Cocktails with a Curator (2022) is the book version of The Frick Collection‘s wildly-popular 2020-21 video series of the same title. It’s definitely not the same experience as the series – I don’t think we really could have expected it to be – but it provides much of the same content in a succinct, easy-to-read manner. It also has eye-catching visuals in the form of drawings inspired by the artworks.
The “Cocktails” Phenomenon
For those who didn’t participate in the original experience, Cocktails with a Curator was the Frick‘s contribution to the pandemic-era’s profusion of digital offerings by museums and other cultural institutions. It had far more impact than most.
Each Friday evening from April 10, 2020 through July 16, 2021, the Frick released a 20 to 30-minute video about an artwork in the museum’s collection, presented by one of three Frick curators – Xavier Salomon (the undisputed Cocktails star), Aimee Ng, and Giulio Dalvit. Their short talks were informative but casual. Curators filmed the videos in their homes and discussed the artworks more as they would at drinks with friends than in a lecture hall. The tone was intellectual but friendly, sophisticated but never snobby. Episodes sampled the museum’s collections and included a healthy number of decorative arts in addition to paintings and sculptures.
The unusual part? Each week’s video was accompanied by a cocktail (sometimes quite a fancy one) specifically chosen for some (often quite loose) thematic connection to the artwork under discussion. The museum would publicize the cocktail recipe ahead of time so that viewers could sip along with the curator in accordance with the series’ title.
The genius of Cocktails was the fact that these quiet, seemingly one-on-one chats between Frick curators and an unlimited number of art lovers could only ever have taken place on a digital platform. Unlike other museums’ virtual tours and Zoom-based lectures, Cocktails wasn’t trying to reproduce an in-person experience. Instead, it created a brand-new experience that most of us had never previously considered, and a staggering number of people tuned in from all over the world. The premiere of a new episode every Friday was the weekly highlight for countless people (including me) during an overwhelmingly bleak period. The series provided not only intellectual stimulation and excitement, but also a sense of taking part in something special, regardless of whether you watched during the 5 o’clock premiere or afterwards.
Cocktails‘s sixty-five episodes have attracted more than 1.8 million views on the Frick’s YouTube channel, and the series was honored by the Webby awards in 2021. Widespread appreciation for the series, far beyond what anybody would have expected for videos about art history, proves that museums can be relevant and accessible to a broad audience when they want to be. As an art historian, I certainly learned a few things from the Frick’s approach, and I would love to see more art history content head in this direction.
I feel like I should start out by acknowledging that no book could ever capture the magic of Cocktails with a Curator the video series, especially for those of us who eagerly awaited each new installment as they aired. I enjoyed this book a lot and definitely recommend it, but if you buy it to re-live your experience with the series, you may be disappointed. Instead, pick up the book as a textual companion to the series or simply as an all-around enjoyable book about some world-class artworks.
Everything starts off with an introduction by Xavier Salomon discussing the inspirations for Cocktails and the process of creating it. To my knowledge, this hasn’t been addressed before, and it’s really interesting. When you think about it, the idea of producing videos where curators talk about artworks while drinking the same fancy cocktails the audience is also drinking somewhere else isn’t an obvious one. It was nice to learn a little bit about how this phenomenon came to be.
Rather than being a simple transcript, the book version of Cocktails with a Curator provides edited and condensed adaptations of the material covered in each episode. The three curators’ unique personalities get somewhat lost in the process, but that was probably inevitable when converting video talks into a written text. The video series was unscripted, giving it such a friendly and informal tone. The book removes the superficial extras and gets right to the substance, which works better on the page. I’m glad that the Frick recognized a slightly different approach was needed instead of trying to re-create the videos too literally on the page. However, each entry still begins with the cocktail recipe and a few words on why it was chosen.
Instead of using color photographs as is typical, Luis Serrano’s black-and-white drawings of details from the artworks accompany each entry. They are fun to look at and give the book an artistic and unconventional feeling. However, they aren’t much help in relationship to the text. The content encourages close looking, but you simply can’t do a lot of that through a drawing of Pietro Aretino‘s disembodied beard, mouth, and gold chain, no matter how cool that drawing might be. The back of the book does include color images of each artwork, but they’re pretty small. Enjoy the illustrations for their own sake – if there were prints available, I would totally buy some – but you will definitely need to pull up an image of each artwork on the Frick’s website while reading.
Cocktails with a Curator the book doesn’t re-create the experience of the video series, but it does make a nice complement to its illustrious predecessor. I appreciate having all the information from the series in a format that is easy to absorb and refer back to. The book would be a great holiday gift for an art lover and a good companion alongside which to revisit favorite episodes and artworks. For maximum enjoyment, read it in small doses, taking the time to explore a few artworks whenever the mood strikes rather than binging in long sittings.
The 272-page Cocktails with a Curator will be released on October 4, 2022. It costs $39.95 ($31.96 for Frick members) and is currently available for pre-order on the Frick’s website. After the release, it will also be on sale in the gift shop at the museum’s temporary home, Frick Madison. Meanwhile, Cocktails with a Curator the video series is available to watch at any time for free on YouTube. The Frick also produced another web series, Travels with a Curator, around the same time. Though not as popular or long-running as Cocktails, I still think it’s well worth a watch and often covers related topics.
Many thanks to The Frick Collection’s communications department for allowing me to read and review Cocktails with a Curator in advance of its release.