The experiential art center Superblue was busy during Miami’s Art Week, which kicked off at the end of November. While the Art Basel fair overtook South Beach, Superblue held a series of high-profile events at its headquarters a short drive over the causeway that included a “mixed-reality dinner” sponsored by Meta, a benefit for a nonprofit conservation organization attended by Leonardo DiCaprio, and a heartbeat-activated light installation created by buzzy Mexican-born artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer sponsored by BMW.
Superblue—cofounded in the summer of 2020 by Marc Glimcher, the CEO of Pace, one of the biggest galleries in the world, and Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst, the former president of Pace London—is the highest-profile attempt among the fine-art establishment to capitalize on the immersive experiential art craze that has swept the world.
The company told the New York Times in 2020 that it aimed to “reinvent how art is shown” by presenting large-scale immersive works by James Turrell, teamLab, and Studio Drift that would be paid for with revenue from admissions, as opposed to art sales, with artists getting a share of the profits.
According to the Times, the company was to be funded primarily by Pace and Emerson Collective, a for-profit philanthropic company founded by billionaire Laurene Powell Jobs, a longtime client of Pace.
Behind the scenes, however, Superblue has undergone a series of changes and faced stunted growth since the beginning of this year, said multiple ex-employees, who spoke with ARTnews under the condition of anonymity due to fear of legal reprisal.
Superblue’s two most important figures—Glimcher and Powell Jobs—have stepped back from their initial roles in the enterprise. At the end of last year, Emerson Collective, Powell Jobs’s venture, relinquished its two seats on the board. Then, this fall, according to sources, Glimcher quietly changed his position from chairman of the board of directors to an adviser, though the company’s website does not reflect that shift.
Meanwhile, Superblue suffered in-fighting on the board, high-profile turnover, and a lack of funding that, sources said, is the result of cost overruns, mismanagement, and a board structure that has plagued decision-making.
The art world’s once-buzziest new venture appears to be floundering.
Superblue Has Burned through Most of Its Funding
When Superblue was announced in August 2020, the company’s leadership said that it aimed to open multiple locations in the United States, as well as in Europe and Asia. Two and a half years later, only its Miami flagship is open, while progress on the other locations appears to have stalled.
The issues started with Superblue’s Miami venue, a 50,000-square-foot industrial building across from the Rubell Family Museum that had been scheduled to open in December 2020. The space did not open until more than four months later and, according to sources with knowledge of the company’s financials, the cost of the project ballooned from an estimated $8 million to between $16 million and $25 million.
While the Miami location was under construction, in April 2020, Superblue worked with Jon Deal, a Texas-based real estate developer, to develop a Houston location. What followed was nearly two years of negotiations and development during which Superblue and Deal’s team invested hundreds of man-hours to come up with a lease agreement that was never signed, and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on hardware and equipment that was never installed.
“It was all very frustrating, and it cost everyone a lot of money,” Deal told ARTnews, adding that one of the biggest problems was the company’s “complete lack of knowledge of building codes in Houston.” He said, “they were going to spend so much money on things that were completely unnecessary.”
The Houston project has since been abandoned, said Deal.
Though Superblue announced upon its launch that it was a joint venture between Pace and Emerson Collective, the financial terms were never disclosed. A source with direct knowledge of company financials told ARTnews that Superblue initially raised more than $15 million from Emerson, along with smaller sums by a handful of other investors, while Pace, over time, has invested at least $10 million.
But, as early as March 2021, Superblue was already on shaky financial footing due to cost overruns, the source said, and the company was in pursuit of new funding.
That month, Superblue announced a new “strategic investor”: Therme Art, a cultural subsidiary of Therme Group, a Vienna-based company that creates large-scale “wellness centers.” Therme invested more than $15 million, according to sources, the same amount originally invested by Emerson. (Therme confirmed that the investment was over $10 million, but directed all other questions to Superblue.) As part of the arrangement, Mikolaj Sekutowicz, the cofounder and CEO of Therme Art, which has sponsored installations at Serpentine Galleries and by Studio Drift, joined the board of directors shortly after the investment was finalized.
In 2021, a source said, Michael Forman, the Philadelphia-based CEO of FS Investments and an ARTnews Top 200 collector, also invested around $10 million. (Forman declined to comment on his involvement with the company.)
While the new investors brought in much-needed capital, it appears to have been a temporary salve. By August 2021, most of that money had been spent, a source with knowledge of Superblue’s financials said, and the newly enlarged board of directors began to dig trenches and choose sides.
