What’s Actually Incubating at the New Museum’s Tech Incubator?

Julia Kaganskiy.

On a recent Saturday night, an "incubator-warming” party was held for New INC, the New Museum's mimic of a start-up hub for art, tech, and design. Amid angular Knoll and Vitra furniture alongside whiteboard wallpaper, members who pay between $350 and $600 a month (part-time and full-time, respectively) sipped on sponsored vodka-cognac cocktails mixed with Club-Mate. "This is what all the hackers in Berlin drink," explained Gabe Liberti of Studio Indefinit, which develops sound installations, while waiting in line at the bar. "That was all about yesterday," he offered, "and this is tomorrow."

Tomorrow at New INC, housed on the second floor of a building wedged between the museum and the Bowery Mission, means a lot of things: 4Real's artist-designed web experiences for everyone from indie musicians to corporations such as Comcast; or Reify’s sculptural objects that can be downloaded as prerecorded sound (we can’t wait for the Fashion Week invites!). More than half of the 60-plus members listed on New INC's website identify as artists, while the space's internal programming almost entirely focuses on entrepreneurial savvy. It comes as no surprise that brands are lining up to get involved. But is there a danger in artists seeking that kind of validation for the sake of drumming up business? After the party — on the office's brand-new nap-friendly couches — we spoke with the director Julia Kaganskiy, 28, about this and what it's like inside the up-and-running incubator.

In one sentence, what does New INC do?
New INC is the first museum-led incubator for creative practitioners and creative entrepreneurs working at the intersection of art, design, and technology.

What is the difference between the two?
Cultural practitioners, that's our artists and designers. They're usually sole practitioners trying to build their own careers. The cultural entrepreneurs are either studios who are interdisciplinary teams that may be working on anything from interactive architectural installations to creative web experiences, or start-ups that are working on a product. A lot of these folks are working on a path that more closely resembles start-ups at other incubators, so they're raising a seed round, figuring out their investment strategy; they have a pitch deck.The cultural entrepreneurs are either studios who are interdisciplinary teams that may be working on anything from interactive architectural installations to creative web experiences, or start-ups that are working on a product.

And what do you do on an average day here?
My day-to-day is a mixture of working with members, connecting them with each other and to news sources, maybe trying to figure out a PR strategy. If they're having a legal question I can pull a legal adviser, or if they're having a technical challenge, I can connect them with other members who can workshop their ideas. Also, connecting them with space to show or fabricate their ideas, coordinating lectures, workshops, and also encouraging skill shares and partnerships. We're new; we're figuring out how we collaborate with other organizations and institutions. There's been a lot of inbound interest in this program, and so much of this first year is about making very strong strategic strides toward mapping out our long-term structure and establishing our brand identity.

As much as you could say, what is that brand identity now?
I don't know, it's still … it's hard to say from inside. What we'd like to be known for is a space that brings together visionary creative thinkers who are working at this forefront of culture and technology and are investigating new models both for creative practice and also for business practice.

You told me New INC is a start-up for start-ups. What do you mean by that exactly?
We are two months old. To my knowledge, nobody's ever done a program exactly like this. We've spent a lot of time researching other models and are attempting to put our own spin on what this should be, and have that be informed by the people in the community we're working with, the context of being in New York, being on the Bowery, being at the New Museum, and also a particular type of tech landscape that New York City affords.

We're figuring things out and people are excited to contribute to the creation of something. So yeah, we're a start-up. We were lucky enough to have a board of trustees at the museum and partners who are helping to build out this mission, but the model of New INC is an experiment for us, too, in a self-sustaining model, that's why we charge membership fees that go to cover our operating expenses, so we're bootstrapping in a lot of ways.

I was going to ask, too, about how money comes into the equation, especially when there are people here who are paying. Usually at an incubator part of that arrangement is getting connected with VCs, et cetera. Will you do that?
Several VCs are on our advisory council — Andy Weissman and John Maeda have come in and done lectures and had one-on-ones where they talk to people in the space about their business model. They're not necessarily going to invest ... and, in fact, as advisers it would be a conflict of interest for them to invest. We are going to do our first Demo Day in January.

