Last Friday, 40 people gathered at an apartment in lower Manhattan to take a look at a series of works by the artist Alexandra Posen. The pieces — colored wax on paper worked into abstract forms — sat informally against the window, and the group tossed out questions as Posen talked the group through her process.
This isn’t what you think of when someone says “tech startup.”
But a young company called Gertrude is hoping to change that, by turning art experiences into a commodity and becoming a worldwide meetup platform for art salons. It’s named for Gertrude Stein, whose salons drove art discussion in the 1920s.
Founded by ex-Googler Kenneth Schlenker, Gertrude has been hosting private meetups for the last year with curators ranging from the head curator of the Whitney Museum to well-known Chelsea gallerists, and today it opens its event listings to the public.
The site allows curators to post salon listings, which anyone can then peruse and join. The salons are meant to be an open atmosphere for discussion, and the curators might range from major gallerists to the art afficionado next door, although there is an application process to host.
There are a few rules: the salon lasts one hour, only 40 people may attend, and it is led by a curator who has hand-selected a range of ten pieces to discuss.
While other art-oriented startups like Art.sy, Artspace, and Paddle8 deal with the high-end commercial side of the industry, Gertrude is built on the idea that the experience of art is not only more scalable but also holds a wider appeal. Part social, part educational, Gertrude is a meetup platform for people to enjoy visual art at a low cost. And it’s monetizing on that experience.
Referencing the Rain Room that had visitors flocking to MoMA this summer and Jay-Z’s “Picasso Baby” performance at the Pace Gallery in New York, Schlenker posits that art, like music, is increasingly becoming a live, interactive experience.
“A lot of people wanted to create startups in the art world but missed out on the fact that it’s an experience, not a product,” Schlenker said.
Curators have the option to invite select guests before the event opens to the public, but the site requires that at least five slots be left open to prevent it from becoming too exclusive. The host sets the ticket price, which might range from $0 to $175 or $10,000.
Gertrude then takes cut of the sales, which varies based on the ticket price but on average sits at about 25%. If a work of art is sold through the salon, Gertrude takes a cut there as well, although it’s less than the 50% that most galleries take.
Because Schlenker’s strong point is technology, not art, Astrid de Maismont is a curator for Gertrude, bringing on board curators and art advisors.
In the coming months, Gertrude may add other event formats, including performances, private viewings, studio visits, and dinners with artists.
If the proposition comes off as simultaneously highbrow and plebian, that’s kind of the point. Down the line, the goal is to have the head curator of the Whitney showing well-established artists on the same day that someone in Bushwick shows works from their favorite local artists. While the art world has in many ways been built on opacity and exclusivity, major galleries and auction houses are beginning to realize that that model isn’t sustainable, Schlenker said. Whether big-name curators continue to gravitate to it in an effort to reach a broader audience remains to be seen — not that it’s inherently a good or bad thing.