The Frick Pittsburgh Hosts Symposium on Women Collectors

While the Frick Collection in New York is closed through September, this year is The Frick Pittsburgh’s time to shine. Vermeer, Monet, Rembrandt, a combination of the two museums’ collections, is on view through mid-July with an expansive array of programming rounding out its run. On June 6th, the museum hosted a symposium of scholars in conversation around some of the exhibition’s themes, namely the history of Gilded Age art collection among women. Inge Reist, Laura Engel, Sylvia Rhor Samaniego, Alex Taylor, Margaret Laster, Samantha Deutch, and Manon Gaudet, the scholars invited, will all be part of a larger publication accompanying Vermeer, Monet, Rembrandt.

Helen Clay Frick’s Very Particular Taste

The life and philosophy of Helen Clay Frick, the Frick responsible for the family’s museum in Pittsburgh, was a main focus. Helen, rather than her brother Childs, was the Frick heir. A complex picture emerged of Helen’s character. She never married or had children and was notoriously private. Due to her spinster status, the public speculated on her sexuality, as humanities professor Laura Engel highlighted in her presentation on Helen’s relationship with sculptor Malvina Hoffman. (Upon trouble with the projector, Engel ribbed that “Helen’s ghost is coming down to mess up my slides so we don’t have this conversation.”) She loved early renaissance Italian artwork—Sassetta, Giotto, and other of the “primitive” masters—and disdained contemporary paintings. This dislike went so far that she turned down accessioning Van Gogh’s Starry Night. 

Henry collected as a monetary investment, but Helen had an intellectual fascination with it. Her taste was often unpopular, but it was her own. “Without Helen, the Frick Collection would just be famous men, beautiful women, and gentle landscapes,” historian Inge Reist recounted. Helen’s list of dislikes would also include New York. She vastly preferred Pittsburgh and went against her father’s wishes to have her debutante party in Pittsburgh rather than New York.

Contemporary Collecting

However, the modern-day art world is certainly different from the Gilded Age, and Helen Clay Frick’s disdain for the contemporary wouldn’t do very well in today’s art market. A larger question coming out of Vermeer, Monet, Rembrandt is whether collecting for status is a thing of the past.

But if you want to put your money towards supporting the arts in a tangible way, there are some in Pittsburgh. Associated Artists of Pittsburgh has started hosting home tours with contemporary collectors in the city to encourage people to think about artwork outside of gallery walls. For acquiring contemporary art, galleries like ZYNKA Gallery and Bunker Projects also offer a good opportunity to start exploring. You don’t have to be at Frick levels of wealth to appreciate art. Developing an art collection, even just as an everyday person, is a contribution to art history and to your own personal legacy. No need to be a Frick.

The Frick, the Carnegie, and the Warhol all have ubiquitous names with more complex histories behind them. Maybe to Pittsburgh history buffs, Helen’s legacy as a collector and philanthropist is common knowledge. But the depth and complexity of it came as a surprise that placed the Frick Pittsburgh a wider context. If there’s one thing that remains true about art from the Gilded Age into 2024, it’s that there is always more to learn.

Story by Emma Riva / Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

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