Silicon Values

Addie Wagenknecht in Deep Lab’s performance Permission to Fail, 2015, pigment, drones, smoke bombs, and canvas; at the New Museum, New York. Photo Peter Kaiser.


Hosting an incubator for creative start-ups, the New Museum has embraced the age of the entrepreneur.

In a 1953 profile of Alfred H. Barr Jr., Dwight Macdonald used an economic metaphor to explain the position of the young Museum of Modern Art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA’s older and more established uptown rival, boasted an endowment of $62 million and was funded in part by the city of New York. MoMA, on the other hand, had barely any endowment to speak of, and covered its own operating expenses. “The former is thus in the position of a rentier, living on income from capital,” Macdonald wrote, “while the latter is an entrepreneur, dependent on its own exertions.” MoMA’s economic situation impelled it to pursue a program of a “dramatic, enterprising, and multifarious” character, one quite unlike that of any other museum of its time. 1  

The word entrepreneur has come a long way since 1953. Now it extends beyond the industrious spirit that characterized MoMA’s early leadership. In 2016, the image of the entrepreneur has been redefined by Silicon Valley’s culture of disruptive innovation. An appetite for risk and a thirst for independence just won’t cut it anymore. Today’s entrepreneur uses new technology not just to beat the competition but to destroy it, and justifies that destruction with a utopian faith in technocratic progress. Historian and critic Jill Lepore compares the situation to asymmetrical warfare, with twentieth-century corporations as nation-states and start-ups as stateless insurgents. “Disruptive innovation,” she writes, “is competitive strategy for an age seized by terror.” 2  

The zeal for disruption grips nonprofit boardrooms as well as corporate ones. Some arts institutions have taken this to its logical conclusion. Anxious about their place in the world, museums that once relied on existing reserves of cultural capital have succumbed, proposing the new mythic entrepreneur as a response to the precarity of the institution. Suddenly, the entrepreneur seems to promise more than the artist. 

Enter New Inc, the first-ever museum-led incubator for creative entrepreneurs. New York’s New Museum launched New Inc in the summer of 2014, touting it in a press release as an experimental center for “new modes of cultural production.” In the same release, New Museum director Lisa Phillips and deputy director Karen Wong described New Inc as a place for creative start-ups and a “lab-like environment” for “the pursuit of innovation” in art, design, and technology. 

As the founders note in the FAQ section of New Inc’s website, the center is “positioned somewhere between a business incubator and an artist residency program” for projects that “don’t neatly fit either model.” Wong further explained in a recent magazine article, “museums in the twenty-first century have to understand how to be more relevant.” 3  Julia Kaganskiy, the director of New Inc, finds the solution to this problem in addressing the plight of the cultural entrepreneur. The call for applications makes the appeal: “the professional landscape in which they work is still undefined, and few resources and systems exist to support these enterprises.” 

The New Museum hosts New Inc on the second floor of 231 Bowery, an adjacent building that the museum acquired in 2008 that will house expanded exhibition and office space upon completion of an $80-million development project announced in May. The Brooklyn-based architecture firm SO-IL transformed the eleven-thousand-square-foot space into a sleek open office lined with whiteboards, evocative of the interior of a tech start-up. About a hundred members, selected through an application process, rent desk space here for a monthly fee of $600 ($350 for part-timers) over a twelve-month period. In addition to sixty desks, New Inc provides a prototyping lab where engineers can test product designs, a community workbench to facilitate collaborative projects and skill sharing, a high-speed internet connection, and several 3D printers. 

Even in the incubator’s first year of operation, these amenities drew an impressive roster of members. Paul Soulellis is an artist and designer whose serial almanac, Printed Web, archives online art projects in book form. The feminist research collective Deep Lab produces talks, publications, and performances that engage critically with contemporary digital culture. Rafaël Rozendaal is a Dutch artist known for his single-serving websites with colorful interactive animations that garner millions of hits and are sold as public art. Slava Balasanov and Analisa Teachworth founded 4Real, a creative agency and interactive design studio. Its popular web-app CloneZone, which lets anyone customize and publish their own parodic version of a webpage, has earned its fair share of cease and desist orders. 

