Spence Upper School was transported to the halls of the Frick Madison as Dr. Ian Wardropper, Director of the Frick Collection, presented the 33rd annual Scolari Barr Lecture, “Change of Address: The Frick Collection Reimagined.” Through Wardropper’s presentation, students were given a complex view of how major arts’ institutions tackle seminal moments of change as they imagine their future. Students also learned about a significant historical connection between Spence and the Frick, as Helen Clay Frick, who established the Frick Art Reference Library and the Frick Collection, attended Spence during Clara Spence’s tenure, graduating from the School in 1908.
The distinction of having the renowned art historian Margaret Scolari Barr on the Spence faculty from 1943 to 1980 is amplified each year with a lecture established in her name by the Class of 1964 to honor their “illustrious and beloved” teacher. “Ms. Scolari Barr was inspirational in the lives of many of our alumnae, and now through this very lecture, also in your life, here and now,” shared Head of School Bodie Brizendine. Several members of the Class of 1964, including Joan Mertens, the Greek and Roman Art Curator at The Met who helps select Scolari Barr presenters, joined Upper Schoolers at this first in-person lecture since 2019.
“Dr. Wardropper has served as the Frick’s director since the fall of 2011, and has organized more than 20 exhibitions in his specialties of European sculpture, earlier decorative arts and twentieth-century design and decorative arts,” shared Nancy Y. ’22 in her introduction of this year’s Scolari Barr guest speaker. Wardropper’s distinguished career as a curator includes leading departments at The Met and the Art Institute of Chicago. Over the past 10 years he has guided the Frick’s plans in keeping a vibrant presence in the New York City art world as it undergoes a major renovation and expansion.
Wardropper’s Scolari presentation shed light on the many decisions––big and small––that Frick curators and architects had to make as they moved their collection to a new, temporary space. “It’s been a radical transformation, which has taught us about our collection,” Wardropper said, explaining that the stark differences between the Frick Mansion and the collection’s new, modernist building challenged his team to reimagine how they display art.
“If you had to choose two buildings in New York City that were as different as possible, you might choose these two,” Wardropper said of the Frick Mansion and the collection’s temporary home at Madison Avenue and 75th Street, a brutalist building designed by Marcel Breuer and former home to the Whitney Museum of American Art. Wardropper acquired the space through a strategic collaboration with the Whitney, which owns the building, and The Met, which is leasing it from the Whitney.
In considering everything from art placement to paint colors in the new space, Wardropper explained that the Frick team thought about the intersection between form and function. The Frick’s international team of designers and curators had the added complexity of collaborating virtually during a pandemic as they navigated these challenges. One of the most complex installations, he said, was the Frick’s Japanese, Chinese and European porcelain gallery because each piece had to be mounted. Every detail was thought about carefully, down to the paint color of the gallery, a shade of grey selected to convey “a mediation between the building and the art collection,” Wardropper shared.
One of the Frick’s defining features is “the atmosphere of a private house,” Wardropper added, so there is minimal explanatory text by each piece, an element the team wanted to maintain in the new building. “When you come to look at a work of art, we don’t want you first to view it through the text that we’ve prepared for you,” Wardropper emphasized. “We want you to look with your own eyes first. What do you see? What interests you? And at that point, it’s our job to give you lots of and different kinds of information that might be of interest to you.” To accomplish this, Frick curators worked with Bloomberg Philanthropies on an innovative app that serves as a mobile guide for museum guests, both virtual and in-person.
Wardropper further explained that the collection at the Frick Madison has been stripped of the architectural embellishments and decorative elements seen at the original location. “Things are much more accessible. They’re lower to the ground. They don’t have as many distractions. They’re closer together. They’re closer to you. They have much more power and impact,” said Wardropper. “By stripping away the Gilded Era house, people can really see the artwork for what it is.”
The Scolari Barr Lecture in the Fine Arts is an annual speaker series in the Upper School, established by the Class of 1964 to honor the legacy of Margaret Scolari Barr, who taught art history at Spence from 1943 to 1980. Scolari was inspirational in the lives of many Spence alumnae, and through this lecture, she continues to inspire generations of our students.