Although built 12 years after his death, the Frye Art Museum was Charles Frye’s gift to Seattle, Washington, and the world. The Frye Art Museum was built in 1952, to house the art collection of Frye and his wife, Emma Lamb Frye.
Charles Frye prospered during The Klondike Gold Rush of 1896. During these times, the Fryes were able to travel to Europe and collect art. Their collection included more than 200 works of primarily romantic, 19th century “Munich School,” reflecting their German background and interest in European realism.
Right through the 1920s and 1930s, real estate, industry, farms, ranches, gold mines, and oil wells were the focus of Charles’ investments. Some of his investments failed because of The Great Depression, but Frye was able to retain other assets, which remain the primary source of the Frye Art Museum’s revenues today.
Emma died in 1934, and Charles died in May 1940, at age 81. In his will, Charles Frye provided for the creation of a free public art museum to house his beloved collection. He specified that admission be free, that natural light illuminate the galleries, and that abstract art was off limits.
After 12 years of patient work, the Frye Art Museum opened its doors to the public, in February 1952. Prominent local architect Paul Thiry designed the building.
Frye's friend, attorney, and executor, Walser Greathouse was the museum's first director. After Walser's death in 1966, Kay, his widow, took over as Director, and maintained that position until she retired, in 1993. The Greathouses established the American and Alaskan Collections for the Museum. The collection increased with works by noted American painters, and local Seattle artists.
The museum also purchased landscapes, interiors, and still life, by French artists. Among the displays are a few works by prominent women artists. By the time Kay Greathouse retired, the museum’s permanent collection had grown to include more than 1,200 paintings. Czech-born Richard West, the Frye’s first professional director, succeeded Greathouse, in January 1995.
After a two-year closure for remodeling, the museum reopened, in February 1997. Olson Sundberg Architects of Seattle designed the “new” museum. A new professional staff, including curators, an education director, an exhibitions and graphics designer, and a museum technician now care for Charles' and Emma’s “child." This level of professionalism has given the Frye Art Museum the legitimacy to invite high-end exhibits, which brought huge crowds to the museum during the summer of 2001.
As director, West has sought to redefine “realism." He purchased ink drawings, landscapes, and a Winslow Homer charcoal to enhance the overall image of the museum.