Less is more. This spare assertion, applied to Minimalism by its great architectural proponent Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, also works for art museums.
I usually manage a couple of trips to New York each year and while my visits are organized around the theatre world, I always make time to visit art museums. I enjoy the art in its own right but I also find that it stimulates my writing in unpredictable and exciting ways. The two biggies in New York are of course the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). These are mammoth institutions. As just one mark of size, over the last twelve months the Met had a record 6.3 million visitors.
While I can appreciate the Met and MOMA, it is the smaller art museums such as the Frick Museum, Neue Galerie and J.P. Morgan Library and Museum that reward me with the more satisfying experience. My enjoyment increases as museum size declines. This is because viewing art can and should be intensive and I have a limited mental and aesthetic capacity to experience it. The enjoyment of a fine meal is not enhanced by more on your plate, and in fact less quantity often heightens the quality. Ditto for wine. And so it is with art. These smaller museums have the human scale of a Gilded Age urban mansion, wherein I can better appreciate and digest the beauty displayed.
Last month I had the pleasure of visiting the new incarnation of the Barnes Foundation Museum in Philadelphia. My main purpose was research for a play I’m writing about Paul Cezanne (amazingly the Barnes has 69 of his paintings and drawings). The Barnes has one of the world’s strongest collections of Impressionist paintings (its aggregate value must now be over a billion dollars). If you want to see original Impressionist work, especially by Renoir and Cezanne, get thee to Philadelphia. The Barnes just moved downtown to a magnificent new building and the trustees, to their credit, retained the residential scale and highly idiosyncratic hanging scheme of its original abode.
I was reflecting on all this last weekend when I visited the Frye Art Museum a few blocks from where I live in Seattle. Charles and Emma Frye built their collection in the first part of the twentieth century and located it in a wing they attached to their downtown Seattle mansion. Later the museum moved a few blocks away to a new purpose-built structure that retained the residential/human scale that I find so congenial. The Frye, as it’s called in Seattle, just reopened after a 3-month hiatus for a spit and a polish. The foundation of the Frye collection is late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century German art.
Charles Frye made his money in Seattle real estate and selling food provisions for the Alaska Gold Rush. Competitiveness played no small role as these capitalist titans built their collections, whether in New York, Philadelphia or Seattle. Henry Clay Frick said that he built his upper eastside mansion, now the museum, “to make Carnegie’s place look like a miner’s shack.” This was also the case in Seattle, albeit at a smaller financial scale. Seattle’s Henry, Fuller and Frye families were the generators of today’s Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington, the Seattle Art Museum in Volunteer Park and the Frye Art Museum on First Hill.
The refreshed Frye Art Museum sparkles and will amply reward a visit.