Interview by Emily Snow & Anna Sexton
TheCollector recently sat down with Giulio Dalvit, Assistant Curator of Sculpture at The Frick Collection in New York City. Among many distinguished publications and projects, Dalvit helped curate the collection’s temporary installation at the Frick Madison during the renovation and expansion of its permanent home at the Henry Clay Frick mansion.
The Frick boasts an esteemed collection of Old Master paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts. It originated with Henry Clay Frick, a wealthy industrialist who bequeathed his Manhattan mansion—and the impressive art collection inside it—to the public upon his death in 1919. The Frick Collection opened in 1935 and has grown both in size and international renown in the decades since.
In this interview, Dalvit tells us what makes the Frick uniquely captivating and offers interesting insights into his art historical expertise and curatorial practice, from the pandemic-era phenomenon Cocktails with a Curator to the modern-day impact of historic house museums.
Q: Thank you for chatting with us today, Giulio! To start from the beginning, when did you first decide that you wanted to study art history and pursue a career in curating?
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I grew up surrounded by paintings in my parental home, but they were all contemporary paintings. I guess I wanted to understand more about their language, so I ventured into contemporary art when I began pursuing art history at age nineteen. It was much later that I realized I wanted to become a curator when I completed an internship at the Frick Collection. The Frick was instrumental in directing me towards curating, and towards the old masters.
Q: In addition to an internship at the Frick, you specialized in 15th-century Italian art during your doctoral studies at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. How does your educational background influence your curatorial work at the Frick today?
After completing my M.A. in art history at the Courtauld, I worked at the Poldi Pezzoli Museum in Milan, which, in some ways similar to the Frick, is a house museum. Then I worked at the Frick as an intern before returning to the Courtauld for my Ph.D., during which I specialized in 15th-century Italian art history. I also studied the relationship between painting and sculpture, which was a focus of my dissertation on the little-known Sienese artist Vecchietta.
I’m now a curator of sculpture at the Frick, but I remain interested in exploring the relationship between sister arts. There is no better place than a museum like the Frick to do that because you always have to relate different materials and objects to each other to create an artistic environment. In a house museum, it’s not really about crafting a narrative, it’s about creating a space, which is something I really like doing. You are also something of an interior decorator as a curator in a house museum.
Q: Could you describe your approach when it comes to contextualizing historic objects for an audience of the 21st century? Does your approach change depending on the objects, or have you seen your approach change over time?
If you want to preserve a house as a historical context, there’s only so much you can do about contextualizing objects in a house museum for a 21st-century audience. In a way, the effort of contextualizing needs to happen outside of, or around, the museum space per se. This is especially true at the Frick, where it’s actually not about the labeling since we don’t have detailed labels in the galleries. So, we need to come up with other ideas as to how to make an object relevant to a modern audience.
In this way, I think the Frick has really been a pioneer in making contextual materials accessible to a broader public, whether digitally (i.e., video projects combined with social media and our participation on the Bloomberg Connects app platform), through our lecture series, or by bringing in different kinds of voices to write and talk about the objects in our collection. Basically, it’s not about the curatorial practice within the room but outside of the room.
Q: As a curator, what has been a memorable exhibition that you have participated in?
For me, every exhibition that is a team effort is something to learn from. At the Frick, we had an exhibition of 26 recently-donated drawings, The Evellard Gift. I worked on this exhibition with Aimee [Ng, Curator] and Xavier [F. Salomon, Deputy Director and Peter Jay Sharp Chief Curator]. We had worked on the Frick Madison installation together, but we had never collaborated on a single exhibition and produced a catalog for it together. It was a sort of landmarking experience for me.
Q: What about a favorite exhibition that you have visited?
That’s a question I find absolutely impossible to answer! All exhibitions are different, and they each have a story to tell. I am fond of a distinction that a teacher once explained to me about exhibitions of poetry and exhibitions of prose. An exhibition can be very poetic, or it can tell you a story, which are two different things you want to achieve as a curator. I think it’s especially wonderful when you can see both in an exhibition. Like books, exhibitions may just happen to match your state of mind at a certain point in time, or not. Sometimes, when I reflect on an exhibition that I didn’t really like, I think that if I saw it today, I might think about it differently.
Q: What specific things do you notice about an exhibition that might escape others’ notice?
As a curator, you start noticing things like lighting, labelling, the height of pedestals, and the space between objects. But I think the general public, even without knowing all these things, notices when an exhibition is beautifully installed. A curator can point out what could have been done differently, but I believe that when something is done properly, anyone can see it.
