The Frick announces new director

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Robin Nicholson, whose 2011 exhibition of Pablo Picasso's private art collection broke attendance and revenue records at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, will become the third director of The Frick Pittsburgh.

The current director, Bill Bodine, retires in July. Under his leadership, major site improvements began in 2012 at the Point Breeze compound that includes the art museum and Clayton, the Frick family's Gilded Age-mansion.

A key component of the $15 million upgrade is a new visitors center that is under construction and slated for a soft opening in July. The second phase includes expanding the two-story car and carriage museum to add more space for education programs, a community center and 3,000 square feet of storage for collections.

"I think they've done a fabulous job in planning for the future," said Mr. Nicholson, who has visited Pittsburgh twice and plans another trip this week to look for a place to live.

His initial impression of Pittsburgh was "how dynamic the Downtown area is. It's a city on the resurgence."

The 47-year-old native of Edinburgh, Scotland, is deputy director for art and education at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, where he began working in February 2006.

"The day I arrived, they started demolishing the old wing to make room for the new wing," he recalled.

In May 2010, the Virginia museum opened a 165,000-square-foot wing, making it one of the 10 largest comprehensive art museums in America. Mr. Nicholson is best known for organizing the Picasso exhibition that opened there in February 2011. The show, which cost $5 million and featured 176 paintings, drew on the world's largest repository of the artist's work. "Picasso: Masterpieces From the Musee National Picasso, Paris" went on a seven-city international tour.

Carolyn "Cary" Reed, chair of the Frick's board of trustees, said Mr. Nicholson was chosen because of his energy, enthusiasm, scholarship and track record for collaborating with other museums.

"He's really remarkable. He's got lots of great ideas for programming," she said.

The son of an English mother and a Scottish father, Mr. Nicholson grew up in Edinburgh. His father descends from the MacNicol clan, one of three clans from Scotland's Isle of Skye. That's where Drambuie -- a sweet liqueur made of Scotch whisky, honey, herbs and spices -- was first bottled and sold in the 1890s.

A 1987 graduate of the University of Cambridge, Mr. Nicholson was at Pembroke, Cambridge's third-oldest college. Afterward, he spent five years employed by The Fine Arts Society, a firm of art dealers with galleries in London, Edinburgh and Glasgow. He ran the Edinburgh gallery, where his clients included the MacKinnon family, which owns the company that now makes Drambuie in Edinburgh. They hired him in 1992 to build the corporate art collection.

The MacKinnon family's corporate collection includes a group of Scottish paintings and material related to the Jacobite uprising of 1745-46. Mr. Nicholson spent a decade building the collection, which includes decanters and drinking glasses that bear the complex symbols of the rebellion. In 2006, he consulted on a long-term loan of this collection to the National Galleries of Scotland.

Mr. Nicholson is also the author of "Bonnie Prince Charles and the Making of a Myth: A Study in Portraiture, 1720-1892." Published by Bucknell University Press in 2002, the book examines how this particular Prince Charles became a tartan-clad, nationalistic hero for the Scots even though he was an Italian-born prince.

While organizing an international tour of the glass collection, Mr. Nicholson worked with many American museums. "I always enjoyed working in the U.S.," he said.

While he knew of The Frick and was acquainted with its director, he had never visited the museum before interviewing for the position.

"One of the things that really blew me away was the art collection," he said, noting a pair of portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds, another by William Hogarth and a fourth by Arthur Devis.

He is accustomed to working in partnership with other arts organizations in Canada and the United Kingdom.

"The days of the big touring exhibition going to multiple venues are diminishing. More often, it is the one-on-one relationship with peer museums that produces more compelling exhibitions," Mr. Nicholson said.

His avocation is landscape photography, and he often stops to take picture while bicycling.

Marylynne Pitz: or 412-263-1648. First Published June 4, 2014 12:36 PM

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