Walking Frieze New York with the New Museum’s Isolde Brielmaier

The New Museum curator shares her perspective on the role of the fair and engaging with art.

It’s quiet on the cavernous second floor of The Shed on the first official day of Frieze New York. Under the sky-high ceiling, rigged with lighting built for ambitious performances, there’s last minute fussing happening in all the booths.

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At Miguel Abreu, a pedestal displaying a ceramic and glass sculpture is being carefully shifted with the artwork atop it; nearby, a dolly with art bundled in packaging is swiftly being pushed from one side of the floor to another; and vinyl lettering featuring an artist’s name is being delicately applied to the stark wall of the Jenkins Johnson Gallery’s presentation. You can overhear whispers, tinged with hope, that the first day will set the tone of the entire fair. But no one has turned on the escalator yet.

I’m here at the opening bell to walk the fair with Isolde Brielmaier, the deputy director of the New Museum and a notable name on the global art circuit. As a curator, she’s not here to size up worthy acquisitions or wax on about the state of the contemporary art market. Instead, Frieze New York—much like its Los Angeles, London, and Seoul counterparts—offers an opportunity to discover, to see old friends and to gain new insights around what’s culturally significant in art today.

New Museum Deputy Director Isolde Brielmaier. Photo: Bogdana Ferguson

“For curators and directors, it’s about connecting and seeing people outside of your normal environment,” says Brielmaier.

Held in a city known for shrewd business deals, Frieze New York is a destination for serious collectors and an event that can make (or break) a gallery or artist. It can be one of the more intimidating art fairs, but Brielmaier is right at home. Almost immediately after we enter the galleries, she spots Margot Norton, a colleague who co-curated the transfixing Wangechi Mutu show currently on view at The New Museum. “We love this one,” she tells me, her arms around Norton.

Brielmaier encounters friends around nearly every corner. Given how much dedication and time she has put into this industry, it’s easy to understand why her experience here is an insider’s one. There’s the passing confirmation of an upcoming meet-up with the director of the Swiss Institute, a subtle wave to Chris Rock as he discreetly peruses and a quick chat with the CEO of Sotheby’s. Everyone wants to know what’s new at the museum, and Brielmaier is more than happy to plug upcoming projects. Four shows will open throughout the summer, including one highlighting the Puerto Rican artist Pepón Osario, followed by a large survey of the work of Judy Chicago in the fall.

But it’s not all hugs and air kisses for Brielmaier—there’s subtle work to be done. Whether it’s Frieze, Art Basel or even the Venice Biennale, for museum professionals, the fairs are an opportunity to foster relationships with galleries that can benefit their institutions.

“There’s an element of networking but also of checking in with people,” she tells me. “We’ll get loans from [galleries] for an artist’s show, and they’ll support the exhibitions.”

Brielmaier is also paying close attention to the new works by up and coming artists on display throughout the fair. As we pass the Proyectos Ultravioleta booth, she tells me she’s been following them for over ten years.

“They started out almost as a ragtag non-profit in Guatemala City, but they’ve been doing really great things with young artists,” she tells me.

When she sees something of note from a new gallery, she’ll take a photo of the artist’s name and look them up. With international galleries, she adds them to her global hit list of places to visit while she’s traveling. It’s all about building out her network of relationships.

As we make our way to booths emblazoned with more recognizable names, Brielmaier is equally curious. She beelines to Hauser & Wirth, where they’ve mounted a solo presentation of the work of painter and sculptor Jack Whitten. Telling me about the show she curated with Whitten at Savannah College of Art and Design Museum of Art in 2012, she says, “This is one of my favorite artists, a legend, an abstract painter who brings in these incredible elements but is still very much a painter.”

Jack Whitten works at the Hauser & Wirth booth. Alex Staniloff/CKA

Then there’s the work of Lauren Halsey at David Kordansky. “Obviously she’s saying a lot about history, the past and the present, and the African identity and diaspora,” remarks Breilmaier.

Halsey’s pieces, which depict imagery of Black culture from the late 20th Century collaged alongside iconography of ancient Egypt in vivid colors, are the subject of serious buzz on the fair floor. As an artist, Halsey is hitting the upper echelons of culture after the opening of her much-lauded rooftop sculpture installation at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The connection between mainstream visibility and opportunity in the art market is clear.

Lauren Halsey works at the David Kordansky booth. CASEY KELBAUGH @caseykelbaugh

“It’s not a coincidence,” explains Brielmaier. “She has this installation at the Met so it makes sense that her gallery would bring her work because of the assumption that people will have seen the exhibition. This is offering up another aspect of her practice.”

As she’s showing me the myriad depictions and references in one of Halsey’s pieces, she strikes up a conversation with a collector. He and his wife, in town from Los Angeles, purchased the piece there in front of us, along with another. He’s a little concerned the colors are too bright for his home, but he’s listening closely to Brielmaier’s point-of-view.

“I could tell you were a curator,” he says, qualms quelled.

Around the corner from Halsey is the mega gallery, Gagosian, with a solo show of works by Nan Goldin. Since the artist’s HBO documentary, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, hit the streaming platform, they’re betting on increased interest in her work. The photographs are eerie, erotic and drawing a significant crowd.

Nan Goldin works at the Gagosian booth. Alex Staniloff/CKA

As we make our way through the final few galleries, I ask Brielmaier to tell me which were her favorite works and of course, the Whitten, Halsey and Goldins were at the top of her list. I’m left wondering where all of this art will end up—will what we’ve seen here go into private hands, never to be shown in public again? On the way out, Brielmaier imparts a piece of wisdom—a souvenir of perspective—about these elite events and the relationship between art and mainstream culture.

“Art can and should be for everyone, even if it’s on view for a few months at an exhibition in a museum, because it has so much to offer and makes such an impact,” she says. “Whether you’re an average Joe or Josephine on the street or an art historian or curator, you can find a point of entry and engage.”

Walking Frieze New York with the New Museum’s Isolde Brielmaier