Museum Cultures and the History of Display: the Frye Art Museum

This essay is about the Frye Art Museum, located in Seattle, WA, U.S. It focuses on the cultures which the museum represents and on the history of display at the museum’s spaces. The essay argues that the cultures of the Frye Museum are diverse. They are global and local, classical and modern and resist stereotypes. In its second part, the essay argues that the display of art favors openness rather than a hierarchical order and takes place within the physical and, more recently, virtual space. The essay considers the theoretical perspective on the other spaces and the order by Michel Foucault. Also, James Clifford’s theory about the cultural predicament in art is applied and Andre McClellan’s theory on the national origins of museums helps explain the museum’s cultures.

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The Frye Museum’s exhibitions, “Genius” and “Favorites”, inform the visitor about the classical and contemporary story of art. The “Genius”, like many exhibitions, combines different art forms such as poetry and painting; and the “Favorites” shows the favorite artwork from the original collections (“Frye Art Museum”). The “Genius” is a unique exhibition, because it includes the responses to the paintings in the form of poetry readings in English and Arabic. It combines two exhibitions (“Frye Art Museum”). In doing so, it weaves together the local and the global, and proves that the two can coexist. The museum’s exhibitions make a statement about its purpose to support contemporary culture, create a sentiment for unity, and show that the artists and the public favor the political power (McClellan 37). The exhibitions emphasize local Seattle art. They claim that local is their preferred power type. Unlike the bigger museums that prefer the traditional art, the Frye Museum does not show preference for either the 17th century classical or the 19th century modern art. Its exhibitions are not based on the notions of order of any one tradition as supreme (Foucault, “The Order”, 21). Also, as the founders of the museum wanted it to be always free, the curators make the classical and modern art exhibitions accessible to all. If art is viewed as the property that defines the supremacy of its collector (Clifford 216), then the Frye Museum is the place where any person can culturally redefine themselves as equal to others.

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This museum allows to better understand and resist the stereotypes about the Other. It does so in showing that the works of art are not ordered (Foucault, “The Order” 11) and in presenting the exhibitions such as the “Genius”, where art is fluid and changing. For a Western individual, the encounter with the Other is “like some madness” (Foucault, “The Order” 14). The Frye Museum represents the Western culture that, instead of fighting the different Other, makes sense of it and integrates it (Foucault, “The Order” 21). The outcome is that the story of art told by the museum includes multiple voices and even languages. Thus both the Western insider and the outsider, the traditional and modern, the local and global art make the cultures of the Frye Museum. All art is claimed as authentic, so it has a place in the collective memory of the past and future of art (Clifford 228). Moreover, the local emerging art forms are easily “promoted to the status of modern art” (Clifford 225).

The Frye Museum was founded in 1952 with the private collections of Charles and Emma Frye (“Frye History”). The works that were displayed after its opening were mainly psychological and dramatic. Yet the permanent exhibits also include the artwork in conservative styles, viewed as noble. Current curators, like the first exhibitors, favor the contemporary styles that are alternative and risky (“Frye History”). The wish of the Frye family was that the entrance to the museum should always remain free to the public (“Frye History”). Therefore, the museum’s exhibitions are fashioned to make no distinction between the private and public space (Foucault, “Of Other Spaces” 2). As in the past, when the museum collected the Munich Secession art alongside the classical artists (“Frye History”), nowadays it curates the artwork of various origins and styles. The Frye Museum is less focused on the acquisitions to complete the permanent collections, but more on displaying art and declaring the museum’s culture. The “Favorites” is exhibited from time to time. And the contemporary artists show their work together with the selected “favorites” (“Frye Art Museum”).

The traditional view of order is substituted by the opening of space for free viewing and participation. This open space is exemplified in the physical space of the museum. The Frye Museum, which started as a private property, moved to a publicly accessible multi-functional space (“Frye Art Museum: Overview Information”). Within the museum, many different spaces can be found such as the space of a utopia where there is no particular hierarchy or order (Foucault, “Of Other Spaces” 3). And the organization of the physical space of the museum promotes the coexistence of these multiple spaces. The classical art is coupled with the modern art for displays in a single space. Another space within the museum is the juxtaposition of the museum building and an outside pool, where the display also takes place (“Frye Art Museum: Overview Information”). The pool reflects the building of the museum, and the season or daytime. The pool is comparable to Foucault’s mirror, which the author claims to be a utopia, a non-existent space (Foucault, “Of Other Spaces” 4).

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Because its physical space is non-ordered, the Frye Museum’s display succeeds in being multi-functional. In one room, there are the canvases of the secession masters, Franz von Stuck, Gabriel von Max, and Ludwig Dill. Alongside those, there is the realist classical artwork of Alexander Koester, Mihály de Munkácsy, and Daniel Somogyi. Also, in similar museum spaces, the visitors can see the contemporary art of the “Genius” - exhibition of poetry and painting (“Frye Art Museum”). For a visitor to the museum, the display helps tell the story of the coexistent real and unreal spaces (Foucault, “Of Other Spaces” 3).

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