I think at this point we're taking more of a hands-off approach in terms of facilitating those connections. We're much more interested in educating our community about what it means to take investment, and what valuation and equity structures look like. Last Monday we had a session with WilmerHale, our legal partner. I think we'll dig into that topic even more, because there was so much interest. It's almost like a dark art to a certain extent, like, there is no real science or formula to why something is worth a certain amount.

I talked to people at the party about VC funding, people doing art projects with Brooks Brothers, Comcast, other big companies. I guess I would say: Is that an ideal outcome? On the artist side, we're moving into a period where that's more and more the norm. How do you make sense of that?
Interest from brands and corporations in culture has really, I'd say, exploded in the past few years, especially at this intersection of art and technology where you have tech companies who are looking at this new breed of technologically proficient creatives coming out, and saying, "We'd love to work with you. Here's our product. Can you do something interesting?" A lot of artists, designers, and studios who were taking on this type of work maybe aren't well equipped to enter into those types of conversations. There's this whole group of people who need that support to talk to the Comcasts and Brooks Brothers and the Googles of the world.

Right, it's a no-brainer that if you're a designer or you make a really amazing piece of technology that you want to be able to have those kinds of conversations. But obviously for artists, for the goal to be to do that, might not be seen as a good thing. Or is it inevitable? What is the standpoint of New INC on that?
I don't know that I have a clear-cut answer. So first of all, as far as New INC goes, the majority of people envisioning collaborations with brands now are more in the design category than the art category, let's make that distinction first and foremost. That said, out there in the world artists are getting into bed with corporations all the time. That is something that has been going on for decades and, to a certain extent, centuries. And I think if done in the right way, if structured in the right way, it is not a bad thing. Frankly, I would much rather see a brand genuinely invest in art production than I would have them spend millions of dollars on a 30-second Super Bowl spot.

You were saying about the inbound interest, and other museums may be interested in doing this now. Can you talk about that?
With New INC, we are very clearly tapping into something that's part of the Zeitgeist. It's something that maybe other institutions were aware of but because we're doing it first it gives them permission to do it. A bigger institution might not be able to be as nimble, to be as comfortable with experimentation and failure.

There was DevArt at the Barbican, but that didn't go so well —
I don't think that program at all relates to what we're doing.

— in terms of that was an example of museums trying to engage the tech world where people saw it as being sort in the interest of trendiness, or Zeitgeist for the purpose of Zeitgeist. The DevArt part of it.
The problem with the DevArt part of it wasn't that the institution was trying to be trendy: The partnership wasn't incredibly well structured, and the language that was used to present that project was one of the most problematic aspects of it. They created this new term and tried to position Google as the creators and benefactors of this new breed of artist that works with code. The people who had issues with that pointed out that artists have been working with code since the 1960s, and they felt that this was an instance of a brand co-opting and not acknowledging the legacy of this artistic output, for a marketing campaign essentially. I really don't think it has anything to do with what we're doing here.

Do you think that's a danger if more institutions are trying to do this kind of work?
Absolutely. That's one of the things we're trying to think about: What are the boundaries? There's interest, people are working with brands, but we're not the ones facilitating those connections. Until we figure out a way to do that in the right way, we won't be.

On the other side of that, I've noticed a lot of people here are engaging with the museum itself. Print All Over Me is in the window, a lot of other members have projects. It's not their brand, exactly, but it's their platform.
It's a real-life environment to test out ideas, and what I'm hoping to do is to deepen and further those connections over time. We've been bringing in curators to do critiques. We could also do some kind of visitor services experience with an app.

One area of research that's kind of organically developed from the community is virtual reality. You can imagine once the platform has more robust application and adoption, you could have a virtual exhibition, and we have that here now.

The most obvious link right now seems that a couple of people have something for sale in the bookstore and gift shop, or in the window. Can you talk about that?
It's a natural platform for us, especially since a lot of people here have a product, be they artists or designers. One of the members has a publication that's carried in the store, it's called the Printed Web. Print All Over Me did a dress where Chris Ofili designed a print and it was used to create these limited-edition silk dresses that are being sold in the store. Separate from that, they are also doing a window installation. The Principals are doing a collaboration with our memberships department, so they created this limited-edition pinwheel as an artist-designed gift for members. It's exciting to see so much interest from the museum as well and how they can activate this community.

This interview has been edited and condensed.