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The art incubator: kickstarting the business of design

The art incubator: kickstarting the business of design

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New Museum
New Museum

From a distance, the New Museum looks strange, six oddly shaped boxes dropped on top of each other in an uneven stack. Inside, the curators do their best to keep it equally weird, rotating through a cast of global exhibitions with no permanent collection to draw on. Since the museum’s competing with at least half a dozen other New York institutions, that also means staying ahead of the pack with digital art and ambitious open installations. But while the museum tries to keep pace with a frenetic art world, one of its most ambitious ideas has overflowed the boxes and ended up in a non-descript building just to the south.

"We think we've hit on something that is very meaningful."

The new space is called New Inc. It's the first museum-led incubator, designed and built by the New Museum and opening for applications today. Despite the name, it isn't strictly an incubator in the traditional tech startup sense. There's no equity involved, and the project is designed to be a standalone non-profit. Instead, New Inc wants to replicate the development programs of a startup incubator, bringing in speakers and events, letting tech, art and design cross-pollinate into something larger and stranger. And with a reported $2 million in funding behind it, the New Museum has plenty of muscle to make it happen.

According to the museum's leaders, the idea has been a long time coming. They've always been interested in community work, drawing in like-minded thinkers with symposiums and hackathons. Dreaming up plans for a building they had acquired next door, creating a workspace seemed like a natural next step. "We noticed an emergent field here in New York City," says New Museum deputy director Karen Wong, "with the acceleration of these co-working spaces, tech incubators, different tribes coming together to share experiences." The result is a surprisingly natural movement from creating a scene of artists and designers and technologists to simply creating a place where they can work. If you build a cool enough office, maybe the scene will build itself. "We think we've hit on something that is very meaningful," Wong says. "Like an entrepreneur, we've just brought it to market first."

a place where weirder ideas can flourish

The incubator tag is, in part, a feint. Without a business focus or an equity handoff, New Inc will have little in common with the Y Combinator crowd — but the feint is part of the point. The new space wants to capture some of the magic places like Y Combinator have come to stand for, a place where smart and powerful people gather in one building to create amazing things. Part of it is also a concrete financial calculation. New York graduates more designers than anywhere else in the country, and most of them plan to stay in the city. At the same time, there's no obvious place for them in between corporate practices and shaggy art projects. The hope is that New Inc will provide a place where weirder ideas can gravitate and flourish.

"Breaking it apart, putting it back together, subverting it..."

And to choose the applicants and build that scene, the museum brought in Julia Kaganskiy, founder of the Arts Tech Meetup and former director of Intel and Vice's Creators Project, where she oversaw similar cross-pollinations. She says the ideal New Inc candidate will be more off-kilter than traditional workspaces might allow. "Their approach to technology might be different from someone who’s a traditional product designer," Kaginskiy told us. "They’re maybe breaking it apart, putting it back together, subverting it, inverting it, seeing what comes out of that."

"Can they be inventing things that have cultural impact?"

More surprising for what's ostensibly a design studio is an emphasis on hardware. The new space is still under construction, but they've already made room for a dedicated prototyping lab, designed for fabricating architectural models and fiddling with circuit boards. "We wanted to support different kinds of making, and that might include people working with sensors and microprocessors for a more environmental experience," Kaginskiy says. "Having that capability felt really important."

It's still unclear exactly where New Inc will land between a simple co-working space and Y Combinator-esque cultural hub, but with enough designers caught between the art world and the tech world, something interesting is bound to come out of the project. "We're sort of fascinated by the idea of incubating new ideas," Wong says. "Can this group of people through the shared space, through the professional development, through our ability to connect folks and build a collaborative space, can they be inventing things that have cultural impact?"