A year ago, everyone knew where the Frye Art Museum was coming from: the past. Surrounded by hospitals, churches, and a Catholic high school, the Frye was a staid institution bound by the idiosyncratic collection of Charles and Emma Frye—paintings from the Munich Secessionists and French Academy that focused primarily on farm animals and pastoral landscapes—on permanent display, in accordance with the Fryes' bequest. The museum was a place to view a very specific aesthetic with slight variations, trafficked by devotees.
Then last year something happened. The unassuming Olson Sundberg–designed building on First Hill, where admission has always been free, underwent a psychic and aesthetic transformation. "It arose from everybody's sense that this was a special place that in some ways had this kooky little focus, and yet it was a focus that had real richness now and was coming back into vogue—and the time was right, the time is now, for us to make changes," says Midge Bowman, the museum's executive director.
Last summer, the Frye Art Museum announced that Robin Held, associate curator at the Henry Art Gallery, had been hired as the museum's new curator of exhibitions. "In hiring Robin I wanted to move the most avant-garde person to the most conservative museum and see what kind of chemistry arose," Bowman says. "It catalyzed a lot of people. There were a lot of good people here who when Robin came saw a whole new way of realizing the mission statement." Held joined the new leadership that included Bowman, formerly of consulting firm Bowman-Edwards & Associates, and Director of External Affairs Sherry Prowda, the founder of Seattle Arts & Lectures. The new roster of heavy-hitters signaled that something major was happening to the Frye's identity. "The really substantial change is that all of the people here at the museum feel we should engage people with art, the process of art-making, and the experience of art—and challenge them," says Prowda.
According to Held, the reevaluation hinges on a new mission statement that broadens the museum's approach to representational art. The stipulation about representational art in Charles and Emma Frye's bequest, followed strictly, made for a stodgy museum. The reconfigured statement says the Frye "engages audiences, challenges perceptions, and encourages dialogue about representational art in all its complexities, past and present."
"It gives us a way to broaden the way representation is shown and treat it as a question, not an answer," Held says. She sees this as an extension of the open-endedness of the space. "One of the things I've tried to do with the exhibitions is take advantage of the architecture," she says. "There's no one way in or one way out of an exhibition. You can't send someone through a show in lockstep. That openness is really inviting to me as a curator and a viewer."
Held mixes the permanent collection with contemporary exhibitions in a way that creates a dialogue between the two, using the old works as a point of departure for newer conceptual exhibitions. "Whether they would use the R-word or not, there are so many artists working with representation," Held says.
One of them is Seattle painter Joseph Park, whose show Moonbeam Caress was Held's first for the Frye. With his mixture of fantastical animals as human surrogates in art-historical settings, Park's work embodied the crossroads between the old and new Frye. "Joe was brave to trust me before there was any evidence to support that trust," Held says. "His work was so perfect for the Frye in my head, the Frye I envisioned, and a museum show of his work was clearly overdue. But I could not yet show that Frye to Joe. He closed his eyes and took a leap of faith with me." She adds, "I really began learning the Frye Collection when I looked at it beside Joe."
Turns out Park had been a Frye fan for a while. "I think one of the things we all discovered is that the Frye has some deep places in so many peoples' hearts and some people are very open about it and other people are closet Frye fans. They come here but they don't want to tell you," Held says. "We kept finding all these local artists who come here regularly or bring their classes here. Like Joe (Park) brings his daughter here and teaches her animal sounds by showing her animals in paintings."
Held has also pushed against the parameters of representational art with exhibitions by Oliver Herring and by the conceptual Slovenian art collective Neue Slowenische Kunst (New Slovene Art), or NSK. The Herring exhibition included staged photographic narratives, videos of fluorescent bodies falling and leaping, and a reclining life-size sculpture made up of thousands of collaged self-portrait photos. The NSK show, entitled The RetroFuturistic Universe of NSK, featured provocative paintings, posters, uniforms, and artifacts, and its deadpan send-up of totalitarian imagery and swastikas offended some longtime Frye-goers, who lashed out in the comment book.
The Frye's visitors' comments have become "more intense" lately, says Bowman. "People are experiencing the art not only differently but more deeply. Before, they came here and it was like comfort food, like macaroni and cheese, and so there was a certain nostalgia for those easy days, but I think the response that we've seen, certainly with the NSK exhibition, is that it's touching people in a more meaningful way."
Attendance has soared. "The last opening, we had more people attend than we have ever had for an opening at the museum," Prowda beams. "But that's only part of the picture because it's only a number. I'd say that the other part of that is the range of people that are coming is much more reflective of the whole community."
Bowman, Held, and Prowda are pushing to make sure the museum continues to evolve. "This next year will be a proving ground," Prowda says. "We have to bring to the table projects that are going to define what we've laid out as objectives for the museum, how we distinguish ourselves as that small but really important museum."