Wardropper Plaudits: Elevating (to the 2nd floor) the Frick’s Visitor Experience

In my previous post, which concluded with my brief, favorable take on the tenure of Ian Wardropper, soon to retire from the Frick Collection’s directorship, I mentioned only one (self-centered) reason for my admiration—his professional courtesy towards me. But there are more substantive reasons why he not only earned my respect but also merits yours.

Ian Wardropper, in front of the screen of decorative organ pipes at the first landing of the Frick Collection’s grand staircase, which will be opened to visitors after the renovation/expansion
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The Frick’s recent press release announcing Wardropper’s planned retirement next year, “following 14 years of service to the Frick and a 50-year museum career,” provided a detailed recap of his directorial accomplishments, making it easy for me to enumerate encomiums:

During his tenure as the Frick’s director, Wardropper led the museum and library through a period of strategic and measured growth, which included the first comprehensive renovation and upgrade of the Frick’s historic buildings in nearly 90 years and a focused acquisitions program that has enhanced the institution’s art and library collections. He also prioritized accessibility and public outreach, spearheading innovative strategies and partnerships that enabled audiences to experience the museum and library in new ways. This has ranged from inventive online programs including Cocktails with a Curator to partnerships with the Ghetto Film School to the conceptualization and management of Frick Madison, which enabled the Frick’s collections and programs to be enjoyed throughout the institution’s renovation and enhancement project.   

Here’s a link to the entire “Cocktails” series of videos, and below is an image of Frick himself with the painting (on left) that Xavier Salomon, the Frick’s chief curator (whom Wardropper wisely poached from the Met) identified as Frick’s favorite—Velázquez‘s “King Philip“:

The suggested beverage pairing is “Fiftififti“—1/2 Fino dry sherry; 1/2 sweet sherry, chilled. Mocktail recipes for children (or teetotalers) are also provided.

I wrote here, in detail, about the plans by architect Annabelle Selldorf to address the Frick’s limitations. Among the changes, as reconfirmed to me this month by Heidi Rosenau, the Frick’s spokesperson, are “the new auditorium [that] is going underground on the 70th-Street side of the property, where an art storage vault had been. The former Music Room will become special exhibition gallery spaces.”

Heidi also reconfirmed that the new addition (on the right, in the rendering below) matches the seven-story height of the Frick Art Reference Library’s 1935 building, located behind it, on 71st Street: “It’s a relatively narrow slab completing that building’s southern-facing facade with matching Indiana limestone. The previous southern-facing facade was not clad in that way and has looked incongruous all of these years. We’ve changed the internal floor numbers as the count of 7 had not included some mezzanines, but we’ve not changed the height externally at all.”

Rendering of the new 70th Street main-entrance façade
Seldorf Architects, Beyer Blinder Belle Executive Architects

Perhaps the part of this planned renovation and expansion that’s most eagerly anticipated by the public is the opening to visitors of the Frick’s second floor (previously used for such purposes as staff offices and meeting rooms). The Frick can’t expand its footprint, but it can and will repurpose the upstairs rooms, previously off-limits to the public, to expand its display spaces. According to the Frick’s website on the “Renovation and Enhancement Project”: “Galleries on the second floor will increase the museum’s display space for permanent collection objects by 25 percent.”

Another big plus: three new galleries on the museum’s first floor, providing dedicated space for special exhibitions, “allowing—for the first time—works from the permanent collection to remain on view alongside loaned objects, instead of being removed to temporary storage.”

When it reopens near the end of this year (if all goes according to plan), the display of the permanent collection in the renovated 1914 Beaux Arts building (designed as Henry Clay Frick‘s residence by Carrère and Hastings, and later repurposed as a museum by John Russell Pope) will revert to “the same Frick experience and character as before, with the same approach in display that is so associated with the Frick,” as Heidi Rosenau, the museum’s spokesperson, told me in our 2020 conversation about the museum’s future.

Meanwhile, thanks to the availability of the temporarily unoccupied Marcel Breuer building (previously occupied by the Whitney Museum, then by the Met and now being acquired by Sotheby’s), the Frick can continue to display its collection off-site (through March 3), but in new configurations—released from their rigid arrangements that were organized “without regard to period or national origin, akin to the way Mr. Frick enjoyed the art he loved before bequeathing it to the public” (as described on the Frick’s website).

The Frick’s current curators also inserted interlopers. The most inspired and admired juxtaposition of a Frick-owned work with an outsider is this:

Salomon hailed this pairing as “a unique opportunity to reunite two of the greatest masterpieces of Venetian Renaissance paintings.” He described the Giorgione as “the ideal companion” for the Bellini….Both are set in landscapes. You have a large rock with a cave on one side. The other side opens to an expansive landscape in the far distance….They are both about humankind in the natural world, but they have very different answers: The Bellini is about the mystical quality of nature. Imagine nature as this great mystery that surrounds us….Giorgione looks at this in a very different way: The three philosophers [who are]…probably philosophers from antiquity,…are measuring, they’re calculating, they’re taking notes,…trying to make sense of the world around us. So while the St. Francis is looking at the divine aspects of nature, these are human beings who are scientists, who are actually trying to understand why the sun rises and sets.”

Maybe so. But to me, the common, intriguing element of these two paintings is the protagonist’s rapt gaze at something spellbinding, wondrous, perhaps even miraculous, about which we outside observers can only speculate.

But back to Wardropper: In discussing his possible successor, the outgoing director recently told NY Times reporter Robin Pogrebin that “it would be great if that person came ‘from within.’” He expressed the hope that Salomon (whom CultureGrrl readers met here, expounding on Goya‘s iconic Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga,” aka the “Red Boy”) “will be one of the candidates.”

Having several times heard Xavier hold forth on the Met’s and Frick’s holdings, I’d second Ian’s nomination:

Xavier Salomon during his previous gig at the Met, discussing Goya’s “Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga”
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In his preface to the Frick’s Fall 2023 “Members’ Magazine,” Wardropper revealed that foundations, individuals and government agencies had “contributed a combined $242 million during the silent phase of the [capital] campaign.” The total goal is $290 million, which includes both funds supporting the move to Frick Madison and the project’s soft costs. The “public phase” of the capital campaign (soliciting contributions from the broader public) is now underway.

As for his own future plans, Wardropper has said that he has two book projects in mind. For now, come join us (via a CultureGrrl Video replay) on a 2016 tour of the old upstairs, dropping in on a curator whose office is being repurposed:



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