New Inc’s member list reads much like the programming schedule from its host institution—an experimental non-collecting museum whose website declares a commitment to “new art, new ideas.” Yet New Inc recasts the New Museum’s mission in the Silicon Valley jargon of “innovation.” While they foster entrepreneurs, New Inc and the New Museum are nonprofits, and they do not make direct investments in New Inc members. That means the day-to-day administration is more like that of a co-working space than that of a profit-seeking incubator. This left many in the art-and-technology community perplexed. Why did the New Museum choose such a charged term?


SIMPLY DEFINED, an incubator is a means of supporting start-ups, or early-stage companies with high growth potential that tend to deal in software, which has a low cost of entry and can rapidly reach a global market. But office space is still as costly as ever, and savvy investors saw an opportunity. Incubators pool together brick-and-mortar resources and rent them out in exchange for a portion of the tenant company’s equity. Since 2005, Y Combinator, an especially prominent incubator, has put small sums (typically less than $150,000) into companies such as AirBnB, Stripe, and Dropbox. Those injections have appreciated by leaps and bounds. Today the combined valuation of Y Combinator’s well-timed investments stands at around $65 billion.

But sexy stories of the big winners drown out the fates of the many losers. The hype surrounding the start-up economy conveniently ignores the fact that nine out of ten start-ups fail, consigning millions of dollars and countless hours of work to the dustbin of history. Even as the overwhelming majority of their resident start-ups fail, incubators have made a small group of investors very, very rich. Such is the impact of a model where rapid exploitation is meted out in an asymmetrical all-or-nothing game. 

Investors love the speed at which the incubator can launch new ideas. Their temporary arrangements are an ideal fit for the already precarious labor behind high-risk, high-growth ventures. Federal and local governments, public colleges and universities, and even the New Republic, the once august magazine of politics and culture, have created incubators or venture capital funds for themselves as an alternative means of generating new tools and revenue.  

The New Republic Fund, established shortly after Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes purchased the magazine in 2012, was meant to address the increasingly gloomy revenue projections for independent, long-form journalism. The initiative wasn’t just about deal-making. It was an exchange of cultural capital. The tech mogul’s aspirations to save an old institution with a new economic strategy helped advance the prevailing wisdom that digital disruption can solve society’s most intractable problems. Hughes failed, 4  but not before his high-tech salvation narrative helped create an environment in which the announcement of New Inc was cheered. Celebratory coverage in the Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, and Forbes parroted the feel-good tropes of Silicon Valley, speculating that scrappy innovators might shake the museum from its aloof, Luddite obsolescence. “How the New Museum’s Lisa Phillips Is Making Entrepreneurship into an Art Form,” exclaimed a headline on the blog Fast Company. 5  But these articles glossed over the crucial fact that the New Museum’s “incubator” had no more in common with entrepreneurship than a co-working space. There were only a few skeptical assassments of New Inc’s uncritical use of the language of venture capital. 6  In any case, New Inc is less an experimentation in institutional practice than a tweaking of institutional identity, one that brings the museum squarely in line with the new age of the entrepreneur. 

For all the perceived novelty of New Inc, its promotional materials invoke the rich history of institutional programs fostering collaboration among artists and engineers. In October 1966 Billy Klüver, Robert Rauschenberg, Fred Waldhauer, and Robert Whitman held “9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering,” a series of presentations that featured thirty engineers and ten artists performing together in various combinations at New York’s 69th Regiment Armory. A month later the group would form Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.). Most of the engineers involved, including Klüver, came from Bell Labs, which had established itself as a corporate center for creativity. 

