In pop culture the Art World is shorthand for “snobfest.” From Charlotte’s gallery in Sex and the City, to Marnie doing a horrible job as a gallerina in Season 1 of Girls, to the opening scene in Hellboy II—where auction attendees in black tie are slaughtered—anywhere that paintings are sold and sculptures admired is portrayed as a closed bastion of elite sophisticates.
Now, two women who come from that world are banking that people outside it are willing to pay to get in. Marlies Verhoeven and Daisy Peat, both formerly of Sotheby’s, have founded the Cultivist, which bills itself as “the world’s only art club offering uniquely privileged access to every aspect of the art world.”
For $2,500 a year, aspiring art-world participants will have membership access to 70 museums, including the MoMA, Met, Louvre, and Uffizi; VIP passes to art fairs such as Frieze and the Armory; and invitations to events organized by the club. During the opening week of the Venice Biennale, for instance, the Cultivist held a breakfast with the director of François Pinault’s Palazzo Grassi foundation and a dinner with the artist Emily Young. The performance artist Marina Abramovic is a member, as is the artist Rashid Johnson.
The museum membership aspect is a little gratuitous—many museums in Europe are free, and only the most jittery of art lovers would need to spend $2,500 to always skip the ticket line—which means the real hook is access to a world where all women wear black, murmur rather than talk, and use the word “powerful” unironically in front of large abstract paintings.
OK, we’re being cheeky. But in some respects, those stereotypes are deserved, and we understand that intimidation factor. Many invitation-only art-world parties and dinners are indeed insular and full of pretty young things; some gallery openings are wholly closed affairs; and people do dress up for the contemporary evening auctions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s (although those people are mostly auction house employees rather than buyers). And yes, museum galas are absolutely an opportunity for patrons to break out their ballgowns.
It’s important to remember, however, that all of these events—the VIP hours at art fairs, the gallery dinners, the museum parties—exist solely to get people to spend (more) money. Galleries throw dinners for clients to meet their artists; museums host benefits so that patrons donate money; and art fairs have VIP hours so collectors can spend money unimpeded.
Thus, the art world is “exclusive” only in the sense that people who are not there to spend money, or to facilitate the spending of money, are not invited. This is culture as commerce. No one would call a machine-parts trade show exclusive, for example, even though the only people invited are in the industry. Art fairs, despite their exterior trappings, are no different. If you can afford it, you’re in.
And that brings us back to the Cultivist and its premise that you can buy your way into the art world for several thousand dollars a year, which is true but also a little off the mark: If the art world is wide open for anyone willing to spend money, and you’re already willing to spend it—congratulations!—you’re already a member of the club. It’s the people without $2,500 to shell out for lunch invitations to whom the doors to (most of) the art world remain firmly, irrevocably shut.
The founders of the Cultivist surely know this, because they also advertise the “personal service” and “news and insights” benefits to membership, saying that they will “bring you insider insight, along with our expert curatorial guidance and advice.” In other words, they’re not just providing access—they’re also offering a handholding service for those who are too busy to hustle their way through the doors themselves.
And that makes sense, to a point: If you’re new to the art world and used to getting what you want, a constant stream of private event invites might be worth $2,500. Moreover, the benefits advertised by the Cultivist are remarkably similar to what (much more expensive) art advisers offer, and in that respect, the Cultivist might yet be a great deal. If you’re looking for an invite to the next Frieze fair, however, here’s an insider tip: Just walk into a gallery and buy some art.