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"The Thick of It"—25 Plus Years at The Frick Pittsburgh

"The Thick of It"—25 Plus Years at The Frick Pittsburgh
July 15, 2020 By: Sarah Hall, Chief Curator, Director of Collections

"The Thick of It"—25 Plus Years at The Frick Pittsburgh

A few weeks ago, I spontaneously offered to write a final blog post on my nearly 26 years at the Frick. It seemed easy. I love my work. I’ve loved being a part of the Frick and a part of Pittsburgh’s arts and culture community. I love talking about myself. (I think I love talking about art and exhibitions more.) But then I sat down to write and realized that distilling so many years of memories and experiences into a coherent blog post is extremely difficult. It would take me pages and pages (I think that’s called a memoir) to tell all the stories, share all the adventures, and name all the names. I can’t subject you to that. I have to be choosy and I have to be relatively superficial.

So, here then is the “light” look back at a really wonderful time of my life—when I grew up alongside the Frick, developed skills, met challenges, came to feel like a Pittsburgher, and worked with and met many wonderful people—from historians and subject specialists to visitors and marvelously talented colleagues. It’s been my pleasure and privilege to be part of the Frick.

Years ago, I was preparing for a talk I gave to museum studies students, and I asked my son, a young teen at the time, who had grown up watching me work, what he thought the most interesting aspect of my job was. He said, “The show. People probably don’t realize how much effort you put into the shows.” But he followed up with, “What I think is interesting about your job is that you are a boss but you aren’t removed from things—you’re in the thick of it.” So I’ve stolen that for my title, and I think, while maybe not very museum-y, it accurately reflects the experience of the Frick—a museum with a relatively small staff that accomplishes some ambitious projects. Because of this, we all get to be in the thick of things.

Learning some costume mounting techniques at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 2016.

Installing a Millet in the Clayton reception room. 

After nearly 26 years at one museum, it’s safe to say I will probably never know another collection as well as I know this one—from Henry Clay Frick’s early purchases to Helen Clay Frick’s interest in Italian Renaissance painting and 18th-century French painting and decorative arts. As time has passed since Helen Clay Frick’s 1984 death, there has gradually been more attention paid to her as a collector and philanthropist, and not simply as a daughter. We began connecting the dots between her father’s collecting and her own interest in collecting, art history, and museums in our 2016 publication The Frick Pittsburgh: A Guide to the Collection.

This posthumous Portrait of Henry Clay Frick by Sir Gerald Kelly shows Frick in his New York residence surrounded by his collection. 

Collection guide published in 2016. 

I’ve also had the opportunity to work with and meet many extraordinary, talented people. I remember the phones ringing off the hook when we had art historian Robert Rosenblum (a widely respected author and teacher who gained broad popular recognition for his 1988 book The Dog in Art from Rococo to Post-Modernism.) At the Frick, his talk Bouguereau versus Picasso:  The Dawn of a New Century was programmed as part of our lecture series complementing the exhibition Collecting in the Gilded Age: Art Patronage in Pittsburgh 1890-1910. His talk was marvelous, of course, but I well remember driving him around Pittsburgh as he told stories of the pleasures and challenges of international travel with children.

The Frick’s 1997 exhibition and publication Collecting in the Gilded Age: Art Patronage in Pittsburgh 1890-1910 remains an important study of the interests in and patterns of collecting in Gilded Age America.

It has been a delight to be involved in hosting speakers like Rosenblum, as well as impressive local experts like David Wilkins, Beth Roark, Aaron Sheon, and Ann Sutherland Harris. (It’s dangerous naming names, since I have surely left out someone important.) We also had a wonderful time in 2009 hosting Ross King, author of The Judgement of Paris in celebration of our acquisition (through the generous donation of the Edwards family) of Meissonier’s important Napoleonic canvas, 1806, Jena. King gave a fascinating talk on changing tastes in the art world that led to the rise of Impressionism. At dinner, he recommended books that my son might enjoy. These are the pleasures of my working life—learning constantly from scholars who are as engaging and entertaining as they are enlightening, and also getting a sense of who they are as people. I remember bringing a Buddhist monk to Pittsburgh to discuss Asian art as active religious objects—this was long enough ago that I was booking travel pre-Internet and was astonished at a flight option that seemed too efficient to be true. In fact, it was too expensive to fit the museum budget—the quote was for the Concorde. (Google that if you’re young enough to have not heard of it.)

Working with Duncan and Mike to wrap Meissonier’s 1806, Jena for its trip to the Frick.

Installing Jules Breton's The Gleaners, a loan from The Huntington Library, in the Clayton dining room.

The pleasure of working at a mid-sized museum with a relatively small staff is that you get to be involved in many things. Over the years I’ve done my share of both writing and speaking—from object labels to magazine articles, blogs, grant narratives, and catalogue essays. The biggest misunderstanding I’ve faced is that people always associate the Frick’s curatorial department with the art museum—in fact the curatorial department works with all the collections on the 5.5-acres site—Clayton and its contents, the cars and carriages, the art museum, and the historic structures are all part of the curatorial department’s responsibilities. In 2009, the curatorial department oversaw the disassembly and reassembly of the coffered ceiling on Clayton’s enclosed porch (which was sagging from the weight of Henry Clay Frick’s bathroom—an 1897 addition). More recently, we worked with a team of contractors on the restoration of the foundation at the northwest corner of the house. Preservation projects of that magnitude are time-consuming, expensive, and stressful. I’ll admit, the annual meetings to discuss the holiday installation are much more fun.

The holidays at Clayton in 2018 evoked the atmosphere of Helen Clay Frick’s 1908 debut.

Installing Elise Adibi: Respiration Paintings in the Frick Greenhouse, 2017. 

From the awkwardness of having to wrestle star contemporary artist Vik Muniz away from a crowd of adoring fans and to dinner before the restaurant closed, to hanging an entire exhibition of 200 drawings with one other colleague, to organizing parties (hiring tarot card readers and snake charmers!), to learning HTML as part of the team working on the Frick’s first website, to attempting to watch every Katharine Hepburn movie and working on both the original (1997) and most recent (2015) openings of the Car and Carriage Museum…I’ve done so many things I never anticipated. And thankfully, I’m sure there are more unexpected adventures along the road ahead.

Working on the reinstallation of the Frick’s expanded Car and Carriage Museum in 2015.

Unpacking one of many exhibitions.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

As I say farewell, I’d just like to remind everyone of the importance of museums to our lives. Now more than ever we need to promote and expand the humanist values that museums encourage. We need to talk to each other. We need to engage in meaningful conversations about a better future. We can look to museums to remind us of the deep well of human potential, and we can find in museums inspiration, provocation, contemplation, and connection. Museums can actively promote the values of a more equitable world, and I believe that the work we do has never been more relevant or necessary. The Frick is in good hands and is ready to continue doing good work. And me, I’m excited to continue to be a part of the work of museums.
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