Sketchbook -- `New' Frye To Be Filled With Energy And Style

If you don't get up to First Hill often, you may not have noticed. But the once-dowdy Frye Art Museum has had a makeover. There's a dramatic new rotunda at the entryway on Terry Avenue at Cherry Street, a lovely reflecting pool along the facade and a small outdoor courtyard that promises to become a treasured "secret" spot for summertime lunches. And that's just what you can see from the outside.

The newly renovated and expanded museum isn't yet open to the public. The public grand opening is Feb. 8. But Frye Director Richard West is understandably pleased with the way the $12 million remodeling and expansion project has turned out. Designed by Rick Sundberg of Olson Sundberg Architects, Seattle, the museum looks like it will be an elegant, intimate art venue unlike anything else in the region.

Several of the renovated galleries have natural light filtered through skylights, the better to see the unusual, purplish-gray walls and the art that will be hang on them. (Art starts going back on the walls in early January.) West calls the wall color "aubergine," or eggplant, and says the darker walls will show off the museum's 19th-century art to its best advantage. Nineteenth century art had darker undertones in general and was often heavily varnished and brownish in color, all of which makes it look terrible on white walls.

Then there's the 142-seat auditorium with some of the best seats and most generous leg room in town. West says he will show film series in the auditorium as well as regular Sunday afternoon live musical performances.

In the new education wing, there are sparkling new ceramics and painting/drawing studios. The museum is organizing a roster of classes for both adults and children in the wing.

And there will be a cafe serving light lunches. West says he hopes the cafe will draw people who work at the hospitals and medical facilities in the neighborhood.

As for art programming, West already has lined up a retrospective of Norwegian contemporary realist Odd Nerdrum for one of the opening shows. He says he also has plans to show highlights from the collections of the nation's other small museums, many of which have choice collections of art of a particular genre, and to show the work of contemporary local artists. He's even talking about organizing a juried annual show of work by regional artists, which he says would be "rigorously" judged.

As stipulated in the will of Charles Frye, the turn-of-the-century businessman who founded the museum and left his fortune as its endowment, the museum will remain free to the public. Even if it wasn't, it looks like the new Frye will be the kind of well-tended, little jewel box of a museum that people would be happy to pay to enter. After decades of collecting dust, it's nice to see the Frye reentering the Seattle art scene with so much energy and style.

Henry Gallery update

At Seattle's other newly remodeled and expanded art museum, the Henry Art Gallery, the opening lineup has changed. The first show in the Henry's large South Gallery will not be sculpture by Chris Burden, after all. The gallery will not be able to borrow all the works originally sought, so Henry curator Sheryl Conkelton will instead organize a show of eight to 10 installations by important contemporary artists who have yet to be named, according to the gallery.

The other two shows on exhibit when the museum reopens in mid-April will be "Unpacking the Collection: Seventy Years of Collections at the Henry," a show exploring how collections are built, and "Between Lantern and Laser: A Brief History of Video Projection," a historical survey of video art.

No pens, please

Art students, writers, art lovers and jotters of notes be advised: You may not use pens in any of the region's art museums, or, it seems museums nearly anywhere. Pull out your pen to make a little note or drawing for yourself while standing in front of a painting and you will be told by a guard in no uncertain terms that pens are strictly forbidden.

Unfortunately, at this region's museums, hearing this disheartening information from a guard is going to be your first introduction to the no-pens policy. As of last week, not one museum here had bothered to post a notice or include a sentence in any museum pamphlet explaining the policy. Backpacks, large purses, cameras with flashes, strollers and a host of other no-no's are clearly posted at the front door.

It has long been standard practice at museums to only allow pencils in archives and storage rooms. A little ink on the hand of a curator or preparator can mean ink on an artwork, and that, of course, is a disaster. But in recent years, museums have also decided that the pens in the hands of visitors are potential weapons of destruction. Here is the scenario they fear: a pen-wielding visitor faints, slips, has a heart attack, whatever. The pen leaps from his or her hand, possibly exploding in mid-air and lands, whamp, on a painting. A pencil projectile, according to current museum thinking, is less dangerous.

Museums should, of course, protect their art. But it's not just art critics who find themselves writing in museums. On a recent trip to the Seattle Asian Art Museum, this critic as well as several other visitors were told to put away their pens. Since no one except high school math students carries a pencil anymore, a no-pen policy means no writing for most visitors. So much for encouraging thoughtful reflection.

Some area museums say they are considering posting their no-ink policy and all say pencils are available to borrow, though guards seem rarely to offer this information. They should take a cue from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, a model of good public relations on this subject. If SFMOMA guards spot you using a pen, they explain the policy - also posted at the door - while pulling a sharpened pencil from their pocket to offer instead. Says Victoria Sutton, spokeswoman for SFMOMA, "we order pencils by the case to give away and also have them at the coat check. We want people to feel comfortable here."