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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.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...

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

  1. This seems a pretty lame concept. For about the same amount of money, joining your local or regional art museum at the patron level is a far more reasonable and productive way to gain access (and support your museum of choice). If there isn’t a local museum you feel is worthy of your support, then choose a museum you do admire and support them. Serious art museums are devoted to educating and inspiring their visitors and members, and the best of them take real care to support the engagement of their patron members (for all the right reasons.) Once listed as a patron you will soon get invitations to all the art fair and gallery previews you have time for. And museums frequently organize curator-lead group visits to biennales and other periodic exhibition projects. So, while I wish these folks good luck, I’d hope that people with the interest and the capacity to support the arts, will focus their support where they live.

  2. The idea that our art is somehow safely in the hand of collectors that are knowledgeable enough to really understand what they own, as if there is already a respected cultural tradition that this ‘vulgar’ little cultural short-cut is going to erode, is naive in itself. The art world is already fickle, already tossed around by people with more money than education, more interest in status than content. If you’ve ever watched an art-buying advisor in action, explaining how the ‘deeper’ meaning of piece guarantees it’s conversational importance and future value, you will know just how ‘bourgeois fantasy’ has been one of the economic engines behind the art world for some time, and no matter how ‘anti-borgeois’ the work looks.

  3. The author accuses the Cultivist of “privileged, smug laziness,” which is exactly how I would characterize the effort behind this poorly-researched critique. Did the author attempt any research other than a quick read of the FT profile and a skim of the Cultivist website? A shout-out to Barthes and “Rhetoric of the Image” – now there’s some privilege and smugness for you. Aren’t these critiques worth posing to the people behind the Cultivist?

    The accusations made in this article regarding access, privilege, and insight can be leveled against any museum membership program or art fair. They’re good questions to ask, but pay-to-play is nothing new in the arts. I’m not going to criticize an organization whose mission is to facilitate access to museums and tours, it’s as good a way as any to seek the “patient attention and intellectual effort” the author calls for.

    1. Dear Richard,

      Thanks for your comment. I don’t believe I’m actually accusing the Cultivist group of smug laziness, rather I say that it’s the premise of the club. That is to say those who subscribe to it are encouraged through their membership to not invest the time or effort in becoming intimate with work that interests them.

      It isn’t fair to say that I made a “quick read” or performed a “skim” of the Cultivist website. It isn’t fair and it isn’t true, and I suspect that you realize this. As far as the research I conducted, I did not pose my questions to the Cultivist group because their responses have nothing to do with my critique. My critique is of the face of the group as depicted through their promotional efforts, the primary vehicles being the FT article and the website. They are selling a particular bourgeois fantasy and it’s the fantasy that I think is bankrupt. As far as referencing Roland Barthes, I would dare say that’s not a signifier of privilege and smugness, unless you imagine that reading considered criticism (particularly of images and advertizing) is smug. How could that be? I would characterize that as research and scholarly inquiry.

      And no, finally, you are again not being truthful when you say my accusations could be made against any museum membership program. From what I know most of these programs do not promise the bourgeois fantasy of a curated tour in a place of the member’s choosing, and as far as I know none of these programs ask for $2500 for a year’s membership.

      To be clear, your arguments are facile and a bit angrier than they need to be. Why so much resentment?

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