Three weeks ago the New Museum launched their incubator project, NEW INC. It comes with an aim to provide office space and tech and professional development services to artists, designers, and technologists, call for applications to their shared working space, and plenty of online debate! Does the art world need deeper connections with the business world? Is that even what this program is proposing?
Arguably, this question has been in the air. We’ve been seeing a growing phenomenon of artists riding the corporate line; Ryder Ripps runs the successful creative design agency OkFocus, which creates projects that are somewhere between art and marketing. The popular Tumblr the Jogging similarly rides this line; Brad Troemel, their co-founder, has recently been compared to a VC-backed entrepreneur by Yahoo news.
NEW INC can be seen as a response to that trend. As such, I spoke with tireless organizer and the new Executive Director of NEW INC Julia Kaganskiy about the branding behind NEW INC’s name, the organization’s public purpose, and the initiatives Kaganskiy sees in its future.
Let’s talk about the name: Why NEW INC? Why Incubator? Doesn’t that evoke for-profit models?
I realize that the term has deep roots in the tech sector and brings with it connotations of Silicon Valley start-up culture and venture capital. That’s not exactly what we’re doing.
NEW INC is putting a not-for-profit spin on the incubator model and adapting it for our cultural context.
We wanted to create a space positioned somewhere between a business incubator and an artist residency program, something that provides an alternative for the countless projects that fall through the cracks because they don’t neatly fit either model. Unlike the exhibition-related artist residencies upstairs on the 6th floor of 231 Bowery (which are being run by the New Museum’s curatorial department), NEW INC is strictly a membership-based model, kind of like a co-working space.
The “INC” is a nod to both the business-oriented nature of the groups and projects in the space, as well as a play on the term “incubator.” In both instances, we’re interested in exploring new models and thwarting the expectations and conventions typically associated with incubators or corporations. Hence, NEW INC.
I’ve seen speculation online that New INC may be using the model of the non-profit to support “start-ups” in the Silicon Valley sense of the word or attempt to connect artists with VCs. How do you address these concerns?
We are not attempting to connect artists with VCs nor are we supporting “start-ups” in the Silicon Valley sense of the word. We are interested in re-appropriating some of the entrepreneurial thinking and practices from the business sector and applying it to help both for-profit and non-profit creative enterprises build sustainable practices.
We want to empower artists and designers to build their projects and careers by providing them with some basic business training—education about contracts and IP, accounting, branding and PR, etc. We are not the first to do this. Organizations like Creative Capital, which are a big source of inspiration to us, have been doing amazing work by utilizing these very principles for years and have bolstered the careers of many an artist.
Most of the projects we imagine supporting will never scale and likely define “success” as breaking even and being able to pay themselves a living wage. In conceiving this incubator we were hoping to provide an alternative to the prevailing tech incubators by creating a space without the pressures of building something for maximum “return on investment.” We are more interested in empowering designers and artists to build imaginative, unlikely projects and contribute their critical voices to the conversation. Our hope is that these ideas can play a more active role in defining and leading the conversation around technology and innovation.
Creative Capital has done great work educating artists on how to manage their practice as a business. It’s great to hear you’re using them as a model and I recall meeting a VC or two at their retreat. I’m not even sure I know what it would mean for artists if they’re introduced to more business oriented investors.
We still haven’t worked out how or if we’re going to be engaging with VCs. Getting introductions to VCs is something people applying to the incubator have expressed interest in, but we’re going to wait to make this decision with our member community. If we do decide to facilitate these connections, it will be an opt-in option available only after we’ve explored the implications of venture capital models in our professional development programming.
New Inc is currently accepting “membership” applications with a deadline of April 1, 2014. For those interested in applying, what are you looking for in artist members? Designer members? Entrepreneur members?
It’s interesting that you break those up into distinct categories and member profiles. I was actually thinking that members might be some amalgamation of all three, to greater or lesser extent. I’m not sure that the lines between these categorizations are as rigid as they used to be. Much like creative practice itself, these distinctions are becoming much more porous.
Some of the members of the space might be working on something that resembles a start-up, others might be pursuing a more traditional trajectory of gallery representation and art commissions. I think in either case the criteria we’re using to evaluate the applicants is the same:
- A clearly stated concept and vision with a strong sense of purpose
- An exemplary body of previous work
- An experimental, Research & Development-driven approach
- A clear set of goals and desired outcomes
- Projects that would benefit from developing under the umbrella of the Museum (i.e. for whom our unique network and expertise seems relevant)
We’re also interested in creating a diverse environment—both in terms of skill-sets and disciplines, as well as gender, race, socio-economic status, etc. And while it’s not a primary criteria, several of us on the selection committee have a soft spot for social impact, civic-minded projects, so I anticipate that we’ll be looking to get a few of those into the mix as well.
How much of New Inc’s mission aligns with that of the New Museum? The original mission described the Museum as a catalyst for a broad dialogue between art and the public. Is that part of New INC’s mission as well?
