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“The Frick Breuer”? Metropolitan Museum May Hand Over the Keys for the Whitney’s Rental in July…

…or maybe not.

The Metropolitan Museum last year had agreed to let the Frick Collection take over the Met’s lease next summer on the Whitney Museum’s Marcel Breuer-designed former home, conveniently located just a few blocks north of the Frick. But whether this bit of musical chairs will actually happen remains uncertain.

The Frick still hopes to mount displays next year in the 1966 Brutalist building, while its own 1914 Beaux Arts home is being renovated and expanded. That elegant facility was designed as Henry Clay Frick‘s residence by Carrère and Hastings, and later converted into a museum by John Russell Pope.

Here’s the model for the Annabelle Selldorf-designed Frick project (expected to break ground next year), as seen by me during a recent visit:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

When I asked a Frick spokesperson this week about the status of her museum’s plans for the Breuer, she enigmatically replied:

At this time, I don’t have further updates but will absolutely keep you posted. Timing for our potential move up to Madison is contingent on the public approval process of our building project, which is ongoing” [emphases added].   

In other words, it’s not yet certain whether the Met will be able to offload the remainder of its eight-year commitment to lease the Breuer from the Whitney—a financial burden undertaken in by its previous director, Tom Campbell, now head of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. (The Met Breuer opened on his watch in March 2016.)

Tom Campbell (left) & Whitney Museum director Adam Weinberg publicly discussing their Met Breuer agreement in April 2016
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

As I reported a year ago, the Met won’t exercise its option to extend the term of its Whitney lease for an additional 5.5 years. The Met’s current director, Max Hollein, acknowledged to me, after last week’s press briefing about his museum’s 150th Anniversary plans, that part of the Met’s strategy to balance its budget by next year (after having incurred a string of deficits) involves offloading the cost of running the temporary satellite facility on Madison Avenue.

Max Hollein at the Met press briefing on Tuesday
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

It’s evident, though, that the Met’s director and, especially, its curators will miss the spirit of experimentation that the Breuer building’s contemporary-compatible vibe had inspired.

“I feel it’s been a very successful way of engaging with modern and contemporary art,” Hollein told me. “But the future of modern and contemporary art will be here” (in the Met’s main building).

At the Met’s recent Breuer press preview for the mesmerizing Vija Celmins retrospective, curator Ian Alteveer emphasized that “it’s been an extraordinary pleasure to work for a number of years in this incredible building.”

Similarly, Andrea Bayer, the Met’s deputy director for collections and administration, told me the following at the press briefing about the Met’s 150th anniversary celebration (for which she is organizing the lead exhibition—Making the Met: 1870-2020):

I will make one statement about that building [the Breuer]: People are going to look back on it as having been a grand experiment. I think we’ve done amazing things. We took advantage of that as a place to experiment.

Would we have done a [Mrinalini] Mukherjee exhibition in this [the main] building? Maybe not. Those fiber sculptures looked incredible in that [the Breuer] building.

Andrea Bayer
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Also looking great at the Breuer is the current Celmins show (to Jan. 12), which I thought was shown to less advantage at its previous venue, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, when I visited there in February.

Unless its plans change, the Met’s final show at the Breuer will be Gerhard Richter: Painting After All, billed by the museum as the artist’s “first major exhibition in the United States in nearly 20 years.” I assume the last one was Robert Storr‘s landmark 2002 show at the Museum of Modern Art, which would be hard to top were it not for the Met’s inclusion of “two important recent series by the artist that will serve as significant points of departure for the exhibition: ‘Birkenau,’ 2014, and ‘Cage,’ 2006, both of which will be exhibited in the United States for the first time.”

Here’s the above-linked press release’s description of those two series—highlights of a show co-curated by Sheena Wagstaff, the Met’s chairman of modern and contemporary art, and Benjamin Buchloh, professor of modern art at Harvard:

Richter’s encounter with the only known photographs taken by prisoners inside the Nazi concentration camp led to the creation of the Birkenau series. The four paintings speak to Richter’s belief in painting as a powerful means to address the complex and often-difficult legacies of both personal and civic history.

The six “Cage” paintings are key to understanding his lifelong preoccupation with abstraction through a different lens. In homage to the American composer and philosopher John Cage, whose innovative compositional techniques used chance as a way to ”imitate nature,” Richter’s meticulous multi-layered paintings are based on similar principles of calculated incidents.

The Met Breuer was supposed to have given the Met an appropriate venue for displays of modern and contemporary art while it was renovating and expanding its Southwest Wing under the auspices of architect David Chipperfield. Bayer told me that the Met is now “back in conversation” with Chipperfield, but this much-delayed project seems to have taken a back seat to the replacement of skylights in the European galleries (ongoing), renovation of the British galleries for decorative arts and design (opening Mar. 2) and the sweeping renovation and reconfiguration of the galleries for Africa, Oceania and the Americas (about to begin).

With the Museum of Modern Art poised to open its greatly expanded and completely rethought galleries (which I visited today for the first time, but will need more time to absorb), the Breuer-less Met can only fall further behind as a showcase for the art of our time.

As for future plans for the Whitney-owned Breuer, that museum’s spokesman had only this to say in response to my query today:

Many thanks for your interest, but we have nothing to share at this time.

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