Gertrude opens its private artist salons to the world as art shifts toward experiences

By Erin Griffith , written on October 16, 2013

From The News Desk

There's a certain magic that comes with attending an exclusive, invite-only art salon. A crowd of important people who are probably filthy rich gather in a glittery room punctuated with random works of art. Champagne is served, a curator describes the pieces, and the artist jumps in to add his two cents. We laugh, we ask questions, we share our our interpretations of his work with the artist. There is a good chance someone will buy one of the pieces on display tonight.

That elite magic was apparent all the way back in 1920s Paris, when an invite to one of Gertrude Stein's famous salons was a "sought-after validation."

Gertrude, a startup in New York, has been paying homage to the Stein salons for the past year by hosting small gatherings focused around a single artist. Each event, of which 14 have taken place, features a curator, an artist who shows ten pieces, and an elite guest list. Taking place in secret venues such as art collectors' penthouses, hotels, artist studios and even a church, each salon is purposely capped at around 40 attendees.

Founded by an ex-Google employee, Gertrude is an unlikely mixing of tech and art, two worlds that typically clash, if you ask the New York Times. Earlier this year, the Times lamented that software millionaires were not buying art.

But though software engineers and art dealers may pass one another on the High Line, the worlds they inhabit could not be less alike; parallel universes that rarely intersect.
Why do techies opt out of art collecting? Well, the Times explains, the art world is too cliquey. There is a natural barrier to art, an art advisor said. Tech guys are introverts and don't want to schmooze at gallery openings, offered a VC. Start-up culture's utopian transparency and meritocratic ideals are no match for the exclusivity of the art world, the writer concluded. Hoodies and snowboarders not welcome.

By that rationale, the Gertrude salons are equally as snobby, with their curated, invite-only guest lists. It's a little surprising, coming from a tech-inclined founder who is surely "more keen on trips to Tahoe than the Tate." Speaking of that, why was there a guy wearing Google Glass at the salon I attended? And while I'm at it, why was a tech blogger like me invited in the first place?

Turns out the answer is fairly obvious. Gertrude is becoming a tech platform.

After 11 months in private beta, the site's founders have opened Gertrude up to the world. As of today, any person can sign up to purchase tickets to a Gertrude salon, and any curator can sign up to host a Gertrude salon with any artist of their choosing. While only 15 Gertrude experiences for New York are live now, the site has curators and artists lined up in a number of other cities and will open them based on audience demand. The company launches with an undisclosed amount of seed funding from Henrik Werdelin of Prehype, Joanne Wilson, Alex Zubillaga, Martin Mignot of Index Ventures, Emre Kurttepeli, and Emma Fizsman from DDF Ventures.

Founder Kenneth Schlenker says that Gertrude is not so much about making art accessible to more people (ahem, techies), but it's also about making art into a digestible experience rather than a static item you buy and bring home. That's the way the art world is moving, he says, comparing it to the music industry's shift from record sales to live performance income. Look at the most talked-about exhibits in New York recent years: The immersive Rain Room at MoMA. Marina Abramovic's The Artist Is Present at MoMA. Tilda Swinton's The Maybe at MoMA Jay-Z's Picasso Baby at the Pace Gallery. James Turrell's Aten Reign at the Guggenheim.

"It goes beyond Rain Room or James Turrell," Schlenker says. "There's nothing you could buy and bring back home, it's about being there in this moment and the context around it." This is why Gertrude isn't focusing on selling works of art, either. If a piece sells, that's great, and the site will eventually add the transactional capabilities to its platform. (The salons facilitated $160,000 worth of art sales in its first two months.) But the core of Gertrude will be about the educating people and building excitement around art through the salons. "There are infinite occasions to learn and discuss," he says.

As Gertrude grows, it will maintain its special magic by keeping the salons small and intimate. Tickets cost anywhere from $40 to $175 or higher and prices are set by the curators, who also bring in the artist and take home the majority of the ticket proceeds. It's a way for both the artist and curators to build a name for themselves without the overhead of the galleries.

Schlenker understands that Gertrude needs to tread lightly as it dives head-first into the art world. As plenty of music startups learned the hard way, radical, mercenary disruption of a tight-knit industry is a guaranteed way to ensure your startup will fail. To be taken seriously in the art industry, Gertrude had to earn trust and respect from the industry. That's why a startup founded by a Google engineer launched first as a small, exclusive club, and only partnering with top artists and galleries.

Now the challenge is to maintain that reputation as Gertrude grows into a scalable tech platform that welcomes everybody, hoodies be damned.

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