Essay – Art, Culture, and Entrepreneurship

Helene Schmitz exhibition at Fotografiska New York, 2019

Recently, the New York Times published an article about how entrepreneurs are redefining what a museum is, how art can be experienced, and what a cultural moment is allowed to be.

“While traditional museums are discussing closings and mergers, the for-profit industry around experiential or immersive art is investing hundreds of millions of dollars into a business that currently has no audience in the U.S. because of the pandemic. It’s a gambit that has surprised market watchers, who see this gamble on the previous triumphs of experiential art — Random International’s Rain Room, which had thousands waiting for hours to experience a technology-generated rainfall, or teamLab’s digitally inventive exhibitions, which have drawn two million visitors in Tokyo — as difficult sells in a pandemic environment.“

Of course experiential or immersive art is a difficult sell during a pandemic. But we all expect a return to some form of normalcy, and investments are made knowing it will take several years to reward those who are taking the business risk now.

The art world is changing, and it reminds me of the early 1990s. I remember attending the New Music Seminar in 1993 as the founder of D’Vision Records, one of Berlin’s early techno labels. It was the most important alternative music industry gathering of the year, and I was there because I had finally secured US distribution for our artists and label.

Back then, the New York Times described it as:

TECHNO: Fast electronic dance music with barely a word between the blips.

Not exactly the whole picture.

What followed in the 90s was not just a different kind of music, but an entirely new way of experiencing the groove. Over the following generation, entrepreneurs launched festivals and clubs that moved electronic music artists to the center stage, and the world absorbed the various oscillating loops into every manifest facet of culture.

The music industry never saw it coming.

We find ourselves at yet another inflection point in the art world. The same powerful technology used by artists, designers, and architects is offering tools to develop new forms of art, spaces, photography and experiences.

“The advent of new technologies has spurred a rapid growth in the number of artists innovating with experience-based works over the past decade and completely reinventing the way we understand art and how we engage with it,” says Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst, the CEO of Superblue. She should know. Together with Marc Glimcher, the CEO of Pace Gallery (that have 10 locations worldwide), she is an entrepreneur who is redefining what a gallery is. Superblue will open a series of experiential art centers (EACs for short) that won’t sell precious objects, as conventional galleries do. They’ll present art experiences.

Just like in the 1990s music scene, cultural entrepreneurs are once again working with artists to push into new genres. It is understandable that the existing institutions are feeling somewhat nonplussed, and even threatened. They have good reason, because the stakes are higher now.

Many of the great institutions are trying to reconcile keeping their staff compensated while endowed with billions of dollars of art, and safely ensconced in the buildings they own. At the same time, they are under enormous pressure to be more progressive, inclusive, and confront systemic issues of racism, sexism, and cultural exploitation, al whilst trying to program footfall-heavy shows.

In response, their curators mount intelligent and thoughtful exhibitions, but programs are often planned years in advance, and there is little chance to respond to issues as they unfold, except to cancel programs in an effort not to offend.

Renowned photographer Andres Serrano says: “Traditional museums are sometimes slow-walking creatures. They take so long to plan shows, who knows which way the wind will blow. The point is to be ahead of the curve before it gets here. If you’re worried about offending you shouldn’t be in the business of art.”

The very definition of a museum is currently under review, led by a remarkably insular group. The International Council of Museums has begun a three-year process of redefining the term Museum but its first attempt was “a strange and un-transparent descent into chaos” according to one participant. Its current definition insists that a museum is not for-profit. What the ICoM’s Standing Committee has to reconcile is how many of the world’s greatest museums can afford to be non-profit foundations when their collections are based on looted treasures from foreign cultures, or solely by the grace and generosity of the One Percent.

The world is full of fabulous private museums that are owned and filled by discerning collectors who have a clear view of an art movement as it unfolds, the budget to make acquisitions traditional museums can’t respond to quickly enough, and the confidence to strike when they see the right work of art to support a coherent collection. For example, most of us in the art world can’t wait for the opening of Pinault’s Bourse de Commerce, the private museum housing the collection of the French luxury goods tycoon.

Regardless of their origin — whether founded in legacy, or newly assembled by someone with a good eye and the financial ability to enable it — none of these museums are considered for profit, and few of them invest back into their communities.

At Fotografiska, we are going a third way. We are a for profit museum, which means our ticket sales must continue to finance our exhibitions. We curate attractive shows directly with the artists, and finance exhibitions that they could not shoulder by themselves. We need to offer our visitors and members an exhibition program that covers the entire spectrum of photography.

Most importantly, we engage with the local communities in terms of the photographers and the subject matters that we exhibit. All of this allows us to be nimbler, and more progressive in our approach.

I was particularly proud of the way Fotografiska New York responded to events in 2020. As the death of George Floyd galvanized New Yorkers to once again protest the treatment of people of colour at the hands of law enforcement, we used our various digital channels to share images from protests across the country, and opened our lobby to protestors as a place to use clean restrooms, charge phones and cameras, and get some cold water.

We also completely altered our exhibition program and ensured that the shows we present are relevant to the moment we were all living through.

There is a very large audience of young, culturally-curious people who simply do not see themselves represented or reflected in a typical or “legacy” museum. The perceived elitism feels exclusive, like something you’re welcome to come marvel at, but don’t dare ask questions. Many traditional museums insist they are fulfilling an educational role, and look with dismay at some of the new ways of experiencing art. They see the new places as competition, but fail to realize that the real fight for eyeballs and time is with the likes of Netflix, PlayStation, and TikTok, not a fellow cultural offering.

“The emergence of social media changed the way we consume art. Whether classic or contemporary, all of a sudden, art was accessible at our fingertips” writes Jordan Watson. “The underrepresented artists we champion at Love Watts have historically been left out of traditional museum narratives. Organizations like Fotografiska allow the opportunity for a more diverse range of voices to be heard.”

Art can be inclusive. It can be inspiring. It can even be fun. We have a responsibility to inspire a more conscious world, to get people off the couch, and to get them back into the museums. It also means we must mount shows and create moments that resonate with a wider audience. Acknowledging that seems anathema to certain corners of the art world.

My respect goes out to all those cultural entrepreneurs who are doing everything possible to keep their businesses going in the last year, doubling down by investing now, who are ready to relaunch as soon as possible. Whether its places like Meow WolfArtechouseSuperblue, or Fotografiska, change is coming, but it’s nothing to be afraid of.