Curator Aimee Ng Opens Up About What She Learned from Frick Madison

"I think every institution should have the kind of reboot the Frick just had, at least once. It’s like getting a whole new art collection."

Frick Madison is closing soon. Photo: Joseph Coscia Jr., courtesy The Frick

This month marks the last full one for Frick Madison, the can’t-miss experiment from the 88-year-old institution that brought fantastic works from Henry Clay Frick’s former home to the Marcel Breuer-designed building on Madison Avenue that for many years housed the Whitney Museum of American Art. If you haven’t been yet, you should head over ASAP, because the recontextualization does much for the already stellar works of the collection. Frick Madison closes March 3, after which the building will be turned over to its new owners, Sotheby’s, and the Frick will reopen in its historic home on Fifth. We caught up with Frick curator Aimee Ng to hear about what the institution learned from the experience.

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Broadly speaking, what would you say the curatorial team at the Frick learned from the experience of Frick Madison?

That art can continue to surprise us. Moving the Frick’s collection to the Breuer building transformed the way we saw some of the works we know (or thought we knew) so well. And not just the curators: long-time Frick members, critics and journalists and even staff members discovered new things about works of art they thought they knew inside out, and discovered new things in the collection, objects they never noticed in the setting of the house. We’re excited to return to the Frick house with new perspectives on the art.

In 2021, you told Jason Farago at The New York Times that, “We really wanted that Marfa feeling.” Could you expand on that?

That “Marfa feeling” is the sense that the installation respects and responds to the site, that the place itself—including and especially its empty spaces—shapes the experience of the art. Because we were dealing with Marcel Breuer’s Brutalist building, we took inspiration from the Minimalist installations at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. At Frick Madison, our teams celebrated the power of “less,” exploiting the force that a single or a few objects in space can exert on a viewer, which is so different from the layered, complex, plentiful domestic settings of the Frick house.

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Do you think this experiment opened up the museum to new audiences?

Certainly. To begin with, the Breuer building looks like a public museum from the outside and beckons people inside in ways that the Frick house simply does not, as it was built as a private residence. So, we have had many visitors come in off the street, curious about what is inside Frick Madison, who had no familiarity with the original Frick before. Our exhibitions and programs at Frick Madison also engaged audiences new to the Frick. An amazing moment was when the “Barkley L. Hendricks: Portraits at the Frick” exhibition was on at the same time as the exhibition “Bellini and Giorgione in the House of Taddeo Contarini.” One contemporary, one deeply historical, and yet both were profoundly connected to the Frick’s collection.

This iteration of the museum grouped art and objects by nationality. Were there some countries that worked better with Marcel Breuer’s architecture? I thought the Dutch did very well.

I found the Breuer building’s contrast with the frilliness of the 18th-century French paintings and sculptures—like Fragonard’s Progress of Love and Houdon’s Comtesse du Cayla—particularly delightful, in that the French works lent a sense of lightness and frivolity to the Brutalist architecture with its giant trapezoidal window, and vice versa—that the architecture lent a monumentality and solemnity to the otherwise whimsical French works.

What other institutions might you like to see in a new location, if only for a couple of years?

An obvious one would be the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, which must retain its installation as a condition of the bequest. Like so many English country houses, I’d love to see its collection in a new location just so that the works of art could be better seen, lower down, with more light. Imagine the Gardener’s extraordinary paintings, sculptures, and sometimes downright wacky decorative arts objects in Tadao Ando’s Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth or David Chipperfield’s Neues Museum in Berlin. Really, I think every institution should have the kind of reboot that the Frick has just had, at least once. It’s like getting a whole new art collection.

Curator Aimee Ng Opens Up About What She Learned from Frick Madison