Recently I found myself at the Frye Art Museum, a modernesque building enmeshed amongst the old Catholic area of First Hill in Seattle, WA. Surrounding it is a hundred year old cathedral, a Catholic grade school, a Catholic retirement home, church offices, and a priest’s home – basically an area you might not expect a museum devoted between modern art and showcasing classics in an unusual style – somewhere a more progressive museum can stand out.
I happened on the museum during a weekend away with family, and at my mother's suggestion. We were staying at the Renaissance Hotel in downtown, next to the busy I-5 Express that runs through the city – like a modern day river carrying people instead of fish. I’ve stayed there once before with my dad – that first time we happened upon cosplayers from an anime expo being hosted in one of their conference rooms, and this time brought a fleet of Drag Queens in town for a competition and some highly entertaining elevator rides as well.
A short and misty walk from the hotel, over a bridge above the highway, past the aging cathedral, we found the heavy brass doors that lead to the main rotunda of the Frye Art Museum. As it turns out, the museum is free all year long (though they do encourage donations).
Founded in 1952, by a family of meat-packing tycoons who left behind their awe-inspiring collection, the Frye is “a living legacy of visionary patronage and civic responsibility, committed to artistic inquiry and a rich visitor experience. A catalyst for our engagement with contemporary art and artists is the Founding Collection of Charles and Emma Frye, access to which shall always be free.” That’s according to their website, at least, and after visiting I have to agree. According to the Washington State Arts Commission, “in the last few years, the Frye has changed directions and opened itself to its immediate neighborhood through community engagement programs. It has presented international exhibitions based on the museum’s collections and has developed a renewed attention to contemporary exhibitions and local artists.” Part of that community engagement even involves a yoga class with live musical performers in the Frye Salon. Yes, you can reach a different level of zen in a museum thanks to the Frye.
It also happens that the real masterpiece of their museum is the salon room. After making my way through their modern art exhibits –which I felt to be intriguing yet widely spaced out, sometimes even only housing one installation per room – and somewhat drifting past a striking Russian propaganda art showcase and other Russian artworks,
it was this densely packed salon that really held my attention.
Like treasure unearthed at the back of a tomb, the long and wide rectangular room is home to painting after painting after painting along all four walls. I sat in one of two red-velvet low-to-the-ground seats, shaped together yet each spot facing a different direction. I took my time in each seat, gazing slowly with my focus on a section of the wall at a time, peacefully drawing in each particular frame. None of the paintings are marked, and can only be identified by a set of glossary books kept innocuously at the entrance – it was only after going back to the salon for a second pass-through that I noticed the books were even there. The room is full of varying paintings in different shapes, sizes, and styles yet all originating around the 18th and 19th centuries. Each with a different level of ornateness or simplicity to them. Each with a different allure.
Perhaps the sheer amount of art all at once is why I have a hard time picking out a painting or two to further explore, or perhaps I prefer to dwell on the macro of the room and its fostered experience than the micro of the artwork contained. It was one of the first museums I have been to that shared their collection in such a way, where you almost had to cut through the noise of greatness in one room – and with none of the defining details plaque-d beside them. Upon first entrance, a feeling both overwhelming and calming from its grandeur and effort. The geometric puzzles of the display is a form of art in itself. It is a moment in time, in place, where so much work, talent, and art can surround you all at once - a 360* vision of what has been created over time.
The Frye Art Museum also has a soundcloud with a host of podcasts available, including conversations between artists, curators discussing specific paintings found within the salon, and more.
Also, you don’t have to visit to donate – should you choose. Just check out their website for how you can support such a creative space.