Under the umbrella
As cultural industries faltered in a time of pandemic, two entrepreneurs identified an opportunity. With their new holding company, Cultureworks, they plan to offer a new global platform for creativity – and reshape the sector for the better.
By Alexis Self, Photography Nathalie Mohadjer for Monocle Magazine
In February 2020, with the culture and hospitality sectors approaching a precipice that few could foresee, the chair of the world’s largest photography museum and the CEO of a private member’s club met on the fringes of Frieze Los Angeles. A few weeks later, during an unprecedented global shutdown, they decided to form a new company, Cultureworks.
That shrewd business minds would spot an opportunity amid disquiet shouldn’t be surprising. However, that they would choose to invest in the profitability of large social spaces and late-night hospitality at a time when it was forbidden for a sizeable proportion of the world’s citizens to mix outside their households might raise a few eyebrows.
“When Yoram pulled this off, it was a seminal moment,” says Josh Wyatt, CEO of member’s club Neuehouse and co-founder of Cultureworks. He’s sitting, alongside his partner in the venture, Yoram Roth (pictured, on right, with Wyatt), executive chairman of Fotografiska gallery, in Hoxton hotel on the fringes of another art fair, Paris Photo. Outside, the bars are full; a queue snakes around the Grand Palais. After months of lockdowns and closures, the two men’s confidence seems to have been justified. “People have had time to think about what they value, what makes them happy,” says Wyatt. “For many, it’s a good personal and social life.”
Yet it must have been tough to come up with an idea only to see it almost immediately, perhaps permanently, shelved? “As far as business goes, the pandemic was about three words: survival, pivot and innovation,” says Wyatt. “Cultureworks is a pivot for both of us. We have these two great companies that are almost like siblings separated at birth, so we thought, ‘Let’s put them together.’”
With their pseudo-European names, Neuehouse and Fotografiska seem aimed at a similar clientele: mobile, successful people living in the world’s wealthiest cities. And it’s not difficult to see what Wyatt and Roth have in common. Though they have a divergent dress sense – Wyatt in a Prince of Wales check jacket; Roth in the monochrome look popular in his hometown of Berlin – they speak with the same persuasive Manhattan drawl.
So, what will Cultureworks actually be? Wyatt calls it a “high-performance creative platform for the future”. It is, in essence, an umbrella company, in the mould of LVMH or Kering, for a number of brands in the “cultural space”. “We see it as a platform to incubate or acquire other cultural brands,” says Roth.
But before any hypothetical brands can be incubated or acquired, the two co-founders are focusing on those that they already have. When it opened in 2013 in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park neighbourhood, Neuehouse was one of a wave of member’s clubs catering to the 21st-century urban entrepreneur. Its slick, varnished space contained both bars and meeting rooms, intentionally blurring the line between work and play. Today it has three clubs, one in New York and two in Los Angeles; another two, in Miami and Venice Beach, are on the way. Membership costs begin at $3,000 (€2,645) a year, plus a $200 (€175) joining fee, and is based on an application system.
Neuehouse New York is in the Flatiron district, home to one of the city’s most iconic edifices, while the new club in Los Angeles sits in the Bradbury building, made famous by the 1982 film Blade Runner. Leasing spaces based on architectural merit is a tactic also employed by Fotografiska and reflects the desire of both brands to attract what Roth calls “culturally minded people”.
Fotografiska was founded in 2010 by Swedish brothers Jan and Per Broman. Roth came in as majority shareholder and executive chairman in 2017; the Bromans left the business in 2020. Its flagship location is a Victorian customs house on the Baltic coast in Stockholm, which welcomes 500,000 visitors a year. Today, Roth describes it as “the biggest photography museum in the world” in terms of exhibition space. Its locations in Talinn and New York, the latter of which is housed in Park Avenue’s 4,180 sq m Church Missions House, are run not as commercial galleries but as museums and member’s spaces. Money is made from ticket sales, subscriptions – ranging from $89 (€80) a year for a student “apprentice” to $2,000 (€1,765) for a “patron” – and on-site hospitality.
A 5,400 sq m Berlin museum scheduled to open in 2022 could offer the first test for the new umbrella company. Roth and Wyatt will hope that it doesn’t suffer the same fate as an 8,270 sq m museum that was mooted for east London in late 2020, only to be scrapped as a result of coronavirus and Brexit. The virus has taken a sledgehammer to museum and gallery revenue and footfall; in London, the Tate Group welcomed more than seven million fewer visitors in 2020. But a backlog of big-name shows and the return of international tourism is expected to inspire a resurgence in numbers.
How does Fotografiska aim to stand out? “If we’re talking about how a museum reaches its audience, the first thing I would ask is, ‘What time are you open until?’” says Roth. “On weekends we’re open late every day. The only time when people think about going to a museum is when they’re a tourist in another city and that’s sort of a bummer.”
By opening large galleries in a number of cities, the two aim to rotate major shows while keeping programming fresh. Given the rising value of the cultural sector and the success of luxury conglomerates, it’s surprising that this hasn’t been tried before. “Some have flirted with the idea but no one has got to the point of pulling it off,” says Wyatt. A guess at who those flirtatious few might be would include Soho House, arguably Neuehouse’s most prominent rival. How does Wyatt intend to grow while staying distinctive? “The difference is that Soho House focuses on the social side. Our focus is on work, social and culture. We’re open at 08.00 and we’re programming throughout the day and the evening.”
Another pitfall of intercontinental expansion can be bland uniformity. Many member’s clubs and hotel chains can make even the most exotic destination feel like Rotterdam or anywhere. “You have to respect the local culture,” says Wyatt. “It informs everything, how we hire people, what the place looks like… We don’t believe that we’re a huge conglomerate.”
But surely a big conglomerate is the aim? “Cultureworks is the holding company on top,” says Roth. “When someone goes to Fotografiska, they’re not thinking about Neuehouse. You look at Disney, which owns Marvel, espn, Fox… People don’t need to know. That’s our job. These will be different brands but they’ll understand one another.”
Wyatt and Roth insist that Cultureworks need not be visible in the marketplace. “When people buy a Louis Vuitton handbag, they don’t know they’re buying an LVMH brand,” says Wyatt. They’re right to put their faith in the heft offered by conglomerates; for better or for worse, the fluidity of international markets rewards behemoth collectives with factories in the labour-cheap East. But could this model work for a culture/hospitality brand? Well, were one to argue the case, they might look at the expansion of prestige galleries (such as the Louvre) and member’s clubs (like Soho House) into vast markets in Asia.
So which companies does Cultureworks consider to be its rivals? Disney? Soho House? Hauser + Wirth? “Our competitors aren’t other galleries,” says Roth. “They are Netflix, Xbox and Tiktok. We’ve got to get people off the couch. If we can get them to spend time among other people, that’s a win.”
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