I think NEW INC is a manifestation of that mission, a way for the museum to make good on its promise of engaging in a “broad dialogue” by venturing into areas we don’t typically think of as the domain of cultural institutions.
What does that mean? You’ve already addressed your uncertainty about how NEW INC will approach VC introductions, but I think this ties back to what you said earlier about what, precisely, the NEW INC can offer through its network and expertise. Do you think the cache of the museum will help artists looking for sponsorship opportunities receive them, for example? Does it also mean grant opportunities and press exposure?
Obviously, being associated with the New Museum through their affiliation with the incubator will help raise the profile and lend a certain cache to the people and projects being developed within NEW INC. We also hope to leverage the museum’s staff and existing network in areas of culture, business, academia, media, and so forth to connect incubator members with potential mentors, advisors, and collaborators. This might happen organically through connections that take place during the professional development seminars or networking events, or as strategic introductions facilitated by the incubator administrative staff—myself, an office manager/community manager that we’ll be bringing on board, the incubator’s advisory board, and the museum’s Director and Deputy Director, who have been spearheading the project within the institution.
In the case of NEW INC, I think we’re focused on a community and a way of working that has emerged over the past couple of years and could benefit from the kind of cultural stewardship museums are known for. It’s something that’s happening with or without us, and it seems to us that we are in a unique position to provide a safe space for artists and designers to experiment with building a business that can be an outlet for and help sustain their creative practice.
In terms of NEW INC’s mission and whether it, too, will be a catalyst for a dialogue between art and the public, I think that’s absolutely the long-term goal, but one that we are building towards slowly. In our first year, we’ll probably be more of a private space versus a public space. We want to focus on building our culture and identity, and we need to figure out how to protect the interests of our members, for whom the incubator is first and foremost a workspace. We are planning on building out structured opportunities for us to invite the public in, as well as ways to broadcast what’s happening inside the incubator and engage in a public discourse online. These are things that will be built eventually, but at the moment we’re taking things one step at a time.
Is the program aimed at artists trying to turn their products into a business—thus, the mix of designers, artists, and entrepreneurs?
Not necessarily. One of the artists we’re currently considering is trying to do exactly that—he’s developed several conceptual products as part of his artistic practice that he’s been selling online and at physical locations. He wants to build on this idea and take it to the next level, developing additional products as well as launching a service. What’s interesting about it is that although it’s modeled as a commercial venture, it feels very much like a performance piece, possibly due to the mission-driven, activist nature of his work.
But I’d stress that this is just one possible manifestation and approach to the kind of creative enterprises we hope to host and support. We might see some start-ups that more closely resemble an Artsy, or we might see something like a GIFPOP. We want to get a mix of different kind of artist- and designer-led businesses in there because one of the goals of the program is to investigate new models for building a sustainable creative practice. The more diverse examples we have in the space, the more they are likely to inform one another and learn from one another.
Are there any programs in place—or planned for the future—to provide a free or complimentary membership to those who can’t afford one?
Yes, we are planning on providing a limited number of free and/or subsidized desks to members or teams who cannot afford to pay for one. We’re in the process of fundraising to cover these costs, which will ultimately determine the number of desk fellowships we can offer. In the meantime, I’ve been encouraging people who are interested in the program but discouraged by the costs to apply and express the need for financial aid.
Are any public programs planned?
Nothing that’s set in stone yet. We’ve discussed having bi-annual Showcases to present members’ work, Open Studio nights, hosting some talks in the New Museum theater, or maybe even putting something together for IDEAS CITY when it comes around in 2015. We’ve also started sketching out an end-of-year conference or symposium that would take place towards the end of the first 12-month term. Giving our members a platform to present their work and a forum for discussing their ideas and research is an important part of the program, as is engaging the greater community in the conversation, but we don’t want to plan too much without knowing who is going to be in the space and what their needs and interests are. We’d like the programs to be informed by the members.
Are members expected to show or exhibit work somehow at the end of the 12-month long residency?
We are thinking of doing a bi-annual showcase (6 months in and at the end of 12 months) and also an end of term conference/symposium. We are also anticipating that members might get involved in showcasing something during IDEAS CITY in 2015. We’re still deciding what the best format for presenting the work developed at the incubator might be, as this will largely depend on the kinds of projects we’ll be hosting in the space.
It seems like the programming is still very much taking shape.
I’ll be the first to admit that we’re still figuring a lot of things out. This is new territory for us and for the museum field at large. There’s a lot of things in development such as potential partners, advisors, mentors, etc. that I can’t speak to yet, but we’ve been very fortunate to have our initiative met with much interest and enthusiasm. We wanted to make our initial call for applicants so that we could start discussing some of these things with our potential community and shape the initiative in dialogue with them – which is something I’ve been doing all along with focus groups and countless meetings with potential members and mentors alike. Ultimately, though, I wanted to extend the conversation beyond my own network, and so far that’s been an extremely valuable exercise.