The most telling feature of the Frye Art Museum has always been its big, lonely, empty parking lot. All around it Cherry, Columbia and Terry are lined with cars belonging to those who live in nearby apartment buildings or who work at O'Dea High School, St. James Cathedral or Cabrini Medical Tower.
Parking in this First Hill neighborhood is scarce, yet on any given day there are perhaps four cars in the Frye lot slotted for 50 spaces. Like blankets spread territorially at a crowded outdoor concert reserving space for spectators who do not come, the lots seem a miscalculation.
No one uses the lot because few people visit the museum. Of those who do, the museum's figures show that nearly two thirds are older than 62 and more than half of all visitors are retirees. Many apparently walk from nearby retirement high-rises and condominiums that cater to older residents.
Many longtime Seattle residents - including art lovers and those who regularly visit galleries and other museums - have never been to the privately owned Frye. Slouching beneath its taller neighbors, the low-slung, one-story museum resembles a large, windowless, rambler-style home from the '50s, which was when it was built. The museum is barely noticeable from busy Boren Avenue.
Lack of visibility is one of the minor reasons why people don't visit. What discourages people who otherwise go out of their way to see art is the Frye's reputation as a creaky, anachronistic little museum of old-fashioned drawing-room art, amateurishly hung and poorly lit.
Difficult to compete
Though the Frye owns and exhibits some popular collections of Northwest Native American art, and is beloved by local watercolorists for its support of watercolor competitions, its permanent collection is mostly unremarkable 18th-, 19th- and early 20th-century representational art from Europe, mainly Germany, and the U.S.
It cannot compete for many traveling shows that might complement its permanent collection because its building does not meet the standards of the American Association of Museums for such conditions as controlled humidity, security, and having loading docks that can accommodate trucks.
Now president and acting director Lamont Bean - the semi-retired businessman who once ran Pay 'n Save Corp., Ernst Home Centers and Lamont's, among other retail enterprises - hopes to change some of that.
In charge of the museum for the last year, Bean has announced a $5 million plan to remodel and add a second story and has hired one of the city's most experienced architecture firms, Olson/Sundberg Architects Inc., the company that planned the interior of both the downtown Seattle Art Museum and the Seattle Asian Art Museum, to do it.
He has also seen to it that the pencil-notated file cards and hand-entered ledger books that contained all the curatorial, financial and administrative records be transferred to CD-ROM (and in the process bought the museum its first computer).
And earlier this week he announced the hiring of the museum's first professional director. Richard West, director of the Newport Art Museum in Newport, R.I., is an expert on mid 19th-century German art, which is one of the Frye's strengths. West will assume the Frye position in January. Since it opened in 1952, the museum has been run by only two people: Walser Sly Greathouse, lawyer and executor to the man who founded the museum, and Greathouse's widow, Kay, who retired as president and museum director a year ago at the age of 88.
A low-key, pragmatic man whose long retailing career has given him a healthy appreciation for marketing and the need to keep up with the competition, Bean ticks off a list of steps that he hopes will the "bring the Frye into the 20th century," a term he uses in a constant litany.
"In the new plans, we'll have a very nice gift shop and a cafe. We'll give people posters," Bean said. And he promises to redesign the "Frye Vues," the museum's monthly brochure, a folded pink card with the graphic sophistication of a church bulletin, and "bring it into the 20th century."
(Until Bean sent it off to a historical museum some months ago, the 1,200 "Frye Vues" sent out each month were labeled by an ancient Addressograph, a huge, clanging, manually operated machine that works something like a giant typewriter. He has replaced it with a computerized labeling system.) "We have old-fashioned labeling in the galleries," he said, "which we need to improve, and we're going to improve the lighting and bring it up to the standards of the 20th century."
Pushing the museum into the 20th century just as the century is about to roll into the 21st is perhaps a tall order for a museum that was founded, and until recently operated, as a private collection honed by 19th-century art tastes and a 19th-century sense of noblesse oblige.
Iowa-born Charles Frye and his wife, Emma, moved their thriving meat market to Seattle in 1888, and soon expanded it into a prosperous meat-packing business. An astute businessman, Frye also bought large tracts of land throughout the West and by the early part of this century was one of the city's wealthiest men.
Emma, meanwhile, was an arts lover who filled their First Hill mansion with paintings she acquired in Europe. When she died in 1934 - the couple were childless - her husband specified in his will that his estate be used to support a free public art museum in her memory.
Charles Frye died in 1940 and his estate was managed by his lawyer and close friend, Greathouse. A foundation was established to manage the real estate holdings that made up much of the Frye estate, and Greathouse oversaw the building of the museum, which opened in 1952.
After his death in 1966, his widow ran every detail of the museum, handling everything from its financial affairs to acquisitions to eagle-eyed monitoring of the parking lot. She was a stickler for making sure that it wasn't used by people not visiting the museum.