Curators also know the extent to which certain circumstances, such as the money you have or loan policies, impact exhibitions. Sometimes, you see a vitrine and think, “Oh, my God, this object should be displayed outside of a vitrine!” And then you discover that the lender made that impossible. So, when you start actually planning and installing exhibitions, you become a bit more forgiving because you realize how many constraints you come up against.
Q: In a similar vein, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way people approached museum work. One of the programs started during the pandemic that became a smashing success was the Cocktails with a Curator series. Could you tell us a bit about making those videos?
My experience was quite different from that of Aimee and Xavier because I was stuck in Europe at the time. This meant that I had to record my episodes in the morning and drink cocktails at 10 a.m.! I also joined the curating team at the Frick a bit after the series began, which meant that all the good cocktails had already been done. So, every week, I had to come up with a more and more outlandish concoction.
However, the whole experience was incredible. It was also a way for me to get to know the collection better and hit the ground running, as it was the very first project I worked on. When you start working in a museum, you may know the collection, but only as an outsider. But right from the start, I was asked to talk off the cuff for 20 minutes on a single object in the collection, which is not necessarily easy to do, especially when you’re not physically with the objects. So, for me, Cocktails with a Curator allowed me to connect with the collection and its holdings.
Additionally, since this was during the pandemic, it was also a way to remind ourselves why we are passionate about what we do. Preparing each episode allowed us to rediscover the beauty of the objects we devoted our time to and gained us a (newfound) appreciation for the objects in the Frick collection at a very challenging time for all of us, when we ourselves felt estranged from our objects of study.
Q: Unlike the blank slate of a white-cube gallery, the Henry Clay Frick House is contextually and aesthetically intertwined with the objects it houses. As a curator at the Frick, how do you balance preserving the original spirit of the collection and offering fresh perspectives on its contents?
Part of the beauty of a museum in a home is the feeling of estrangement as you step into a different world. There is an encounter between a 21st-century viewer and a place that is somehow stuck in time. As a viewer, you bring in your own perspective and create a dialogue across time.
As curators, our job is to make this experience possible in a way that accommodates the needs of the modern-day public while at the same time preserving the place as it was. Now that we are reopening certain areas of the house, we’re trying as much as possible to go back to 1919, at the moment Henry Clay Frick died and the decision was made to turn his mansion into a museum. We’re looking at a lot of historical pictures of how these spaces were in the 1920s.
Q: Speaking of juxtapositions, amidst the ongoing renovation of the Frick’s permanent residence, what has it been like to curate the collection in its temporary installation at Frick Madison, a Brutalist museum building designed in the 1960s?
I started my career as a curator with the movement of the entire Frick collection to a completely different context at Frick Madison, which was very challenging but allowed us to tell completely different stories with the same objects.
One benefit is that the art is more accessible at Frick Madison. There isn’t always a piece of furniture between you and a painting. At the mansion, objects are arranged aesthetically. At Frick Madison, we arranged the collection chronologically and geographically, which made it possible to tell stories about the history of art.
As a curator of sculpture, another big advantage is the ability to isolate sculpture and decorative objects as works of art in their own right, which they are. The context of the Frick mansion can be overwhelming, and sculptures can be difficult to appreciate on their own because they are fettered by the furniture on which they stand, or integrated into the architecture surrounding them. At Frick Madison, they can be made protagonists in ways they are not at the house. People have started to notice that some of the most interesting stories in our collection surround sculptures and decorative objects, not just paintings.
The Frick house is celebrated as a space where you can have a very intimate museum experience. Frick Madison is about a different kind of intimacy with the art — it’s about proximity to the art, more than an intimate environment for it. Intimate minimalism is what we tried to achieve, I guess!
Q: As you’ve mentioned, the Frick is known for eschewing detailed labels in its galleries, and this practice has carried over to Frick Madison. From a curatorial perspective, what possibilities and limitations arise with this approach?
It is true that we use very minimal labeling, but at the same time, we have one of the most extensive audio guides of any New York museum (through the Bloomberg Connects app). Almost every single object has an audio guide entry, which is written and narrated by a curator. While having fewer labels may appear to make art less accessible, it actually fosters a different interaction with the objects, especially when accompanied by our audio guide.
Instead of having people cluster around labels, there is more freedom in their movement through the museum. We don’t ask people to read the label and consequently look for what we’ve written. Rather, we invite them to look at the object and react the way they want. I think this approach allows people to focus more on visual experience than textual communication. There is a lot of potential when you don’t write too much about what you are showing. Labels can make art more accessible, but they also direct the public.
