NEW INC Director Julia Kaganskiy shares her insights from the frontline of the future.
On Manhattan’s historic Bowery, adjacent to the steel block tower of the renowned contemporary art institution the New Museum, an unassuming office building buzzes with creative energy. This is NEW INC—the world’s first museum-led incubator, conceived by New Museum Director Lisa Phillips and Deputy Director Karen Wong and directed by arts/tech visionary Julia Kaganskiy. NEW INC is a workspace with a rotating roster of one-hundred individuals whose pursuits range from virtual reality to data art to counter surveillance fashion. Here, residents cross-pollinate with other thinkers within the space, and are prepared for the realities of contemporary cultural production through business training and mentorship programs. We meet director Julia Kaganskiy at the New Museum and the NEW INC offices to learn her vision for collapsing the boundaries between art and technology and revolutionizing both spheres in the process.
What sparked your interest in tech?
My first job out of college was as an editor for a tech start-up in NYC. As a young person, I found the tech space to be incredibly welcoming and anti-elitist. It was exciting to imagine being at the forefront of an emerging industry where there were no standards, no best practices—no barriers yet. The prospect of being able to help shape the future of something new as opposed to inheriting someone else’s rule book was one of the main things that initially drew me to technology.
How did you become involved in the art world?
I grew disillusioned with the tech scene very quickly. No one seemed to really think deeply about whether we needed another app, or how these tools would begin to influence culture and shape new behaviours and social norms. The only space I saw these conversations taking place was in the arts. Artists were investigating both the unforeseen creative possibilities of emerging technology, as well as providing some much-needed commentary on how it was challenging our notions of identity, intimacy, private vs. public space, authority and more. I’ve been trying to amplify this discourse, expand its reach and provide more resources to it ever since.
What prompted you to create arts/tech meet up?
I had spent a lot of time consuming everything I could around technology and I think my soul was malnourished on the creative front. A friend encouraged me to start the meet-up as a way of connecting my newfound interest in technology with my passion for the arts. Initially, I hesitated. I had no expertise to offer. I spent several months researching. Eventually, the meet-up started to make sense as a way to deepen my research and surround myself with a community of like-minded peers with whom I could have ongoing conversations about how the rapidly evolving world of technology was impacting the arts.
How did NEW INC come together?
I’d always been driven by community — either online or in-person like the meet-up — and after The Creators Project, I was left longing to be part of a creative cohort. In my dream it was a cooperatively run gallery-event-coworking space. Whenever I would travel to other cities like Mexico City, London or Berlin I would seek out examples of similar initiatives and learn a bit about how they functioned. Of course, real estate costs being what they are in NYC, it became clear to me this model probably wouldn’t work here the way I was imagining. Simultaneously, the Director of the New Museum, Lisa Philips, and Deputy Director, Karen Wong were envisioning a community catalyst that would bring creative practice back to the Bowery while addressing the changing landscape of creative practices due to technology.
What issues surrounding cultural production did the program initially hope to remediate?
Young creatives were thinking and working more entrepreneurially but they didn’t really have an infrastructure of support to help guide them and provide the necessary resources towards developing these ideas and nascent businesses. There was no middle ground between a traditional artist residency and a run of the mill technology incubator, which typically privileges high-growth, rapidly scaling product start-ups. That’s the gap NEW INC set out to fill.
The landscape of creative practice is changing, in large part due to technology, which has introduced new tools, new ways of working, and new career pathways.
What does your role as program director entail?
What doesn’t it entail? Everything from program design, to fundraising, to community management, to overseeing day-to-day operations and facilities, to bringing in new mentors, advisors, instructors and strategic partners. I often joke that we’re a start-up incubating start-ups, which means that we operate lean and everyone, myself included, is wearing many hats.
It’s interesting that the NEW INC office is situated within the New Museum, though its mission promises a kind of liberation from the white-cube model of art patronage. How do you see this dynamic between old and new art worlds developing?
Yes! That’s part of what’s so genius about it. It recognizes the shifting perspective, values, and modes of production that are happening in the creative sector, and also allows us to take a more expansive view. Many of the people at NEW INC would not even consider themselves artists, and some of the artists are working on something that does not resemble art in the traditional sense. What happens when an artist’s “medium” takes the form of a creative agency, or a piece of software, or a product? These questions have been explored for years now as the tendency among many young contemporary artists is to look at the market critically, try to subvert it, circumvent it, or defy it in some way. For a future-focused contemporary art institution like the New Museum, I think it’s vital to have a line into this evolving discourse. NEW INC is by no means designed to directly feed into the museum and its core exhibition programs, but my hope is that the proximity will allow it to influence and inform what the curatorial and education departments are doing.
Could you discuss the development of the training program at NEW INC? How do you go about deciding upon a curriculum for a group that is already at the upper echelon of creative thinking?
The curriculum has been one of the main pieces of the program that we’ve refined from year to year, and will probably continue to do so. Each year the content gets stronger and we try to put better resources in place to support the community. While our members are leading creative thinkers, not all of them have had much experience or exposure to the business side of things, which increasingly is a vital skill set for today’s economy. Our main focus is on providing professional development in the form of business and leadership training that can help them navigate the logistical and strategic aspects of their endeavours.
What is the biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge has been trying to strike a balance between creativity and business and, to a certain degree, to help creatives see themselves as entrepreneurs (without the stigma that is often attached to the name). Increasingly, we’re all becoming entrepreneurs of a sort. Anyone who wants to pursue their passion and unique vision, as opposed to work for someone else, is essentially an entrepreneur. On the one hand, we have more opportunities available to us, but implicit in all these opportunities is a great deal of responsibility and liability as a business owner — you need to have a handle on the legal, financial, production, marketing/PR aspects and more that will enable that project to be a success in the long run. Of course, we’re not running an MBA program so no one is coming out of NEW INC an expert business person, but the hope is to give people a lay of the land. Even if they’re working with outside advisors, they should be able to articulate and direct a vision.