This Friday, the Frick Collection’s Cocktails with a Curator YouTube series will end. Over the past 14 months, these weekly videos have featured a Frick curator sharing information and historical facts about pieces in the Collection, while inviting viewers to indulge in a theme-appropriate cocktail. Past works discussed include James McNeill Whistler’s “Harmony in Pink and Gray: Portrait of Lady Meux” (accompanied with a refreshing vodka cocktail, The Mummy), Joshua Reynolds’ “Selina, Lady Skipwith” (served with an earthy concoction, Asparagus Fizz), and Andrea del Verrocchio’s “Bust of a Woman” (paired with a “quintessentially Florentine liqueur,” Alchermes).
The series joins Frick’s other digital offerings, namely video series such as Travels with a Curator, Frick Five, and What’s Her Story?, and virtual tours and webinars, that it similarly launched over the past year in a bid to stay connected with a remote audience. Out of all this programming, though, Cocktails with a Curator remains the institution’s biggest success.
“I don’t think any of them have had under 1,000 live viewers,” Aimee Ng, a curator at the Frick Collection and co-presenter of the series, tells Jing Culture & Commerce of the videos. “And that’s a huge number for a small shop like us.” In May, Cocktails with a Curator was a Webby honoree for Best Virtual & Remote Experiences: Arts & Culture, and according to the venue, the series alone has hit upward of 1.7 million views.
The Frick has also made it a goal to host both free and members-only content, ensuring that anyone with any sized budget can engage with the collection. “We have at every level [content] that’s free that anybody can watch,” Ng says. “We have a number of members events, free members events. There’s a whole swath of offerings, according to various levels of involvement with the Frick Collection.”
While a previous report found that many smaller institutions struggle with digital content, the Frick’s online successes demonstrate that even the slightest step — or what Ng terms “a band-aid thing” — can have a huge impact. Below, she shares more about how Cocktails with a Curator came to be and what the Frick Collection has in store for its digital community.
How did Cocktails with a Curator come about?
The Met likes to say they were the first to close in New York City, but I believe the Frick closed first in March, scrambling to figure out what was happening. We had a big Young Fellows Ball which was canceled with everything else. And so we got together virtually with colleagues who have anything to do with programs, membership, and retention; we had to do something. It was really what can we do to offer some kind of engagement with our members.
Cocktails with a Curator just sort of came about in one of these brainstorming sessions. We all drew from our personal experiences of, well, everybody’s getting together at [virtual] happy hour, so why don’t we just focus on doing a little happy hour talk, combine it with a historically relevant cocktail, and make it a weekly thing. It was decided as a “Let’s do something, see how it goes, and we’ll figure out what the first 10 episodes are.”
Tell us about its reception.
Cocktails with a Curator was enormously successful from the get-go. What had been sort of a band-aid thing became a signature thing. To some degree, it was the consistency of every Friday; not only would we email anybody who signed up for the Frick [emails], they would get a Frick at your Fingertips, a digital offering mailing per week. One of the other major promotional things is that an email would go out to the mailing list on Friday with the link for the event. So it was not just like, “Mark your calendars”; you’re also getting email right now because it’s happening right now.
All of our digital offerings have been eaten up by the public worldwide in a way I don’t think anybody could have anticipated. When we launched Cocktails with a Curator, it was a relatively local thing — we were serving people who would have been coming to the Frick Collection anyway. But since then, it became international: people were becoming museum members, even though they’ve never been to New York City. They’ve never been to the Frick Collection, but they’re becoming part of a digital community, which was kind of crazy.
Now that Cocktails with a Curator has wrapped, what’s on the Frick’s video slate?
We’ve just released our first episode of a more Instagram-native, much shorter and peppier, three-and-a-half minutes as opposed to 20 minutes series called Where in the World on YouTube. It’s on our YouTube channel, but it is meant to be for Instagram as a kind of quicker engagement. We are a European art collection predominantly, but the story of European art is intrinsically linked to the world outside of Europe. And each episode takes a material that European art is made of but comes from somewhere else, trying to connect these objects we think of as European with other histories, cultures, and communities. It won’t have the same weekly output that Cocktails with a Curator has. Also, it’ll be a little bit slower to release because a lot of research goes into it — these are mini-exhibitions, in a sense.
How will the past year’s lessons inform the Frick’s digital strategy moving forward?
I think the main lesson of the last year-and-a-half is that digital programming has allowed us to offer access to people who would never have a chance to come to the Frick. The number of emails that come to us that say, “I am very sick, I am very old, I will never get on a plane to come to New York, so thank you for letting for bringing the Frick into my home,” — we will never be able to end [digital strategies] because that is an access point and a means of communication and engagement with a world beyond the physical footsteps that lead to the Frick. It’s also brought audiences that may have been intimidated by the Frick Collection’s physical presence.
But the lesson here is that we can do so much more than just be a physical place to experience objects. Of course, the digital offerings will always support the individual works of art that we take care of, but our digital strategy is here to stay. It’s clear to us that we have a powerful tool for reaching people and helping to inspire thinking about [the Frick Collection] and art and the issues that we probe here. Through digital content, we can also reach a lot more people at once than the 20 people that can be in one gallery at the same time.