Magnate Museum Attracts Top Talent

Maybe you saw Colin Bailey, the chief curator of the Frick Collection, on Charlie Rose two Thursdays ago. He was the well-coiffed Englishman in glasses whose on-point wit caused guest host Jon Meacham to conduct the entire interview with a genteel smile plastered across his face. How did Henry Clay Frick make his first acquisition?

“Made a lot of money,” said Mr. Bailey, beginning his answer.

“That always helps,” Mr. Meacham said warmly.

The last time a Frick representative appeared on the show was 2001, and Mr. Bailey, performed admirably, displaying knowledge and a passion for the museum. And some viewers had to wonder if this wasn’t the point. Mr. Bailey, after all, is said to be on the short list for the directorship of the museum, which has been on the hunt for a new leader since outgoing director Anne L. Poulet, 68, announced her decision to retire from the position seven months ago. She will leave the Frick this fall.

In the time since that announcement the five museum board members tasked with filling Henry Clay Frick’s personal boudoir, which now serves as the director’s office, have interviewed a host of candidates from the art world and academia. They’ve solicited input from those within and outside the museum with the help of Laurie Nash from the executive search firm Russell Reynolds, who also placed Metropolitan Museum director Thomas Campbell in 2008. “The white smoke, I suspect, won’t emerge for a bit yet,” said one person close to the process–but the scuttlebutt has it that the search committee is down to eight candidates.

A small museum housed in the Upper East Side mansion that used to serve as Frick’s own home, the museum mostly displays the steel magnate’s impressive collection of paintings, noted for its Rembrandts, Vermeer and Goyas. Ms. Poulet expanded the job’s fundraising role since taking the position in 2003, but the director’s main role is to manage the mansion, the collection, and its research library, at an annual salary of around $730,000, a figure made even more impressive for the museum’s average $20 million in annual expenses.

“It’s a plum job,” said Peter Sutton, director of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn., who declined to say whether he’d applied for it, as was the case with most rumored candidates we contacted.

One person on the short list is Christopher Brown, director of Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University, and an expert in 17th-century Dutch paintings–a category that describes the crown jewels of the Frick Collection. He took up the directorship of the Ashmolean a little more than a decade ago, after 26 years at the National Gallery, where he was chief curator. He happened to speak at the museum, on the subject of its current Rembrandt drawings exhibit, just a day before Mr. Bailey appeared on Charlie Rose. And though he falls on the older side of the age spectrum, the Frick director position has traditionally been a place for someone near the end of his career.

Then there is Ian Wardropper, the Met’s respected European and decorative arts chair. Like Dr. Brown, his specialization lines up neatly with the Frick catalog — Ms. Poulet held a position with the same title at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, before she came to the Frick.

Another talked-about Met candidate is Gary Tinterow, chairman of 19th-century, modern and contemporary, also said to have had a shot at running that museum. He and Mr. Bailey share the advantage of having taken a course on directorship through the Center for Curatorial Leadership, an organization co-founded by Museum of Modern Art director Agnes Gund, who sits on the Frick board and, supposedly, the search committee.

If Mr. Tinterow were to be offered the job, his acceptance isn’t a given. The Met is quietly in negotiations to lease the current home of the Whitney Museum of American Art, once that museum moves downtown. The Marcel Breuer-designed building may become a museum-size exhibqition space dedicated to post-1960s art, or may simply house the Met’s contemporary art collection. If that’s the case, there’s a possibility Mr. Tinterow could go on to head that satellite, though the Met’s deal for the Whitney space is by no means finalized. “Please put me down as ‘not a candidate,'” Mr. Tinterow wrote The Observer in an email.

Timothy Clifford, the much-lauded former director of the National Galleries of Scotland, is also said to be serious contender. He revitalized the National Galleries working with a limited budget, which would make him an ideal fit for the Frick, though more than one person noted that his name often comes up for such positions.

Though Mr. Bailey is a good fit, his chances at the Frick top spot are said to be, frankly, not great. He was passed over for the job once before, when Ms. Poulet was selected, despite his term as a de facto director after the departure of her predecessor, Samuel Sachs. Recruiter Malcolm Maclay, who placed Ms. Poulet through Russell Reynolds, said internal candidates nearly always face an uphill battle. This is particularly true at the Frick, where directors traditionally have come from outside. Moreover, more than once museum insider expressed doubts about Mr. Bailey’s selection for personal reasons.

“He’s thoroughly disliked by a great many people,” said a senior curator at another New York museum, citing an arrogance not evident on Charlie Rose. (Mr. Bailey could not be reached for comment.)

At least two gallery heads have recommended Mr. Sutton of the Bruce Museum to Russell Reynolds, but he’s not said to have the inside track. Though her chances are apparently also slim, Anne-Imelda Radice–a skilled fund-raiser and former head of the National Endowment for the Arts–is said to have made it far into the process, aided by her specialization in architecture and conservation.

That a dark horse like Ms. Radice might still be in the running speaks to the how speculative such a horse race is. Gossip favors the flashier candidates, and that’s not necessarily what the museum wants. One gallery head who calls himself a close friend of Mr. Clifford’s discounted him on the fact that his personality may be too outsized for the Frick. Mr. Maclay, who placed Ms. Poulet, said the director there walks a fine line, ideally displaying the collection’s works creatively, but without ruffling feathers.

“It’s not for someone who wants to change the world,” he said. “It’s for someone who wants to take a few steps in the right direction, in a steady sort of way.”

dduray@observer.com

Magnate Museum Attracts Top Talent