“We often refer to the provenance of artwork, and in the case of the Breuer, there is no history richer than the museum which has housed the Whitney, Metropolitan and Frick collections,” said Charles Stewart, Sotheby’s CEO, in a statement.
The auction house announced today (June 1) its purchase of the Brutalist property from the Whitney Museum of American Art. The deal is reportedly in the region of $100 million and will see Sotheby’s relocating its flagship galleries and auction room to the building by 2025.
A controversial beginning for the Whitney
When the unique property was first completed in 1966, its location on the corner of Madison Avenue and 75th Street was in a neighborhood known for being the gallery hub of New York City.
But while the Marcel Breuer-designed building was in what seemed to be the perfect location for the Whitney Museum’s third home, its unique modernist design initially garnered mixed responses. Critic Emily Genauer called it “oppressively heavy” and named it “the Madison Avenue Monster.” The museum’s unveiling, attended by Jacqueline Kennedy, also made news when the Whitney Museum received a false alarm that a bomb had been placed inside the building.
The institution later became a much-loved landmark of Manhattan’s art world and a structure synonymous with the Whitney Museum itself. It hosted the first Whitney Biennial in 1973, housing work by more than 200 artists.
“The iconic Breuer building will always be a beloved part of the Whitney’s rich history,” said outgoing Whitney director Adam Weinberg in a statement.
In 2008, when the museum’s-then chairman Leonard Lauder donated $131 million to the institution, his gift included a clause barring the Whitney Museum from selling the Breuer for a period of time. Lauder protested the Whitney Museum’s plans to move downtown to a Renzo Piano-designed building in 2014 but eventually conceded, and the museum’s new home was named after him.
The Met and the Frick move in
Following the Whitney Museum relinquishing the Breuer, the building was leased to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and re-opened in 2015 as the Met Breuer. It underwent a $13 million renovation for its new iteration, which included the addition of the restaurant Estela Breuer on the building’s lower level.
Shows at the Met Breuer included a Kerry James Marshall retrospective, a survey on Indian sculptor Mrinalini Mukherjee and Unfinished: Thoughts Left Invisible, its inaugural exhibition which showcased uncompleted artwork. But the $18 million annual fees for the Breuer building eventually proved to be too much of a financial burden, and the property was handed off to the Frick Collection in 2020.
The Frick, which was searching for a temporary home while the museum’s mansion on East 70th Street underwent renovations, initially considered leasing the Guggenheim but would have only been able to do so for four months. It approached the Met Breuer to rent a floor of the building, with negotiations quickly shifting to a lease for the entire structure.
Renamed the Frick Madison, the Frick Collection began programming the Breuer building in 2021. The structure is now home to its permanent collection of masterpieces, displayed throughout three gallery levels, and will continue to be occupied by the Frick Collection through September of 2024.
What are Sotheby’s plans?
The high-profile auction house, which is set to become the Breuer building’s owner after the Frick Collection vacates, said it plans on creating a reimagined auction room in the building alongside exhibition spaces for its 71 categories of art and luxury goods. These galleries, now located in the Upper East Side’s Museum Mile district, will be free to view and open to the public.
Sotheby’s will retain ownership of its current headquarters at 1334 York Avenue and continue presenting shows there until 2025. In the meantime, it has hired an architect to review the Breuer’s internal spaces to ensure its lobby and other signature features are maintained.
“Architecturally significant real estate in prime locations is key to our strategy of expanding and enhancing our global footprint to meet collectors where they are,” said Jean-Luc Berrebi, Sotheby’s chief financial officer, in a statement.
In addition to its historic acquisition of the Breuer, the auction house is increasing its reach through two new flagship galleries planned in Hong Kong and Paris by 2024 and a facility in Long Island City set to open later this year.