The Seattle Art Museum (SAM) gets a lot of press. With its prominent location, its recent mega-buck expansion, and its “Hammering Man” sculpture out front, it gets noticed and it gets visited–a lot. SAM has an excellent permanent collection, spanning two millennia of art history and representing cultures from every continent, and it has a great space for traveling exhibitions, so it is deservedly the Belle of the Seattle Art Ball…but it’s not my favorite.
We used to have a membership (kaching) but soon found that, if we weren’t interested in what was touring through the museum, we didn’t go, and since the visiting exhibitions stay at SAM a long time, we often ended up going only once a year.
Then we discovered The Frye.
The Frye is a gem. The Frye is quiet. The Frye is unusual. The Frye is challenging. The Frye is free.
Situated up on “Pill Hill” (officially, it’s called First Hill, but all the hospitals are up there), tucked away on a tree-lined, double-sidestreet a block away from St. James Cathedral and the Seattle Archdiocese, visiting The Frye starts with a definite step-down in urban stress. The street is quiet, and you can often hear the voices of children from O’Dea parochial school a block away.
As you walk along toward the entrance, the trees and planted sedgegrass begin to relax you. Through the glass doors into the cylindrical tower that encloses the foyer, and a calm descends upon you. You take an easy breath in the open space, pull open the brass-handled door, and you are ready.
There are no crowds here. There is no line in which to wait. This is Charles and Emma Frye’s place, a perpetual gift to the city of Seattle. The permanent collection is heavy with the art of Charles and Emma’s day. They collected what they liked, and they liked representational art from late 19th/early 20th century, from Europe and America.
But the Frye is much more than lovely landscapes and interesting tableaux. The temporary exhibits at The Frye are varied and challenging.
I took my parents there once. My father is a graphic artist by trade and an oil painter by temperament; my mother was a long-standing supporter of the arts in her community. They’d been to SAM before, so we decided to show them The Frye. During that visit, the temporary exhibit was an…unusual installation from the Degenerate Art Ensemble. Combining video, costuming, music, and full-room enclosures (like the cotton tent you sat in to view a performance while shapes were projected on the fabric walls), it was about as far from Koester’s “Moulting Ducks” (pictured above) as you could get. My mother
hated it was not intrigued, but we had to tear my dad away.
Other traveling exhibits have included art by German mystics, a collection of odd paintings involving cadavers and monkeys (Gabriel von Max, 1840–1915), and other, equally unexpected treats. During our busy last year, we didn’t get down to The Frye at all, but I hope to rectify that this spring. We’ll always go to SAM and brave the crowds when the Old Masters come to visit, but when I want a quiet afternoon spent looking at something I never expected to see before, it’s The Frye for me.