From 1967 to 1971, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art ran an Art and Technology program that paired artists with technology companies in Southern California. LACMA’s lab was the pet project of curator Maurice Tuchman, who set out “to bring together the incredible resources and advanced technology of industry with the equally incredible imagination and talent of the best artists at work today.” 7

The E.A.T. and LACMA projects were brief episodes, and certainly not the only initiatives of their kind. But their particular mold has been resurrected and referenced by arts institutions grappling with the implications of networked art and a newly ascendant Silicon Valley culture. In 2013, LACMA announced it would revive the program with support from Google, Accenture, NVIDIA, and other companies. Now called the Art + Technology Lab, it offers artists grants, residencies, and opportunities to consult advisers from tech companies.

In 2010 Rhizome, the nonprofit art-and-technology organization that has been a New Museum affiliate since 2003 and is now an anchor tenant at New Inc, launched the Seven on Seven conference, a two-day event at the New Museum staging collaborations between artists and engineers. If early art-and-technology projects had a utopian, future-oriented quality, Seven on Seven draws its ethos from the recent phenomenon of the hackathon, an all-night, caffeine-fueled sprint in which software developers put together a minimum viable product. 8  Some of the results resemble performances. Others are bold conceptual gestures. But few ever evolve into something that lives beyond the conference.

A rare exception to the rule was Monegraph, conceived at Seven on Seven in 2014 by artist Kevin McCoy and entrepreneur Anil Dash. It’s an application that uses a public ledger known as blockchain to register authorship for digital works of art. When the idea took off, McCoy turned it into a full-service consumer product available on desktop and mobile devices. What began as little more than a jam session between an artist and an entrepreneur grew into a venture-backed enterprise. Today, the eleven employees of Monegraph work full-time at New Inc to develop the product. 

The discourse around art and technology wasn’t always so cozy with products. A product is different from a technical breakthrough, because it requires greater concern with market performance and usability than with the borders of scientific knowledge. E.A.T. was designed to expose artists to the potentially illuminating creative potential of a nascent class of technologists who too often toiled in the obscurity of industry silos, and vice versa. The transition from radical tinkerer to corporate boardroom occurred as technological breakthroughs became eclipsed by a focus on the end user. Likewise, the early utopian promise of digital technology was foreclosed by app interfaces and formats that standardize the user experience. Today, Silicon Valley doesn’t push the limits of technological innovation so much as it launches successful services that rely on extant information technology. The 1960s lab provided a metaphorical model for the art-and-technology programs that grew out of it. But the lab is not quite the same thing as the start-up incubator, which is less concerned with engineering than it is with creating value for investors.


IN JULY 2015, New Inc threw a Demo Day at Red Bull Studios in New York to showcase member projects. Part trade show, part immersive installation, the event was a Gesamtkunstwerk of creative entrepreneurship. One crowd-pleaser was LUMA, an interactive light sculpture by Lisa Park and Kevin Siwoff. A number of fluffy orbs formed from bundles of fiber-optic strands hung from the ceiling, the level of light changing in response to sound picked up by a central microphone. The artists compared the responsive rippling effect of the light to touching water inhabited by bioluminescent plankton. The Principals and Studio Studio, two experiential design groups that make art installations and immersive brand experiences, collaborated on Snowblind, another visitor favorite. The work filled an enclosed space with vapor clouds shot through with colored lights. Sensors tracked visitors’ movements, triggering playful manipulations of the color gradient of the clouds. The result was a foggy bliss combining the organic formlessness of steam and exacting adjustments of light and color levels. 

The event at Red Bull Studios came with an art museum’s imprimatur, but the work sought sponsors, not reflection. An ideal outcome would be a company like Nike contracting the team behind LUMA for an installation at a corporate event. The Demo Day was a fitting display of the world envisioned by New Inc, where creativity is manifested not in artworks produced for the museum’s public but in start-ups, apps, or hardware installations designed to serve a clamoring market of investors and consumers. 9  It was a peek into a possible future: the museum as a studio for branded content. 

