Frye Art Museum (Seattle)

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 3/03/2002
  • Essay 3711
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The Frye Art Museum -- once dismissed as a sensibly shod maiden aunt muddling along in the stiletto-heeled art world -- has entered middle age with a new sense of style and self-confidence. Celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2002, the museum boasts an award-winning makeover, new leadership, and an endowment that makes it the envy of its peers. The "old girl on Pill Hill" (at 704 Terry Avenue) is now "a chic young heiress whom everyone will want to date" (Art Guide Northwest, 1998).

Nouveau Collectors

The Frye was built in 1952 to house the art collection of Charles Frye (1858-1940) and his wife, Emma Lamb Frye (d. 1934), children of German emigrants who made a fortune in the meat-packing business in Seattle. Born in Davenport, Iowa, Charles joined the western migration of the 1880s, working first on a cattle ranch and then opening a meat market in Montana. He returned to Davenport in 1885 and married Emma, the daughter of the local grain elevator owner. The young couple settled in Seattle a few years later.

Charles Frye became a meatpacker in Seattle, opening several meat markets. In 1891, he and a brother, Frank Frye, and a friend, Charles Bruhn, incorporated the Frye-Bruhn Meat Packing Company. Located on 15 acres of tide flats in south Seattle, near the current (2002) site of the Seahawks football stadium, the company boomed during the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush. The annual payroll grew from $6,000 to more than $1 million. The business expanded to include cattle, sheep, hog, and chicken ranching in several western states, with retail sales outlets stretching from Alaska to California.

Frye also began investing in real estate, gold mines, and oil wells. He built industrial warehouses for firms such as Frigidare and Buick Motor Company. Not all of his ventures succeeded. For example, an industrial-scale lettuce farm -- established on 2,000 acres of land in Monroe, Washington, with processing facilities, six narrow-gauge railroad tracks, and a plant that produced 200 tons of ice per day -- collapsed during the Depression. But the Fryes retained the meat-packing plant and, more importantly, the real estate holdings, which remain the primary source of the Frye Art Museum’s revenues today.

As the business prospered, Charles and Emma began collecting European art. They bought their first painting at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. They eventually collected more than 230 works, primarily art from the romantic, nineteenth century “Munich School,” reflecting their German background and interest in European realism. By the time Emma died, in 1934, the paintings covered the walls of their large home on Seattle’s First Hill, from floor to ceiling.

No Abstracts, Please

The Fryes, who had no children, directed that their estate be used to build and maintain a free public art museum to display their beloved collection. In his will, Charles, who died in 1940, specified that admission be free (to encourage the public to visit the museum); that natural light be used to illuminate the galleries; and that no abstract art be displayed. In the Frye Art Museum, realism would rule.

The task of realizing the Fryes’ dream was left to Walser S. Greathouse, Charles’ friend, attorney, and executor. After 12 years of patient work, the Frye Art Museum opened its doors, on February 8, 1952, in a building designed by prominent local architect Paul Thiry. Greathouse served as its first director. After his death in 1966, his widow, Ida Kay Greathouse, took over, holding the position until 1994. Under the direction of the Greathouses, the Frye collection expanded to include American as well as European representational art from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

On annual buying trips to New York, Walser Greathouse added works by noted American painters such as Thomas Eakins, Thomas Hart Benton, George Bellows, George Innes, Winslow Homer, and John Marin. He also bought paintings by Seattle artists, including Mark Tobey, Albert Fisher, and William Cumming.

Kay Greathouse built on this legacy. Tempering the “autocratic aura” of the German core collection, she added landscapes, interiors, and still lifes by French artists such as Pierre Auguste Renoir, Jean-Baptiste Corot, and Eugene Louis Boudin (Art Guide Northwest, 1998); along with a few works by prominent women artists, including Mary Cassatt and Mary Hinkson, and a significant number of paintings done by the Wyeth clan, from N. C. to his son Andrew to Andrew’s son Jamie. She also acquired work by regional artists from the Northwest and Alaska. By the time she retired, the museum’s permanent collection had grown to include more than 1,200 paintings.

As Seattle Post-Intelligencer art critic Regina Hackett points out, Greathouse was legendary for both her shrewd management of the museum’s finances and her outspoken, often reactionary views about art and politics. She was unapologetic about her iconoclastic tastes. A strong woman herself, she brushed off criticism, including complaints about the Frye’s limited support of women artists. “We built it all from nothing, we stood alone at times, with tremendous jealousy and resentment,” she commented in one interview, adding, “But now, I hope it will be successful” (Art Guide Northwest, 1998).

The Frye at Fifty: Old Values, New Style

Kay Greathouse stayed on as director of the Frye long enough to see plans laid for an expansion and renovation that would take the museum into its second half-century. She was succeeded in January 1995 by Czech-born Richard West, the Frye’s first professional director. After a two-year remodeling, the new Frye reopened on February 8, 1997, exactly 45 years after its first opening.

The expanded museum, designed by Olson Sundberg Architects of Seattle, has won praise for its seamless integration of old and new. A new rotunda provides natural light for an elegant lobby. A new wing houses a café, museum store, auditorium, and educational facilities. Galleries were reconfigured to add exhibition space.

The galleries are painted in dark tones of eggplant and taupe, setting off the rich palettes that dominate the permanent collection. A state-of-the-art lighting system combines filtered overhead natural light (in keeping with Charles Frye’s directives) and low-level artificial light. The dark wall paint and the softer light create a contemplative environment for viewing art.

Along with new spaces and a new director, the Frye has acquired a new professional staff, including curators, an education director, an exhibitions and graphics designer, and a museum technician. The new level of professionalism has meant the ability to obtain top-quality traveling exhibits, such as “Scenes of American Life: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum,” which brought huge crowds to the Frye during the summer of 2001.

As director, West has sought to broaden the definition of realism. He has made a number of what Regina Hackett calls “standout purchases,” including a vibrant ink drawing by Alice Neel, a William Beckman landscape, and a Winslow Homer charcoal that complements a Homer already in the collection. Moving the Frye further from its traditional anti-feminist bias, West has selected almost as many women for solo exhibits as men.

The Frye’s initial opening, coinciding with heightened interest in modernism and abstraction, failed to generate much excitement either in the art world or among the general public. But as critic Judy Wagonfeld noted, “the concept prevailed, primed and in waiting for the current upswing of interest in Charles Frye’s beloved art genre” (Digital City, 2002). In recent years, attendance has soared, from an annual average of 25,000 to 40,000 in the old space to more than 100,000 as of 2001. At age 50, the museum is “looking good and on a roll, having managed to attract new audiences without alienating her loyal core” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 2002).

And it is one of the few in the country that remains free to the public.


Matthew Kangas, “The Frye: Tradition Renewed,” Art Guide Northwest December 1, 1998 (; Regina Hackett, “The Frye at Fifty,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 9, 2002; Judy Wagonfeld, "Digital City," February 21, 2002 (; Frye Art Museum home page (; Frye Art Museum, Community Relations Department.

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