Venturing Beyond Art, to Give Ideas Their Space

Written by Randy Kennedy for the New York Times on October 25, 2013.

Over the last decade, business incubators — open-office-plan hives where people, many of them young, gather to try to think up the next big app or social media revolution — have grown into a cultural phenomenon, a vision of capitalism as a kind of share-happy, postmillennial commune.

If you were to list places that might be interested in joining this movement, art museums might not leap immediately to mind. The art world has its creative collectives, but what does a museum have to do with spawning products and business models?

The New Museum in Lower Manhattan is looking to answer that question. Beginning next year, it says, it will become the first visual art museum with its own incubator, a foray into the business world to be built in a rambling, rough-hewn warehouse next door to its building on the Bowery.

There the museum will invite as many as 70 emerging designers, architects, tech developers, artists and others to participate in much the same way it selects artists for exhibitions: they will be chosen by museum officials to try to create the best mix for the mission of the project.

The hope is that the mix will generate ideas that not only make money for their creators, who will pay a fee to work in the incubator, but also end up helping the city, addressing the environment, transportation, communication, poverty, food issues and a variety of urban problems.

For now, the museum says, it will not seek to share in participants’ profits, though it may someday, and it says it is creating the space purely to try to help creative thinkers thrive in an expensive and difficult city.

Lisa Phillips, the New Museum’s director, said she had been working “secretly and quietly” for more than a year with Karen Wong, the museum’s deputy director, to create the incubator, which echoes the outreach of several contemporary art museums around the world beyond shows and education into a kind of civic activism.

“We’re not trying to be venture capitalists,” Ms. Phillips said. “We think of this simply as an extension of our educational mission — a think tank, a laboratory, a catalyst for ideas that might not come out of traditional business environments. We’re a young, contemporary museum that does not have a permanent collection and this is a result of us always asking ourselves what a museum can be.”

The museum has already raised more than $2 million toward the project, from the city, the Ford Foundation and its board members.

Ms. Phillips said she anticipated criticism from people who would question why a museum would want to be involved in nurturing businesses, but she added: “I think our notion of the art world as formed by New York City is a very limited concept. And I think museums can be places for creative thinking in ways we don’t normally expect. In the most basic way, this will be like what artists do in their studios: this will be a place to make things.”

The incubator will occupy 8,000 square feet on one floor of the building, which many years ago provided cheap downtown studio space for prominent artists like James Rosenquist, Robert Indiana and Tom Wesselmann.

It will consist of desk space with conference rooms, screening rooms and workshops, and will feature regular classes and lectures by artists and outside experts. One floor above, the museum will build artists’ studios, and it hopes as many as 10 of the incubator members will be visual artists. The museum has not yet figured out how much it will charge participants but says the fee will be relatively low and intended only to help the incubator pay its expenses.

In addition to the participants, the space will also be the new home of Studio-X, an urban research lab with sites in several countries, created in 2008 by the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University. Mark Wigley, the graduate school’s dean, said he was interested in moving Studio-X from its current Manhattan location, a building on Varick Street filled with architectural firms, because the idea of being connected to a contemporary art museum, particularly the New Museum, appealed to him.

“All the gestures of the classical museum treat art as an essentially fragile thing that needs to be withdrawn from the world to be protected,” Mr. Wigley said in an interview. But the New Museum — which in 2011 founded the Ideas City Festival, a conference to encourage urban innovation — has been actively exploring ways in which “protection of culture means engagement — and that’s a very urban idea.”

“It’s like a museum getting outside of its own skin,” he added, “but in my view a museum becomes more of a museum by doing that.”

Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, which has awarded the incubator a $200,000 grant, said the idea appealed to the foundation in part because “we’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

“It’s not something that’s going to appeal to every museum,” Mr. Walker said. “But I also don’t think all museums need to be the Modern or the Met.”

Whether ideas cooked up in the incubator might end up generating art to be shown in the museum’s galleries is not clear, nor is which types of artists and designers will end up being attracted to a museum-supported incubator. (The museum is not yet taking applications.)

But they might be people like Dong Ping Wong, a designer. His New York firm, Family, has attracted attention lately for its role in a proposal to build a floating public swimming pool in the East River that would filter and use half a million gallons of river water a day — allowing people, in essence, to swim safely in a city river for the first time in generations. Mr. Wong and the project’s other creators raised $273,000 through Kickstarter this summer to create a small prototype of the pool, but they are still a long way from seeing the pool built.

Of the incubator, Mr. Wong said: “I think museums wanting to be part of the act of creating things, not just showing things, could be a big shift. The atmosphere might be more about trying things out than about making money, which is the main focus at a lot of incubators.”

He added: “If you asked us right now, I think it’s something that we’d want to be a part of, if they’d have us.”