Bill Bodine retires from The Frick Pittsburgh after 12 years of effective, gradual change

His legacy includes a new visitors center and a welcoming environment

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In his round tortoise-shell glasses and well-tailored pin-striped suit, Bill Bodine is a Hollywood casting director’s vision of a museum director. He has a cordial, courtly manner and is well-versed in Italian Renaissance art and American painting.

Yet the 65-year-old Fox Chapel resident also understands the new technology that is changing the way people experience museums and exhibitions. He is that rare blend of elite and egalitarian sensibilities, someone who is comfortable talking with art collectors but also eager to attract schoolchildren from Wilkinsburg, Homewood and other nearby neighborhoods to visit the museum. He also continued a series of free summer concerts for the public. Begun by his predecessor, DeCourcy McIntosh, the musical programs are held on the lawn of the Gilded Age mansion known as Clayton. 

After 12 years of effective, gradual change, Mr. Bodine retires next month, having raised the museum‘‍s national profile and the professionalism of his staff. His final achievement is $15 million worth of site improvements. A new visitors center will orient people to the 5.5-acre complex that includes the 23-room house built by industrialist Henry Clay Frick for his wife, Adelaide, and their daughter and son, Helen and Childs. Other buildings hold a museum with Italian Renaissance art, a car and carriage museum, an inviting cafe, a greenhouse, and a museum shop located in the Frick children’s former playhouse.

"He has really made it a beautiful oasis for everyone. That’s a big part of the legacy that he leaves,“ said Janet Sarbaugh, senior program director for arts and culture at The Heinz Endowments.

She recalled that in 2010 the Wilkinsburg Boys and Girls Club gave its community service award to The Frick’s education staff for an after-school program that engaged youngsters in creativity, collaboration and problem solving. The museum financed the entire program.

Welcoming the community into The Frick Pittsburgh has been a hallmark of Mr. Bodine’s leadership. The new visitors center, he said, “will tell people what the place is, why it’s here and who the Fricks were.”

In the past, first-time visitors were often unsure which building to tour first. Now a path from the parking lot will lead them through a set of restored wrought-iron gates and directly into the visitors center, which is to open July 17.

Inside, people will see two large flat screens that show what tours are available and membership prices. A double-sided touch screen will display a map of the site. Tap a particular building and a red path will spring up to indicate how to get there as well as some information about what’s there.

The visitors center, Mr. Bodine said, serves yet another purpose.

“It relieves Clayton of the obligation of telling the entire story. Not everyone wants to take the hour-long docent-guided tour of Clayton.”

Thoughtful and measured, Mr. Bodine was born in New Jersey and, as an Army brat, lived in Rome with his family from ages 7 to 9, an experience that shaped his love of the visual. Before arriving in Pittsburgh in 2002, he held various jobs at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Columbia Museum of Art in Columbia, S.C., his last stop before moving to Pittsburgh.

When he took over at The Frick, the museum lacked a computerized database for its collections of art, cars and carriages, clothing and documents. After curator Thomas Smart left in 2006, Mr. Bodine left the position open while Sarah Hall demonstrated her abilities. In 2007, he promoted her to the job of curator.

After nearly 50 exhibitions, Mr. Bodine is especially proud of his staff for curating and organizing “Impressions of Interiors: Gilded Age Paintings by Walter Gay.” Made up of 69 paintings and works on paper, the exhibition opened in September 2012 and focused on an American artist who lived in Paris during the 1890s with his wife, Matilda Travers, an heiress.

When he began his career 40 years ago, most museums were temples.

“They were fairly stagnant. Museums were about art for people who knew about art,” Mr. Bodine said, adding that back then, labels for a particular artwork gave the artist’s name, title of the work, medium, date and, of course, the donor’s name.

Today, museums worth their admission price strive to be “public educational institutions of learning,” he said, and most shows offer introductory text panels with strong narrative context plus more detail about each artwork.

But the tension between maintaining and showcasing permanent collections while offering exciting temporary exhibitions remains a constant artistic and financial balancing act.

“The Frick was known for very small beautiful shows of works on paper and old master drawings. We still pay attention, at some level, to Henry Clay Frick and Helen Clay Frick and the kind of art that they collected,” Mr. Bodine said.

Jane Werner, executive director of The Children’s Museum, said Mr. Bodine helped her lead the board of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council after that organization formed in 2005. Ms. Werner began leading the board in 2007 when it drafted a strategic plan. On occasion, Ms. Werner’s boundless enthusiasm carried her away, she said, and Mr. Bodine got her and everyone else to focus on the steps necessary to achieve a larger goal.

"He was always good at calling me out on the practicalities of ideas. He can make everybody laugh,“ Ms. Werner said, adding that Mr. Bodine, who led the GPAC board from 2009 through 2011, remains a board member to this day.

Craig Davis, president and chief executive officer of VisitPittsburgh, said Mr. Bodine served on its board, too, and was a strong proponent of promoting the city’s cultural offerings to attract more tourists.

Jason Busch, deputy director of the St. Louis Art Museum, said Mr. Bodine understands the value of collaboration. When he researched his exhibition about decorative arts from world’‍s fairs that was shown at Carnegie Museum of Art in 2012 and 2013, Mr. Bodine advised his museum’s staff to create a tour focusing on the world‘‍s fairs that Henry Clay Frick had attended.

“He realizes the strength in working together,” Mr. Busch said.

In retirement, Mr. Bodine said, he looks forward to traveling and visiting friends and museums in a leisurely fashion instead of tightly scheduled, work-related swings through American or European capitals. While his house is not on the market, he may eventually move to Georgia or North or South Carolina, where he spent a good chunk of his childhood and career. He looks forward to having more time to enjoy opera, dine out, watch Pirates and Penguins games, or sit in his backyard with a good book and a glass of wine. 

The five museums he most wants to see are the new Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, London’s National Gallery, the new de Young Museum in San Francisco, the new Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City and his longtime love and inspiration, the Uffizi in Florence.

Marylynne Pitz: or 412-263-1648.

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