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A friend of the Frick: Innovative administrator McIntosh departs after 17 years

Thursday, June 14, 2001

By Marylynne Pitz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Correction/Clarification: (Published June 15, 2001) In an interview published yesterday, DeCourcy "Dick" McIntosh, outgoing administrator of the Frick Art & Historical Center, misstated the number of children who attend educational programs there each year. The correct number is 13,000.

Cerebral and opinionated, DeCourcy "Dick" McIntosh is the passionate connoisseur who restored the Frick family mansion to its Victorian grandeur and mounted thought-provoking art exhibits.

As a determined and energetic administrator, McIntosh also gilded the grounds of the Frick Art & Historical Center into an elegant enclave that includes a popular cafe, greenhouse and gift shop.

More recently, McIntosh established an artist-in-residence program and timed an exhibit on baseball in the center's Car and Carriage Museum to coincide with this year's opening of PNC Park.

DeCourcy "Dick" McIntosh on the grounds of the Frick Art and Historical Center. (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette)

No detail escaped the attention of McIntosh, who planted coffee trees that form a canopy over the path leading to the Frick mansion so visitors would be shaded on hot summer days.

The 17-year tenure of McIntosh, a bespectacled art detective who researched the early 19th-century art collections of wealthy Pittsburghers for an exhibit called "Collecting in the Gilded Age," ends tomorrow.

McIntosh distinguishes between displays, which he calls "an array of objects," and exhibits. If done well, the latter add new knowledge to the field of art history.

Born and reared in the horse country of Monkton, Md., McIntosh is leaving to write a book that will further his career as an art historian. He will focus on M. Knoedler & Co., the thriving New York art gallery that sold 60 percent of the paintings purchased by Henry Clay Frick.

The Frick Art & Historical Center, which has an endowment of $72 million, is in good shape. In 1984, 3,500 people visited the Frick Art Museum in Point Breeze. For each of the past seven years, at least 100,000 people passed through the gates of the Frick Art & Historical Center, a 5.5-acre compound that includes the art museum and Clayton, the Frick family mansion that underwent a $6.5-million restoration and opened to the public in 1990.

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An increase in visitors is only part of the story.

Linda Benedict-Jones, who served as education director at the Frick before becoming executive director of the Silver Eye Center for Photography on the city's South Side, said McIntosh increased the diversity of exhibits by adding photography.

Recent Frick exhibits included pre-Columbian art, Asian ceramics, Latin American art and folk art. The current exhibit, "Gerome & Goupil Art and Enterprise," examines the partnership between Jean-Leon Gerome, a French painter, and the French art publisher Adolphe Goupil, a man who whetted and sated Americans' appetite for art reproductions.

Richard Armstrong, executive director of The Carnegie, admires his colleague and wishes him well.

"Dick McIntosh's leadership at the Frick has established it as a prominent destination for inquisitive people. He has set an impeccable standard for other cultural institutions."

Recently, McIntosh reflected on his record and the need for excellence in Pittsburgh's arts community:

Q: What was your biggest challenge when you arrived at the Frick house in Pittsburgh?

A: The house was not ready to receive the public. There was a need for a transformation. There was a total lack of programming. There was no connection with the broader public. The task was always bifurcated -- building a program and building an audience. One is as important as the other. The Frick Art Museum has changed somewhat. The difference is, there is a program.

Q: What are your best accomplishments?

A: The three-year restoration of Clayton was very satisfying. The education program we began in 1992. We began seriously providing education for young people in the community. Three thousand children come here every year. The exhibition program we began in 1986. We have moved gradually from displays to exhibitions.

Q: When did you start to develop your aesthetic sense?

A: I went to Williamsburg as a child of 6 or 7. It made a big impression on me. We went in the maze. ... I had a ball. I also saw Mount Vernon. My family has a historic house in eastern Virginia with a huge boxwood garden. At Harvard, I took a course in American architectural history. That really turned me on.

Q: What are the strengths and weaknesses of Pittsburgh's arts community?

A: We have reached a point where we have a certain critical mass of artistic activity. One can always say there's never enough.

You look at the Benedum and the O'Reilly theater and all the work of the Cultural Trust. Plus all the Carnegie. Plus what's here. Plus what's in the universities.

I think the issue now is one of striving for quality over quantity. It's up to the individual organizations. It can't be legislated or imposed by funders. The funders have an obligation to inspire an intensified search for quality and to support it when it comes along. But they aren't the only ones responsible.

I think it's the responsibility of all of the arts organizations and those who support them to think about quality and to avoid the ultimate trap, which is mediocrity.

Q: What should be the mission of the Frick Art & Historical Center?

A: My comments about a desire to see a continual improvement in quality apply here. That would be my first thing. I hope I can claim that the current exhibition is an example of that. But I know they all haven't been that great. We should be highly selective. We should think more about the meanings of exhibitions rather than a display. The Frick must continue to either originate or participate integrally in the organization of exhibitions. I think it's the only way your staff and your institution really grows -- by working out ideas with other people.

Q: How will you divide your time now?

A: I will spend more time in New York than in Pittsburgh. I have a summer fellowship at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., where I will be doing research on various phases of the Knoedler art gallery.

Robert Sterling Clark was one of the Knoedler gallery's leading clients. I'll find enough to keep me busy for eight weeks. At the end of that, I will go to Brooklyn. I will start working in the Knoedler archives.

Then, to Paris and to the Musee Goupil in Bordeaux. I am on a search for the birthplace of Michael Knoedler and for his birth records because I really want to find out who he was, what was his background and if there are clues as to why he gravitated toward Paris and toward Goupil. I hope by next spring to have written the history, up until about 1887, of M. Knoedler and Co.

Q: What will happen to the Frick family archives?

A: The matter is in the courts. It's really inappropriate for me to comment on it. ...

It's a lamentable tendency on the part of the community to ignore its glorious history in terms of what it has given the world. This tiny place has given intellectual and cultural treasures that belie its small size, such as the discovery of the polio vaccine.

The wealth generated here created so much in other places. Why don't we just take pride in that and stop whining about the fact that certain great museums founded by Pittsburghers do not happen to be located in Pittsburgh? They are as accessible to Pittsburghers as anyone else in this nation, and we are a nation. ...

The majority of the family recognized that their highest duty was to conserve the material and make it available to the greatest number at the lowest cost, and they have been stymied through the selfishness and the shortsightedness of the small minority.

Q: But if you operate a historic house museum, aren't the archives an important wellspring for new exhibits?

A: The restoration is based upon that very thorough part of the archives that deals with the material culture of the Frick house. And while that work, it may be argued, is never completed in every detail, it is substantially complete. It is a matter first and foremost of maintenance now.

There is no reason why the professionals who need to consult them from time to time, in order to resolve an inquiry or perfect a restoration of some element, can't travel to New York to do that. The cost to this institution would be far less than the cost of maintaining the archives here. It is the only practical thing to do.

I support the agreement that has been made between the Helen Clay Frick Foundation, the University of Pittsburgh and the attorney general. That is the best solution today.

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