By Matthew Kangas

LONG CONSIDERED the kindly old aunt of Seattle museums, the new Charles and Emma Frye Art Museum is re-entering the area's -- and nation's--cultural life as a chic young heiress whom everyone will want to date. It seems everything is happening at once for the institution situated in Seattle's earliest residential neighborhood, First Hill.

With the hiring of Richard West, 62, the Czech-born new director, the Frye acquired top-notch professional leadership after the impressive 30-year reign of Kay Greathouse. A new staff includes collections curators, education director, exhibitions and graphics designer, cafe manager, museum store manager, security head, and a museum technician. West says the Frye is now ready to "continue the Frye experience of quality and strength."

The public has long known of the treasures at the Frye -- 19th.-century German painting, Alaska scene painting, Russian exiles of the "Santa Fe School," and early 20th-century American art -- but now West wants to "learn more about what we have. We will begin contacting European sources to find provenances, dates, and attributions in the hope that, in the next five years, a new handbook will be created."

Besides masterpieces of what is called Wilhelmine art (after Kaiser Wilhelm), conservative realistic paintings from Spain, Denmark, Italy, Norway, Poland, Hungary, France, Austria, and the Czech Republic were also purchased by Charles and Emma Frye. The Fryes were transplanted German-Americans from the Midwest who made a fortune in meatpacking and, more importantly, real estate holdings which are still the source of the Frye's revenues today.

The new galleries for the permanent collection are now supplemented by the Greathouse galleries, named after Mrs. Greathouse and her late husband, Walser, founding director and first attorney for the Frye estate. All have state-of-the-art climate control, filtered overhead natural gallery lighting (missing at the new Seattle Art Museum), artificial lighting, and thoroughly informative labels. Many works such as the controversial torso view of Eve with a python wrapped around her shoulder (Sin, c. 1900, by Franz von Stuck), Ludwig Knaus's 1889 Gypsy Camp, and Defregger's Tyrolean Guest (c.1878) have been cleaned and, in some cases, reframed with antique period frames.

In what is sure to be considered the most extensive museum renovation in the city's history, Rick Sundberg of Olson/Sundberg Architects united three different stages of building by designers Paul Thiry, the leading International Style architect who did the original 1952 building, and Callison Partnership, who handled the Alaska wing. The result rivals America's most beautiful museum, The Kimbell of Fort Worth, Texas, by Louis Kahn, in size, scale and style. A flat-topped, two-story pavilion complete with reflection pool, lobby skylight, and moss garden, the 42,000 square foot space now has its own education wing, executive suite, its first cafe, and a new auditorium and shop. The new restaurant, specializing in traditional American dishes, affirms that viewers have more than High Victorian paintings to sample.

To augment the re-installation of Mr. and Mrs. Frye's acquisitions, West plans a long-term series of concerts, receptions, lectures, and perhaps symposia, related to the art in Europe in the final quarter of the 19th. century. Besides the opening temporary exhibitions of Norwegian symbolic realist Odd Nerdrum, the entire Wyeth family, and visionary art by American Victorians Ralph Blakelock and Elliott Daingerfield, West is also expecting greater play for the museum's impressive print and works-on-paper holdings in a special area.

Subsequent exhibitions for 1997 - 99 will borrow works from the Currier Gallery of American Art in Manchester, NH, and the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts. Costumes, posters and paintings done in a mental asylum by Russian ballet great Vaclav Nijinsky are also scheduled.

Visitors to the Frye finally will be able to view more of the Frye's substantial holdings of 19-century and early 20th.-century American art as well. Acquired by Mrs. Greathouse during annual buying trips to New York, these mostly minor examples by major artists showcase Winslow Homer, James McNeill Whistler, Thomas Eakins, Frank Duveneck, Robert Henry, John Sloan, George Bellows, George Luks, William Glackens and others. Prominent women artists of the period like Mary Cassatt and Mary Hinkson are represented too.

With portraits of powerful political leaders, opera singers, and ecclesiastical officials dominating the core collection, Mrs. Greathouse tempered the autocratic aura of the Prussians with landscapes, interiors, and still lifes by Cassatt, Renoir, Corot, Boudin, and Harnett. Taken together with the Ash Can School examples, the later Alaskans, and the Russian transplants, our picture of art and life 100 years ago is now far richer and more complex thanks to the Fryes and the Greathouses.

Looking back and forward at the same time, Kay Greathouse recently commented, "We built it all from nothing, we stood alone at times, with tremendous jealousy and resentment . . . but now, I hope it will be successful."

Thanks to her stalwart stewardship, Richard West inherits a museum of impeccable fiscal strength and exquisite, enviable holdings. As the Frye Museum faces the next century, it will at last gain broader respect as a privately supported art museum with a superb collection. Now housed elegantly, it is sure to reassure local fans and attract far-reaching national and global attention.

MATTHEW KANGAS, nationally renowned art critic and curator, is a regular contributor to Art Guide Northwest

Richard West, new director of the Frye

Mt. McKinley from the Headwater of Tokacheetna River, Lawrence Sydney, 20" x 15"

El Picador, Robert Henry, 1908, 94" x 44"

Windmills, Dordrecht Holland, John Henry Twatchman, oil, 23" x 29"

Navigation Bar

Thank you for visiting Art Guide Northwest! ©1999 Tipton Publishing Co.
All rights reserved. 12/1/1998 Site development by Scribe Typography