Protective husbanding of assets
Bean, who says he has known Kay Greathouse for 20 years, and who along with a couple of other Seattle businessman served for years on her on-again-off-again board of directors - he says she once imperiously fired the board in a pique over some incident he can't recall - is complimentary when he talks about her protective husbanding of the museum's assets. The will left all the power in the hands of the president, he said, and she exercised it authoritatively.
"She was very, very careful with the funds. And as she grew older, her energies subsided and she didn't like to spend money," Bean said. "Considering that she had no business background and no art background, she did pretty well." But he can't hide his wonder when he adds that until she retired, she was still doing all the "bookkeeping by hand. I haven't seen anything like it in a long time."
Unlike public museums that are constantly trying to raise money, the Frye is supported entirely by the leases of some 30 tracts of prime downtown Seattle real estate that made up the most significant assets of Charles Frye's investments. Bean says the leases, which increase with inflation and rising downtown property values, have been an ideal source of steady funding for the museum. "If Charles Frye had just left money instead, it probably would have been gone by now," Bean says.
These days the museum's affairs are moving at a pace intended to shake the dust off the place. As part of its new interest in reaching out to the community, Bean has mounted small exhibitions from the collection in the Washington Athletic and Rainier Clubs. It's a way to spark a little interest in people who might not remember the Frye exists.
More important, Bean and his board, made up of attorneys Dick Cleveland, Warren Bell, developer Frank Stagen and Kay Greathouse, have found a director they say is perfect for the job. Besides being a scholar in a school of art prominent in the Frye Collection, West has run several other small museums.
Meanwhile, Richard Sundberg of Olson/ Sundberg says the museum will likely close in early 1995 for up to a year. Along with such changes as improved lighting, new floors, a second story, a 120-seat lecture hall, a cafe and a shop, plans include "giving the museum some presence in the neighborhood," Sundberg said. "There will be a 2.5-story rotunda to enter the building, all new offices and banners marking it from Boren." Noting that two architecture firms made additions to Seattle architect Paul Thiry's original plan, Sundberg said that "part of our job is to knit this thing together, to pull it back into some coherent shape."
Bean says negotiations are under way to buy parcels of land adjacent to the museum that front Columbia Street. There are now several homes on the properties, but Bean says the museum eventually wants to expand onto those sites.
In perhaps the most telling move that the museum wants to modernize and actively join the arts community, Bean last year hired consultants to run focus groups and research who visits, what they like and what they don't. In another surprising move, he invited directors and curators of the city's mainstream museums and executives of arts organizations to give him advice.
One of the main complaints from visitors was that the Frye's stone-faced guards were unfriendly, intimidating, unhelpful and ill-informed about the art. Bean says the guards have since been told to be friendly, and most now bark "hello" to incoming visitors and thank them for coming as they leave. Bean says some of the guards will be permanently laid off when the museum closes. A modern electronic surveillance system in the remodeled museum will mean guards won't have to shadow visitors like security cops following teenagers at a mall.
Hopeful response from arts community
The reaction from the arts community, Bean said, was hopeful and helpful: "They were so happy to see we had lifted the shroud off."
Chris Bruce, curator at The Henry Gallery, says it makes sense for the Frye to build on its legacy of 18th-, 19th- and early 20th-century art, to become the museum in town to see the best locally owned examples of such work. He suggests that the Frye could become something of a Seattle version of the New York Frick Collection, a small jewel box of a museum that houses what was once industrialist Henry Clay Frick's collection of pre-20th-century European art works.
`The Frye could offer a quiet, contemplative museum experience, and I mean that in the best way," said Bruce. `"he idea that there's a place where people can sit and look at paintings is part of the museum experience, but it's not really going to happen at The Henry or at SAM."
Patterson Sims, SAM's chief curator, says he has had several conversations with Bean and thinks it is "a very noble and wonderful development that they are trying to take a hard look at themselves and professionalize in every way." He suggests the museum build a niche in Scandinavian art work from the same period as its collection. Given Seattle's links to Scandinavia and the fact that strong examples of such art are still affordably priced, he says, such a move would be a natural for the Frye.
But Sims says it will take more than just remodeling and a professional director to reshape the Frye into a vital museum. "They need to take a very hard look at the quality of the collection," said Sims. "A lot of the things Mrs. Greathouse bought at auction of are of very modest quality, and a prime example is the (John Singer) Sargent in the hall. It is a modest, modest work. I think some de-accessioning could occur."
Bean says the specifications of Charles Frye's will means the museum will never lose its focus on 18th- through early 20th-century art, or its interest in Northwest Native American art. But, he says, that still leaves plenty of opportunity to bring in shows with sizzle.
"I'd love to have some dynamite collections coming in," Bean said. "And I'd love to fill those parking lots."