Chaos in the Boardroom
Superblue’s board is structured so that all decisions require unanimous approval, effectively giving any single member veto power over any decision, from prospective investing partners to project priorities and strategic vision. Early in the company’s development, the structure did not appear to pose major issues, but as soon as Therme’s investment was finalized, sources say, the board’s equilibrium was lost.
Sekutowicz quickly established himself as a leading force on the board and used his veto power liberally. “He blocked everything he didn’t want to do, even if it was the right thing to do for the company,” said a source who had knowledge of board discussions.
Shortly after Sekutowicz’s arrival, the board split into factions—Glimcher and Forman leading one side, and Sekutowicz and Dent-Brocklehurst on the other—with no united vision for the company’s future, according to sources, some of whom were ex-employees at the company.
The split was exacerbated when, in September 2021, the company brought in T.J. Marchetti, a former executive at Disney and AwesomenessTV, as an interim president and consultant to the board. Marchetti, sources said, was hired at the behest of Glimcher and Forman, to straighten out the business fundamentals and to wrest control from Dent-Brocklehurst, who until then “had zero control,” a source familiar with Superblue leadership said, and had been increasingly siding with Sekutowicz to maintain her position.
By that December, Emerson Collective relinquished its two seats on Superblue’s board, according to multiple sources, and the organization stepped back from day-to-day operations and hands-on decision making.
There is some speculation that Emerson’s diminished role may have to do with a souring of the relationship between Powell Jobs, a major art collector, and Pace, her longtime dealer. (Earlier this year, Artnet’s Kenny Schachter reported that the billionaire was no longer buying art from Pace and had since been working with Hauser & Wirth.) Through an intermediary, Emerson Collective declined to comment on its involvement with Superblue, and Pace has long maintained that it is separate from the experiential art startup.
Within a month, with Superblue again desperately in need of funding, sources said Sekutowicz hired forensic accountants to dissect the company’s financials. A complicated situation was getting even more complicated.
A Wave of Departures
This year, in the wake of Emerson’s distancing, Superblue has seen high-profile figures in the company leave, either through firing, resignation, or shadier means.
The first came in March, when Robert Newland, Superblue’s London-based head of sales, who sources said was integral to the company’s overall operations, was indicted by a grand jury. Newland had been caught in the network surrounding art dealer Inigo Philbrick, who was sentenced to seven years in prison this year after pleading guilty to wire fraud. Newland eventually pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud; he could face up to 20 years in prison.
By June, Marchetti left Superblue, sources said, after just 10 months at the company. Within a few months, Jorge Mora, a founding partner who led early fundraising for Superblue and held a board position, left the company. Around the same time, two of the five senior employees that, less than a year before, Superblue announced were part of their “the next phase of its growth,” were either fired or resigned. The departures all stemmed from disputes over the company’s direction with Dent-Brocklehurst and Sekutowicz, or frustration at board in-fighting, a source with knowledge of Superblue’s operations said.
A Superblue representative characterized the turnover as a “kind of focused evolution that is common for start-ups” and necessary to “create a more efficient structure” based on lessons learned since launch.
In October, the Art Newspaper reported that the company had quietly closed its London location after being open for only a year in Pace’s former central London gallery location. Dent-Brocklehurst said at the time that the location was always meant to be temporary.
It was in this context that Glimcher stepped down this fall. In an email, Glimcher told ARTnews that he did so to “focus on my responsibilities as Pace’s CEO,” as the gallery has expanded in London, Seoul, Los Angeles, and in the web3 space. Neither Pace nor Glimcher gave an exact date for his leaving Superblue’s board, but sources said it happened within the last two months.
“I am incredibly pleased with what Superblue has accomplished so far and I’m excited about its future growth and success under the team we built together,” he said.
Sources say while Glimcher is not directly at fault for Superblue’s arrested development, in a way he may be responsible. “Anyone with an idea can ask [Glimcher] for money and walk away with funding. He’s a visionary, but he’s not detail oriented,” the source said. “He’s always been supportive of Superblue, he just trusts people too easily, often the wrong ones.”
Dent-Brocklehurst has characterized the seemingly rocky changes as typical among young start-ups like Superblue.
“Like every start up, Superblue has been pursuing a number of different strategies, initiatives, and ways of working with artists and audiences in its first year,” Dent-Brocklehurst told ARTnews in an email. “Based on learning and achievements thus far, the company is transitioning from its start-up phase to a more focused venture that builds on the successes of its Miami experiential art center. This will best enable us to continue to tap into the skyrocketing public interest in immersive art experiences and the increasing number of artists working in these media.”
Editors note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that “Pace has long maintained that Emerson is separate from the experiential art startup” and that “Superblue hired with Jon Deal.”