Frick director works to make museum more 'open'
Whenever Robin Nicholson hears the Frick Art & Historical Center described as a “hidden gem,” he knows he has more work to do.
“I like the word ‘gem,' but not the word ‘hidden,' ” says Nicholson, director of the five-acre complex in Point Breeze that includes the Frick Art Museum, Car and Carriage Museum and Clayton, the Henry Clay Frick family's 19th-century mansion. “People who know it love it. But we have to broadcast our message more widely.”
Last September, Nicholson, 49, became the institution's third director, taking the place of the retiring Bill Bodine who had served as director since 2002.
“Bill Bodine timed his departure so the process would be self-sustaining and a successor would move on to the next stage,” Nicholson says. “This wasn't an organization in crisis needing someone to do emergency triage.”
• Overseen the building and completion of the new visitor center that opened in July 2014;
• Begun a 20,000-square-foot project to expand the Car and Carriage Museum and add an education center, community center and much-needed storage space for the museum's permanent collections, which will open Oct. 29;
• Spearheaded a $15-million capital campaign that is nearing its goal.
“There were no skeletons in the closet,” Nicholson says. “Had I been here 10 years ago, I wouldn't have changed a thing. The Frick was doing everything right.”
That secure foundation has given Nicholson something to build on.
“From the outset, I had the opportunity to look, listen and think about the next step after the capital campaign,” he says.
What he learned was sometimes dismaying.
A survey of members and nonmembers revealed that only 25 percent of respondents could correctly identify its full name — Frick Art & Historical Center. Some identified it as an art museum, others knew it only for its house tours of Clayton.
To remedy that, Nicholson and the staff are working on new signage to help visitors learn about and find their way to those major attractions, as well as to smaller ones, such as the conservatory and the Cafe.
They are updating the website, using new media, such as Instagram, and looking at how best to capitalize on the soon-to-open expanded carriage museum and new education center.
“Small things can make a difference,” Nicholson says.
Since taking over, he has implemented a large number of those small-but-important changes to make the Frick more accessible and more widely known. One task is thinning the hemlock trees that run along the property line on Penn Avenue. Another is drawing up plans to create a pedestrian entrance and walkway from Penn Avenue.
“It makes a statement about accessibility,” Nicholson says.
Nicholson hasn't limited himself to drawing up plans for the future.
Recently, new glass panels were inserted into the art museum's heavy wooden entrance and exit doors.
“I strongly felt (the doors) were forbidding. I felt replacing the (panels) with glass was relatively straightforward,” Nicholson says.
The glass now allows sunlight to flow into the museum's rotunda. “In winter, it will really glow,” he says.
“The doors are very symbolic of the kind of change Robin has brought,” says Cary Reed, chairman of the Frick Art & Historical Center. “It's small, but so much more welcoming and open to the public; plus, being open every Friday night during the ‘Rolling Hills, Satanic Mills' exhibit brought new people onto the campus.”
Soon after coming to his new job, Nicholson noticed that as the museum was closing at 5 p.m., Frick Park — across the street from the museum — was at its most active.
That inspired him to inaugurate Summer Fridays at the Frick, which ran through Aug. 7.
Each Friday throughout the summer, the museum's galleries, the visitor center, the Cafe and Clayton were open until 9 p.m. Patrons found a cash bar for wine on the terrace outside the Frick Art Museum. Picnicking in the park from family picnic baskets or with items purchased from food trucks on the grounds was encouraged.
Opening up the Frick with events like Summer Fridays and the long-running First Fridays at the Frick summer concert series proved popular with Point Breeze resident Tim Gyves.
Gyves, his wife, Abby, and their children, ages 14 months and 3 years, often use the Frick grounds like a park.
“We go there frequently ... wander the grounds, peek into the conservatory and the gardens. It's nice to get out of the house. It's a little, nice park to walk around,” Gyves says.
“We've been to concerts. The atmosphere is not stuffy,” he says. “It's a place to have a nice time and see your neighbors.”
“During his first year, (Nicholson) has definitely tried to do different things,” says Gyves, a residential retail sales associate for Coldwell Banker. “Museums can be intimidating to people. He has made it less cloistered. What they are doing to grow audiences, in ways that 20 years ago were not thought of, is exciting.”
Nicholson plans to follow with a similar, but broader, series this winter and a revamped schedule to keep facilities open one night a week.
Frick's daughter, Helen Clay Frick, founded The Frick Art Museum in 1969, so, by museum standards, the Frick is a young museum. But its membership and visitors skew older.
For it to survive, Nicholson knows he must broaden and diversify his audience without alienating his core donors, members and visitors.
In the future, he plans to continue to schedule traveling exhibitions of serious topics similar to the show of photography created by late 19th- and early 20th-century artists — “not a broad topic,” he says — with shows he believes will attract younger, wider audiences. One such, “Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe,” will open in June.
“We are going to try more edgy things, more contemporary artists that will make us more edgy and dynamic than people normally associate with the Frick,” he says.
As Nicholson begins his second year at the Frick, Reed considers Nicholson a valued asset.
“Robin has met and exceeded all our expectations,” Reed says. “We were very happy with Bill (Bodine). But Robin has injected a new level of enthusiasm, energy and youth. He has got a young perspective and a very fresh approach.”