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At a tiny little underground art gallery in the East Village, photographer Duane Michals has enraptured his audience. A diminutive man with bushy eyebrows and wisps of gray hair that float like cumuli around his otherwise bald cranium, the octogenarian is livelier than most folks a fraction of his age. He spins yarns about his childhood in Pittsburgh, recites poems from memory, tells bawdy jokes, and waxes philosophical about his life in general.
"The great revenge on death is a sense of humor," Michals tells the two dozen people gathered around a table scattered with rare photography books from his personal library. "It will carry you through all sorts of pain and suffering."
He talks for an hour, fielding questions about his formative years photographing the Soviet Union in 1958, his evocative use of text with photos, his disregard for all things digital. Afterward, people buzzed on Champagne linger and reflect. It's a mix of twentysomething musicians and artists, a few guys buttoned down in expensive-looking suits, and a couple of middle-age art nerds freaking out at the intimate access to Michals, a legend in art and fashion photography.
For many years, that scene from an autumn evening might have unfolded only at a private party or exclusive reception for tastemakers. Over the past year, however, a Brooklyn start-up has been creating similar gatherings for the paying public at dozens of pop-up venues across New York. The company is called Gertrude, and the events are branded as "salons," in homage to Gertrude Stein and her famed Saturday evening congregations in Paris with Hemingway, Picasso, Matisse, and other titans of modern art and literature.
Conceived in late 2012 by a 26-year-old Frenchman named Kenneth Schlenker, the company aims to redefine how art is consumed and commercialized in the Internet era. Under Schlenker, a former product marketing manager at Google, Gertrude has grown from an email newsletter published from a cramped room inside a produce factory in Bushwick to a sleek website headquartered inside a brand-new office building in Williamsburg. The outfit now hosts multiple salons weekly in Brooklyn and Manhattan, with ticket prices ranging from $10 to $1,000 or more (though usually in the $25–$50 range).
"So much of art is the process and the creative thinking, but so much of the value is the visual product that is created," Schlenker says. "What we've done, or what we're trying to do, is create a platform for the art experience to happen. I see the art market as a pyramid. At the very tip is the transaction: this painting you buy and put up on your wall. What's below that is the creative process, the education, and the access to the artist."
Schlenker says he developed the idea shortly after he transferred from Google's Paris office to New York, where he studied how consumers reacted to products like Google Maps and helped devise improvements based on the feedback. His conversations with art-minded friends often turned to start-ups like Artsy (a cross between Etsy and Amazon, aimed at art enthusiasts) and how they were failing to capitalize on the growing appetite of consumers for experiences over possessions.
The music industry is the most obvious example of the trend. While album sales have plummeted over the past decade, concerts are more popular than ever and have remained a steady stream of income for musicians. Festivals, particularly mega-events like Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, and Sasquatch, have expanded to multi-weekend affairs, and even a cruise to the Bahamas and Jamaica in the case of the S.S. Coachella. The difference with art is that, with a few exceptions, it is rare for the audience to watch the artist in action or hear them speak in person.
"Our notions of value have changed," Schlenker says. "It used to be, 'This is my car, my bike, my watch' — whatever. Today it is, 'I was there at this place at this time.' Galleries and auction houses are slowly realizing they can't focus solely on transactions any more. They're missing out on people 40 and below who want an experience."
The Gertrude "salon" concept is a riff on Sofar Sounds, a concert networking service that connects established bands and musicians with people willing to stage a show in their living room. Sounding a lot like Gertrude, the Sofar Sounds site says it "curates secret, intimate gigs in living rooms around the world" and gives fans "a unique and magical concert experience." Schlenker's site also borrows heavily from meetup.com, with a similar web design and sign-up process for new users, though Gertrude's is sprinkled with French pleasantries like "bonjour" and "amicalement."
What's more unusual is Gertrude's network of "curators": producers who book venues, recruit artists or speakers, and steer the hour-long conversations. According to Schlenker, curators typically pocket 75 percent of ticket revenue. They can split their cut with the artists, who are otherwise involved only for — that dreaded word — "exposure."
"The opportunity for artists to tell their story," Schlenker says, "is in many ways more powerful than an exhibition."
Gertrude has been so inundated with inquiries from would-be curators that the company is considering hosting salons in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle this year. The promise of expansion and profit (with ads and sponsored events potentially supplementing ticket sales in the future) has attracted interest from a variety of venture-capital groups. Gertrude is financed partly by Prehype, whose major clients include Coca-Cola, Intel, and Lego. Schlenker says he turned away several early investment offers because it "would have pushed things way too fast," but he says the company recently obtained additional financing from "individuals who are all entrepreneurs or collectors linked to the tech community."