Frick Opponents Get Organized

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Coalition of community groups coalesce against museum expansion


  • Unite to Save the Frick supporterJames Andrew posted this image of the viewing garden and reception hall, both at risk of destruction, on his Instagram page.

Five months after the Frick Collection announced expansion plans for its landmark E. 70th St. museum, an organized opposition to the plan is taking shape.

Unite to Save the Frick, a coalition fighting the renovation, which includes the highly contested demolition of a 1977 viewing garden by landscape architect Russell Page, emerged shortly after the museum’s June announcement. Far from fringe opinion, the group has amassed more than 2,800 signatures to its petition, which it addressed to Frick trustees and staff, as well as city officials, including State Senator Liz Krueger and Councilmember Dan Garodnick.

Made up of individuals, organizations and preservationist groups opposed to the expansion, Unite to Save the Frick coalesced amid growing neighborhood concern over what the group calls a “short-sighted plan.” Looking to raise awareness, find community support and prevent the destruction of the garden in favor of a six-story addition, area residents contacted preservation advocacy groups Defenders of the Historic Upper East Side and Historic Districts Council, Unite to Save the Frick said in an email.

“[The local community] regards this as the museum down the block,” said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of HDC, whose organization issued a statement in October opposing the plan. “They regard this as a wonderful amenity to their home. The feel very strongly about it.”

HDC cited the destruction of the Russell Page garden and the size of the addition as its major concerns with the proposal, which, its statement said, would “transform The Frick into an institutional environment.”

The fate of the garden is one of the most visible concerns among critics of the expansion, and its salvation is one of Unite to Save the Frick’s top priorities.

“Frankly, landscape art, you’re not really capable of picking it up and moving it and gifting it to another institution,” Bankoff said. “It’s not like they’re selling a painting. It’s like they’re ripping down a painting to put a door in.”

The public’s response to the potential expansion of the museum has been singular, Bankoff said; he hasn’t seen such a strong reaction to any other institution in the area, save the New York Public Library. New Yorkers have a unique emotional connection to the Frick, he said.

James Andrew is one such New Yorker. An interior designer, lifestyle blogger and longtime visitor to the museum, Andrew joined in Unite to Save the Frick’s efforts. Though based in Murray Hill, his frequent trips to the Upper East Side, where many of his clients are located, often include a quick stop by the Russell Page garden.

“It’s a wonderful living landscape painting,” said Andrew. “It’s for everyone to enjoy if they pass through the neighborhood, even if they can’t afford admission to the Frick.”

Andrew’s involvement with the group began after he shared a photo of the garden with his 3,800 Instagram followers and linked to the petition in the photo caption. Organizers saw this and reached out to him for support, which he’s enthusiastically giving through blog posts and additional social media advocacy. Unite to Save the Frick shared a photo on its own Instagram account of Andrew inside the Russell Page garden, taken during an annual private party at the museum, one of the few events each year in which the garden is accessible. Gaining admittance into the gated garden was “something I’d always dreamed and fantasized about,” he said.

In addition to advocacy efforts, Unite to Save the Frick and its supporters suggest alternatives to the construction of the six-story structure, including underground excavation and off-site options for administrative use through the acquisition of the Berry-Hill gallery space to the east of the garden. (Frick officials said that excavation is already included in the expansion plan, and that Berry-Hill’s two floors don’t adequately solve the museum’s space issues.) In the event that the museum does withdraw the proposal, Bankoff added, he and his colleagues invite a continued dialogue with the institution about how to meet the Frick’s needs without threatening the intimacy and character of the institution.

Museum officials don’t expect to present their proposal to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission until early 2015 (the design is still being revised, and LPC has yet to receive an application for a work permit). Bankoff noted that the Frick has been forthright with his organization and other interested groups about what museum officials expected to be a contested expansion, which allotted time for a discourse on the proposal—and allowed opposition to gather momentum.

Though approval from the city is required for changes to landmark properties, getting the go-ahead isn’t uncommon: LPC approves more than 13,000 work permits annually. But some Unite to Save the Frick supporters don’t see much need for improvement at the Frick. Andrew suggests that the museum explore other expansion options that don’t include the destruction of the garden, which, beyond its beauty, lends space to the notably intimate museum.

“That back garden adds to that, rather than the house being overwhelmed by this massive structure,” he said. “The MoMA and the Met, they can be the ones to do the large-scale productions. There’s something about being able to enjoy works of art in this beautiful, serene space. I don’t understand what they’re trying to do.”

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