Opinion

The Problems with an Exclusive Club that Grants “Membership” to the Art World

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The Cultivist’s membership page (screenshot by Hyperallergic via The Cultivist)

A new, savvy strategy for marketing the modern and contemporary art scene has appeared. It is based on creating a select (international) membership that provides exclusive access to art events and exhibitions under the guidance of cultured handlers. Recently, for the Financial Times, Emma Crichton-Miller profiled The Cultivist, which Crichton-Miller describes as “the first global arts club” in an article that essentially promotes the club’s launch. The profile clearly, but subtly, imparts the key benefits of The Cultivist: ease, intimacy, and exclusivity.

The Cultivist promises members “bespoke access to the art world,” and more. Members will obtain a unique membership card, featuring an artist-drawn portrait, and this card will enable members to skip over the line of hoi-polloi at 100 museums and galleries worldwide, including the Metropolitan Museum, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Tate, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and Uffizi. Additionally, members should have “privileged access to all key global art fairs,” invitations to members-only events, exhibition viewings, and studio visits. With only one day’s notice, The Cultivist team can design a private art tour in a place of the member’s choice, such as museums.

The decisive magic of advertisements, as Roland Barthes points out in his “Rhetoric of the Image” essay, lies in their ability to bring together polar experiences in the constructed image of a product — for example, coffee being advertised as simultaneously stimulating and relaxing. Crichton-Miller’s article, which primarily functions as an advertisement, accomplishes this deft sleight-of-hand. She relates that there are “no qualifications for entry” and borrows the definition of a Cultivist member and Leighton House Curator Daniel Robbins, which is “openness to art and culture in all its forms” — eliding the rather crucial membership fees listed as $2,500 for US members, £1,900 for the United Kingdom, and €2,700 for the “rest of world.”

The Cultivist relies on the bourgeois fantasy that you may have a deep experience without doing the necessary preparatory work to achieve it. As the club indicates on its website in the “About” section: “The Cultivist makes your journey through art effortless and enriching. With a single card, you glide through museums, galleries and art fairs worldwide: no tickets, no bookings, no complications.” The key terms here are “effortless” and “enriching,” with the effortlessness echoed in the “glide” of the second sentence.

Art, however, is resistant to easy explication. Contemporary art in particular is often rewarding in almost direct proportion to the effort exerted to unpack its various and serried meanings. Even if older art forms were to be the primary items on the member’s menu — such as the palaces of neoclassical and classical figural sculpture like the Uffizi — there’s often a good deal of scholarship that must be mobilized to gain a fuller understanding of an artwork.

The images used in The Cultivist website are very telling. Under the “Membership” banner is an image of a poured, polished concrete floor of clean, modernist lines that telescopes towards a wash of electric light — as though the path The Cultivist has paved will lead to a heaven of enlightenment. While on the main and “About” pages is an image of a male painter (who appears to be the late Lucian Freud), visible from the knees down, wearing a spattered painter’s smock and facing an easel. Behind the painter can be seen the shoes of someone watching over the artist’s shoulder as the work is created — the member with a privileged view of a genius creation.

There are several problems with the premise of this club, but they can be summed up in this concise diagnosis: privileged, smug laziness. The Cultivist may be able to provide easy access, but it cannot provide the tools most crucial for achieving intimacy with an artist’s practice or the rapture of meaningful insight: patient attention and intellectual effort. Neither of these capacities can be purchased with a membership.

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