Gryffindor The Met Breuer will temporarily house the Frick Collection starting in 2020.

I can’t wait to see the paintings by Rembrandt and Manet, Ingres and Van Dyck, not to mention the Meissen porcelain and the French furniture, posing against the bare concrete of one of architect Marcel Breuer’s greatest masterpieces. That is the prospect we have to look forward to now that the Frick Collection, which will be closing down soon for a massive renovation and expansion, will be taking over the former Whitney Museum on Madison Avenue in Manhattan for a few years starting in 2020. The only problem is that their move to the airy environs the concrete bastion affords will last for only a few years, after which the collections will return to the mansion where you can see them now, the stuffy salons robber baron Henry Clay Frick called home.

For the last two years (after a three-year renovation), the Breuer-designed building has been the home of the Met Breuer, an effort initiated by former Metropolitan Museum of Art director Thomas Campbell to let the institution reach beyond its grand edifice with programming that skewed modern, but showed the relation between their vast collections and contemporary work. The results were uneven, but often quite brilliant, and also showed that even the oldest and most traditional art could look fabulous in the open galleries Breuer designed in 1963 and which opened in 1966.

Regan Vercruysse The spacious insides of Breuer's building is an ideal place to view contemporary art.
Regan Vercruysse Another view of the Breuer gallery space.

There is a reason for this: despite the Breuer building’s strong presence on the street (some would call it overbearing) and its equally heavy concrete frame, the building gained the love of millions of viewers exactly because it acts as a strong frame for art: not neutral, not interjecting, but creating a context that edits the outside world, focuses your attention, and yet leaves you free to wander, both physically and with your eyes. The beauty of the galleries, including their proportions and minimalist detailing, along with the sequence of crossing a moat, entering into a low lobby, and then rising up to the display space that sets the tone for your visit, create a setting to view whatever we deem worthy enough for our attention and enjoyment to call art.

This is not to say that the Frick is an altogether inappropriate place to see art. Much of the museum’s collection was made for display in palaces and country homes, and the architects of the Frick mansion, Carrère and Hastings, knew such buildings well. However, the new addition, designed by Annabelle Selldorf, FAIA, will have few of these qualities. Designed for enhanced guest services and changing exhibitions, it will be generic and bland. It will also be compromised, as I wrote a few months ago, by the concessions to neighbors, zoning, and taste it must make to fit into its site.

Courtesy The Frick Collection This animation shows the past and future renovations and additions to the Frick Collection site.
Courtesy Selldorf Architects
A view of a renovated Selldorf Architects gallery space at the Frick.

The old Whitney, on the other hand, can accept paintings both large and small, and give them a good context. It has room for all the amenities the Frick Collection needs, and then some. The real question then is: Why not make the move permanent? Why not leave the Frick mansion as it is, and move the whole operation into the Breuer building?

The answer is two-fold. First, the Breuer building’s operating costs are rumored to be very high, as the Met found out as it tried to operate there. I wonder, however, how much higher they would be than those of the expanded Frick. Second, when we think of the Frick, we think of, well, the Frick—the mansion, that is. The whole institution started from that place and gained its character and reputation not only from the quality of its holdings and the charm of some of its activities, like its small chamber concerts and lectures, but also from its site.

Sarah Jane The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art came into its own when it moved into its own Mario Botta-designed building in 1995.

Institutions can change, often quite radically. The San Francisco Museum of Art blossomed when it moved from its home in the attic of Arthur Brown Jr.’s War Memorial Veterans Building to its own, Mario Botta, Hon. FAIA-designed, structure in 1995. The same is true for the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which now even takes its name, Newfields, at least nominally from the site it has occupied since 2005 after abandoning its 1929 Paul Cret-designed downtown home. That said, such radical departures are rare: More often than not, museums add onto their sites rather than abandoning them altogether.

In this case, that is not possible, at least not in a manner that would fully honor the Frick’s collections and activities. If it were up to me, I would maintain only the original rooms with their art that Frick collected, and move the rest of the operation to the old Whitney. We would get to see good art in a great setting. The Frick would be able to do all the exhibitions and activities it wanted, while using the top floors for offices and research. The neighbors in both locations would be happy.

None of that will happen. I’m pretty sure.

Xiquinho Silva The Cooper Hewitt's cramped gallery spaces.

And with that most likely being the case, let me make another … gentler … suggestion: If neither the Met nor the Whitney really want the building, and the Frick only wants to borrow it, why not move the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum down there? Their home, the 1902 Carnegie house, is absurdly out of tune with their collections and activities, and the museum has struggled for years in that site—which also happens to be just beyond the reach of most tourists and visitors up on East 91st Street. It is also not nearly as good a building as the Frick, having been designed by the workmanlike firm of Babb, Cook & Willard. I have never seen an exhibition that works well at the Carnegie, and the institution’s laudable educational activities are relegated to the basement. Sell the grand edifice to some self-important potentate or zillionaire and use the money to occupy a landmark of modern architecture with great design institution.