the past, given its historic collection of old masters such as Bellini, Rembrandt, Vermeer and Hals, as well as its location in the 1914 landmark former residence of the industrialist Henry Clay Frick, designed by Carrère and Hastings.

The Gilded Age mansion housing the Frick Collection on East 70th Street, 2018. When the museum reopens in late 2024, the visitor entrance will have an accessible ramp and lead into a restored entrance hall and, to the right, an expanded reception hall.Credit…Emon Hassan for The New York Times

While many museums have adjusted their programs in response to the last decade’s intense demand for contemporary art, the Frick under Wardropper has steadfastly adhered to its founding principles to focus on masterworks from the Renaissance through the early 20th century.

Only recently in its temporary home, the former Whitney Museum, has the Frick seemed to loosen its tie, displaying its Turners, Sargents and Fragonards alongside an exhibition devoted to the Black painter Barkley L. Hendricks (1945–2017), the first artist of color to have a solo show at the museum since it was founded in 1935.

The museum also recently presented “Living Histories: Queer Views and Old Masters” with four contemporary artists — Doron Langberg, Salman Toor, Jenna Gribbon and Toyin Ojih Odutola — offering works that deal with issues of gender and queer identity, narratives formerly excluded in a museum focusing on European art.

“I had to talk some of the trustees through that, as it went further afield from what they thought of as being the Frick,” Wardropper said of the show. “But it brought new audiences and new programs around it, opening people’s ideas about what the Frick could be.”

Currently the Frick Madison offers an exhibition of portraits by Barkley L. Hendricks, in a gallery adjoining “Harmony in Pink and Grey: Portrait of Lady Meux” by James McNeill Whistler.Credit…Clark Hodgin for The New York Times

Max Hollein, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said Wardropper had demonstrated “diplomatic qualities” in moving the Frick into the present while honoring the past. “He opened up a dialogue with contemporary thinkers and cultural figures,” Hollein said. “The Frick could be perceived as a very static collection. I think Ian changed that.”

The Frick’s renovation aims to update the museum’s visitor experience by improving circulation, amenities, infrastructure and wheelchair accessibility — trying to meet the needs of modern audiences without compromising the building’s jewel-box quality. It also opens up the restored second-floor living quarters of Frick and his wife, Adelaide Howard Childs Frick, formerly used for museum offices and off limits to the public.

Average attendance before the pandemic was between 285,000 and 300,000 per year. The museum’s annual operating budget of about $30 million is expected to increase only slightly in the expanded building.

As to whether the Frick should and will be doing more Hendricks-type shows, Wardropper said the museum would continue to seek “a balance.”

“We’re not a contemporary art institution and we’re in a city that is filled with them,” he said. “Where we can make a difference is an intersection with contemporary art that makes sense and not lose our mandate, which is to continue to try to get a younger audience interested in older art.”

“I think we have to show younger people in particular that if they pay attention and go deep,” he added, ”they really can surface with something interesting.”

A corridor on the second floor of the Frick mansion will be opened to the public, showing a painted ceiling mural by Elsie de Wolfe and architectural features that are being restored and relit.Credit…Michael Bodycomb
A rendering of the second-floor landing at the Frick, which will lead to a series of new galleries for the display of small-scale objects from the permanent collection. There will be 15 display spaces on this floor — none of which were open to the public before.Credit…via Selldorf Architects

The Frick was repeatedly thwarted in its previous expansion efforts and Wardropper clearly carries some battle scars. In the face of vehement protests, the museum’s renovation attempts failed three times — in 2001, 2005 and 2008 — before a plan was finally approved in 2018.

Preservationists, designers, critics and architects opposed the Frick’s effort to eliminate its tranquil garden on East 70th Street, designed by the British landscape architect Russell Page, and worried about losing the museum’s intimate scale. Protesters included members of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, along with a coalition, Unite to Save the Frick.

“Gardens are works of art,” Robert A.M. Stern, the dean of the Yale School of Architecture, said at the time. “This one is in perfect condition by Russell Page, one of the pre-eminent garden designers of the 20th century, and it should be respected as such. It’s as important as a tapestry or even a painting, and I think the museum is obliged to recognize its importance.”

They also objected to the museum’s transformation of its music room into a special exhibitions gallery. The music room, which will be used for performances and talks, has moved underground. But Wardropper said he bears no ill will and is pleased with the outcome. “The only thing we did not get was a loading dock,” he said.

“I can’t afford to hold grudges and remain unhappy — I’ve had to just keep moving forward,” he said. “I felt pretty beaten up a few years ago, but it makes it all the more satisfying to see that we’re getting to the end. There are still a few neighbors who are not completely happy, but I think most people have come around to understanding that the Frick needs this.”

Under the current plan, by Annabelle Selldorf, the Frick is restoring the garden to honor Page’s original vision, in consultation with Lynden B. Miller, a garden designer and preservationist. Rather than build over the garden, as previously planned, the Frick has built beneath it. And through a new connector, the public will now be able to go from the museum to the art reference library without going outside.

In 2011, the German pianist Martin Helmchen performed in the Frick’s Music Room, which had 149 seats and was added to the Frick mansion in 1935. The new auditorium, which seats 220, is underground and circular in design.Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times
The Russell Page garden in 2018. Rather than build over the garden, as previously planned, the Frick has built beneath it. Credit…Emon Hassan for The New York Times

The new Frick, scheduled to open late this year, also includes a new education center, small cafe and expanded museum shop. (The Frick’s admission restriction to children age 10 and up will remain in place.)

As for what’s next, Wardropper said he is working on two books, one with Selldorf about the renovation, and another about Frick and his daughter Helen as collectors. “I’m looking forward to taking a breather,” he said.

While the board will conduct an international search for his successor, Wardropper said it would be great if that person came “from within” and that he hoped that Xavier F. Salomon, the deputy director and chief curator, “will be one of the candidates.”

With a Ph.D. in art history from New York University, Wardropper previously spent a decade at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, ending his tenure there as the chairman of European sculpture and decorative arts. For 20 years before that, he worked at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he served as the curator of European decorative arts, sculpture, and ancient art.

During his tenure at the Frick, Wardropper has overseen a $290 million capital campaign for the renovation, about 83 percent of which — $242 million — has been raised so far.

He also increased the board of trustees to 24 from 18 (there are three Frick descendants and one emerita), and developed the droll series “Cocktails with a Curator” for YouTube — during the pandemic that paired a crash-course discussion of a work of art in the collection with a drink related to the era. (It became a book and an international hit with many who had never before been to the museum.)

The Frick’s partnership with the Ghetto Film School, now in its eighth year, connects young filmmakers with the museum’s collection.

With the building project not yet completed, Wardropper still has work to do, namely moving the art and staff back into its original home as well as raising money for exhibitions through 2027. “It’s going to be a very intense year,” he said.

But the director also said he feels positive about how the museum continues to become more open and accessible to a broader population of visitors.

“The Frick has been this ivory tower with the key thrown away in many people’s minds,” he said. “I think we unlocked it.”

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