Separating art, creativity, and patronage is no doubt a historically tricky undertaking, but recent interventions by Silicon Valley thought leaders have helped redefine the boundaries of all three components. One of the clearest distinctions was made by none other than John Maeda, a member of New Inc’s advisory council and partner of the venture capital giant Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers. In Wired, Maeda (who had a brief, embattled tenure as president of the Rhode Island School of Design) argued poignantly for art’s special status. Artists, he said, don’t propose solutions but ask questions. They are after truth. “The questions that artists make are often enigmatic, answering a why with another why.” 10  

At first, Maeda’s defense of art for art’s sake seems curiously at odds with Silicon Valley’s fusion of art, technology, and corporate brands. But Maeda builds his idea into a significant position regarding the changing virtues of cultural institutions. Maeda is an advocate of STEAM, which proudly adds “Art” to “STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), shorthand for the sort of utilitarian education that Silicon Valley applauds. One of the goals of Maeda’s STEAM movement, announced on the website, is to encourage “employers to hire artists and designers to drive innovation.” “Successful Start-ups Cofounded by Designers Are Not Uncommon,” proclaims a headline from Maeda’s influential “Design in Tech” report. 11  Such is the peril of New Inc’s foundational principle. When New Inc says in its mission statement that it supports creative entrepreneurs, it’s speaking to a Silicon Valley mind-set that regards art and creativity as means for making better products. 

New Inc’s choice to cater to the model of the “creative entrepreneur” does more than perpetuate a myth; it’s a cynical twist on the state of arts institutions. “We’re seeing a trend of artists taking on for-profit practices because the nonprofit world is really not sustainable,” Julia Kaganskiy told the Wall Street Journal. 12  But consider what happens when institutional retrenchment gives rise to an incubator format built specifically for cultural production that comes with a balance sheet.

An incubator is a provisional arrangement. While it offers a layer of insulation for a short time, it still facilitates—and intentionally accelerates—a harsh natural selection. It bakes you in market fear. You’re kept warm only because you’re expected to hatch. The incubator rewards the kind of ingenuity and intelligence that yields demos, prototypes, and flashy pitch decks. Its pace is a sprint. It generates populism with hype, it defines discourse with marketing slogans. Most crucially, the audience is not the public, but investors. 

Rather than directly funding initiatives that value cultural production on its own terms, the museum incubator privileges a private-sector model formed around the logic that the best solutions are motivated by financial incentives. If cultural institutions are losing a competition against technological advancements from the private sector (already a questionable premise), the museum-led incubator only further advances this one-sided game by appropriating vocabulary from Silicon Valley’s peculiar brand of libertarianism. 

The alliance among Silicon Valley thought leaders and arts institutions could generate a productive new space without impinging on the mission of its host institution. And New Inc, even with its TED Talk rhetoric, might be interpreted as an attempt to reclaim the incubator format from the world of investors and repurpose it for a cultural institution’s own specific needs. But such a reclamation cannot proceed without implicitly shifting the delicate balance in the social function of the museum, an institutional value system that asks for a humanist leap of faith that Silicon Valley seems unwilling or unable to make. Alfred Barr’s MoMA was innovative, even entrepreneurial, as Dwight Macdonald characterized it. But his maneuvers renewed the museum’s form by foregrounding exhibitions and stagecraft. He didn’t pivot away from the defining mission of a cultural institution. The artist remained central. 

The art institution cannot help but communicate the nature of its cultural moment. Our much-celebrated regime of digital innovation has also brought about tremendous disintegration. As opportunity abounds, so does competition. An increasingly large number of people are self-employed, which is to say desperate and scrambling. They are liberated from institutions, but protected by none. Precarity is repackaged as a lifestyle choice for scrappy and energetic youths, romantic images of whom are ripped straight from the Horatio Alger tales of our new Silicon Valley titans. But there’s not much choice at all. Artists, writers, curators, performers, and everyone else under the new umbrella of “creatives” have never been so forced to rely on their own exertions.

When it comes to shaping social expectations of art, the words we use to explain what a museum does are often more powerful than the work on display. When the New Museum launches an “incubator” at a moment when technology platforms aim for nothing less than the colonization of everyday life it should give us pause. Even a seemingly innocuous rhetorical move may influence an institution’s capacity for criticality and its status as a place for contemplation and memory. Museums innovate at their own risk.


Mike Pepi is a writer based in New York.