When the Frye Art Museum announced it would be squirreling away everybody's favorite paintings, removing them from the gallery walls and even snatching their reproductions from the bookstore postcard racks, a thrill went through me. This felt like an unalloyed idea, one that would not survive a focus group. The point was to discover why (and how much) people loved these artworks, the hard way, by taking them away. The deprivation would, of course, cause some frustration.

Still, when I visited the salon-style exhibition with its gaping holes on the wall a couple months ago, I was taken aback: In the middle of the genteel 19th-century-painting gallery, two notebooks sat and screamed. I'd say at least half the visitor comments were furious and disapproving. I traveled all the way from Pittsburgh to see the ducks and you ruined my vacation! You whippersnappers, I've visited this painting since I was a child—put it back! The exigent undertone was always, why have you done this to me?

The answer to that question was about as reassuring as behavioral research—to see what would happen—but the museum experimented for good reason. The Frye hadn't changed the display of its core collection in several years. A frozen display can reflect the idiosyncrasies of a great collector (take the Barnes outside Philadelphia, for instance), but at the Frye, the paintings weren't hung in any special or significant way. A case of institutional arthritis had set in; no wonder the visitors didn't expect sudden movements. Historically at the Frye, time stood still, and you could return and dip deep into a well of your own nostalgia any time you pleased.

The "favorites" were an ingenious vehicle to get straight to the heart of the Frye, and its visitors. It seems a missed opportunity that the final display of these seven paintings, released from captivity and given plenty of wall space in their own airy show, is whitewashed compared to the notebooks I saw. Not one hater is quoted in the wall labels compiled from visitor comments, presumably because those remarks might make the experiment look bad. But those sentiments are at least as telling as the rhapsodies up now, rhapsodies remembering the cold river of a landscape or the wide eyes of an innocent milkmaid.

What this whole thing makes glaringly obvious is that these paintings are accessories to a comforting routine, simple proofs of a person's existence. They are loved almost as much for enduring as for what they are. Without them, memories are stranded. That's the portrait the museum set out to make, of the relationship between the museum's holdings and its visitors. Another work of art emerged, though, from the notebooks: a study of the changing museum's tempestuous relationship with its veteran public. I wish that had made the exhibition, too. Because while the "favorites" are a stand-in for everything that traditional museum fans are afraid will disappear as the Frye raises its regional profile, the paradox is that shows like this keep the collection alive.