It’s not fair to call the entire art world a private club, but “clubby” is at least an accurate description of it, so much so that a sub-economy has sprung up in the last five years in order to provide outsiders with “access” to this apparently mysterious underworld. Artsy, “a resource for art collection and education,” has a “mission” “to make all the world’s art accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.” Paddle8, “the auction house for the 21st-century collector,” gives “a global community of passionate collectors unprecedented access to online auctions of high-caliber inventory.” Artspace wants “to make it easy for you to discover and collect fine art from renowned artists, galleries, and cultural institutions worldwide,” and subscribers to its newsletter “instantly gain” “insider access to special offers and private art events.”
To this argot add The Cultivist, “the world’s only global arts club offering uniquely privileged access to every aspect of the art world.” While all of the aforementioned have a commercial component, organizing online auctions, offering services for collectors, or acting as a middle man between galleries and clients, The Cultivist is strictly a “private member’s club” with a $2,500 buy-in.
“There’s no hidden objectives or side ad sales where we make money,” said Marlies Verhoeven, the company’s CEO and co-founder, with Daisy Peat. “We don’t do advising services, nor take money when one of our members buys a work of art. We didn’t want anyone to feel screwed, which happens a lot in the art world.”
For its first year—the site went live this month—they’ll let in 1,000 people, each of which will receive membership services at many of the major museums in Europe and North America—70 confirmed institutions, including the Tate Modern, the Royal Academy, and the National Gallery in London, and the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, and the Metropolitan Museum in New York—as well as VIP admission to nearly 40 international art fairs, or as Verhoeven put it, “every single one. Big and small.” The Cultivist’s web site won’t produce original content—unlike most of its competitors—but will instead provide a kind of newsletter of relevant information from around the art world. Verhoeven said she’s also recruited a network of “regional Cultivists,” art history PhD students scattered across the globe who will, given 24 hours notice, meet a member at a museum and give a tour. (“If everyone starts using it five times a year,” Verhoeven said of this particular service, “we might have to limit how much we can do that, but for now it’s included in the service.”)
She said The Cultivist is funded solely through membership fees, and that there’s no other revenue stream. The 1,000 members from the first year are split evenly between Europe and America. “Asia is not our focus in the first year,” Verhoeven said. “We’ve made it part of our phase two in two years. They definitely have different needs.” (No word on the other continents.) Asked to provide a profile of her ideal member, she laid out three categories, the first comprising artists–a group Verhoeven singled out as being “very important to us”–curators, and collectors, including “big name collectors,” many of whom, Verhoeven said, communicated to her that, “You might think I have access to all these things around the world, and I do in New York or London, but when I travel to Italy, they don’t know who I am and I don’t want to stand in the back of the line.” The second category is “a collector in another field who has an interest in the art world.” The third is “the tech guys in San Francisco, the new oil money in Texas,” Verhoeven said. “People who are affluent and realize they need to do something with art, but it isn’t accessible. They’ve tried to come to an art fair and [have] been taken aback by the difficulty of a certain level of access. They have Black Cards, they have VIP access to all other areas of their lives, and then to come to the art world and not be noticed—it’s a bit difficult for them.” American Express Black Card holders of the world, I am so sorry for your difficulties.
Verhoeven said her goal is to get members “to become real collectors and patrons of the arts, and to feel comfortable.” Prospective members must file an application that asks questions like “What’s the last museum exhibition you saw?” and “Do you know anyone already in the club?” (This is, according to Verhoeven, the easiest way to get in, like Freemasonry.) Verhoeven, who with her co-founder used to run Sotheby’s preferred customers program, which provided some of the same services as The Cultivist, albeit on a smaller scale, said the people who will have the hardest time being accepted as members are those with a “commercial job in the art world.” Verhoeven said her old job at Sotheby’s did not involve selling any art, and no one on her team ever has done that.
“I don’t want to be completely naïve,” she said. “The money coming into the art world also helps a lot of people. I don’t object to the money as much. I object to the fact that there are so many parties trying to chase that money, as opposed to offering a real experience with art. I collect art myself, but I only recently realized with a painting I bought that there were three other people involved in that transaction that I didn’t even know about.” There was, she said, “a true need for someone who was completely independent—not an auction house, or affiliated with a gallery or a museum. We don’t have hidden objectives or convoluted ways of doing business.”