Q: Another ongoing project at the Frick that you have participated in is the Frick Diptych series, in which one artwork from the collection is placed in the spotlight with an essay from a Frick curator and a contribution from a contemporary artist or writer. Could you speak a little about the conception of this series and your recent contribution to it?
The series started a few years ago, before I joined the staff. The idea was to bring in different perspectives to comment on what you can see at the Frick. A Frick curator always writes a monographic essay on one of the collection’s masterpieces, and this is consistent throughout the series. What changes is the outside perspective: We ask film directors, musicians, visual artists, or novelists to comment the way they please on the same object. This is what makes it a “diptych;” it’s two complementary ways of looking at the same thing.
I worked on Titian’s Man in a Red Hat with the contemporary artist Elizabeth Peyton, who proposed a selection of paintings from her own oeuvre that were, knowingly or not, inspired by the Titian at the Frick — one of the first works she ever copied as a student. She then decided to create a new series of works inspired by the Frick portrait and, more broadly, by Titian, which also made their way into the Diptych. Finally, she wrote a beautiful, lyrical text about her encounter with Titian’s Man in a Red Hat.
Q: Let’s now turn to Titian’s Man in a Red Hat. In your essay, you focus on the mysterious nature of the portrait. Could you give us a brief rundown of the painting’s mysteries and what you find most fascinating about it?
I think that one of the most fascinating aspects for me to discover about this painting (and in general as a curator) was that, although it’s considered one of the masterpieces in The Frick Collection — it was even on the cover of LIFE magazine! — very little was known about it, and it was fascinating for me look at this work in a fresh way, diving into its history to better understand how it really came to the Frick.
This portrait is compelling and beautiful. Germaine Greer said it was her “favorite Renaissance sex object,” which you can read about in my essay! The figure depicted is a very attractive young man, which probably contributes to the appeal. But what really makes it special is the way in which it encapsulates a shift in the history of European portraiture. It was around this time that artists realized that portraiture is not just about recording the likeness of someone, but it’s also about creating a kind of psychological communication between the sitter and the viewer.
Q: To conclude our discussion on the Diptych series, in a broader sense, do you think museums have a responsibility to establish such programs like the Diptych series that create opportunities for advancing the study of art and invite a diverse public to interact with its collections?
Absolutely. I think it’s the main responsibility of a museum. Every museum has to do it in its own way and deal with different materials.
I think that a museum’s educational mission is really at the center of what we do. Although we normally only think of the art on 70th Street, the Frick is a two-headed institution: we also have a library established in the early 1920s by our founder’s daughter, Helen Clay Frick. Her legacy is as important as her father’s to the institution. In particular, she understood that, sure, you can showcase art as simply pretty things to look at, but there’s also another side to it involving learning about the objects and their past. This conception of a museum as an educational hub, a place for study and contemplation, is really one of the main legacies of the Frick and why it’s so special.
Aside from the library, we have many programs encouraging the study and discovery of our collection: we have fellowships, paid internships, lectures, community events, other types of programs, and so on. It’s really an educational center for the city and the world.
Q: The Frick Collection is slated to reopen in the renovated and enhanced buildings on East 70th Street in late 2024. How do you think the project will resonate with visitors and impact your curatorial practice?
As you now know, I’m really fond of house museums, and the idea of going back to the Frick residence is incredibly exciting for me. Without revealing details, I’m curious to see how the public will react to our buildings, which will now offer access to the historic second floor of the mansion (more details can be found on our website frick.org).
The Frick has always struck a strange balance between house museum and gallery space. I think following the renovation, visitors will encounter the same unique tension. At the Frick, there are completely different conceptions of what a museum can look like, all coexisting under the same roof. It’s a recipe for what a museum is that is very specific to the Frick, and you won’t find it anywhere else.
Additionally, the new display spaces at the Frick will allow us to present special exhibitions on a different scale, which I think will change the impact of what we do. These galleries will be contiguous to the collection galleries on the main floor, and will continue to foster conversations with our holdings.
Q: Are there any major projects for you on the horizon?
Yes, but I cannot say what! However, I will say that we have a wonderful roster of exhibitions for when we reopen, and I’m currently working on some of them.
Editor’s Note: The Frick Collection is currently in its final year of residency at Frick Madison and will close on March 3, 2024. The Henry Clay Frick mansion and buildings are slated to reopen in late 2024.