After a year in which cultural events have been shuttered and repeatedly postponed, the business of appealing to the tastes and social cravings of the creative class has been struggling. Now, as COVID-19 case loads go down and vaccination numbers go up, two growing brands are joining forces to awaken the slumbering industry.
The international photography museum Fotografiska has merged with the members’ club and workspace NeueHouse. Fotografiska, with locations in New York, Stockholm, Sweden, and Tallinn, Estonia, is the largest photography museum in the world. Founded in 2008, the museum has hosted hundreds of exhibitions and seen more than 3 million visitors. NeueHouse is a membership-based coworking and creative community venue, with existing locations in architecturally significant buildings such as the Bradbury Building in downtown Los Angeles and new sites opening in Venice, California, and Miami later this year. A NeueHouse is also planned to open right next door to the Fotografiska location in Stockholm later this year. The merged firms will be operated by a new company, CultureWorks, which is backed by $35 million in investment.
Though operating in somewhat distinct realms, Fotografiska and NeueHouse share several overlapping approaches, including an emphasis on the programming of exhibitions and talks, high-quality on-site restaurants, and a belief that great architecture is essential for fostering culture and creativity.
The idea for the merger came up when NeueHouse CEO Josh Wyatt and Fotografiska chairman Yoram Roth ran into each other at the art fair Frieze Los Angeles in early 2020. “There was just this aha moment where we looked at each other and said these are sort of like two siblings that have been separated at birth and have now found each other again,” says Wyatt, who’s now CEO of CultureWorks. “Fast-forward two weeks later, COVID hits in full force. And we looked at each other again and said my lord there is a massive pivot opportunity here for both of these companies.”
While cultural institutions around the world slashed jobs and art museums were forced to sell parts of their collections to stay in business, NeueHouse and Fotografiska saw an opportunity to rethink how cultural and creative venues can provide a larger ecosystem of creative services. Together, the two companies have more than 10,000 members who pay to access their unique spaces and exclusive events and experiences. Though they’ll remain two individual brands, CultureWorks aims to optimize the operations and develop some crossover events for the new, pandemic-inflected reality of people cutting back on social and cultural experiences but, at the same time, expecting more from them.
“What we wanted to do is to provide this platform with both brands to say if you make that decision to experience culture, you want to make that decision within an extraordinary creative community, around other people that really inspire you, and equally important, you want to have a visual and a design experience that truly is special,” Wyatt says.
A fancy coworking space and a photography museum may not be the miracle cure for an ailing cultural scene, but CultureWorks is suggesting that for the industry to survive, it will have to try new things and identify new ways to reach an audience again and again.
“The secret sauce, in my mind, is community. You can have all the culture in the world, but you have to resonate with the people you’re doing it with,” says Roth, who’s the majority owner of CultureWorks.
Wyatt says the merging of the two companies represents a new path for sustaining creative communities and cultural venues. After the wallops the industry has suffered over the last year, it may be time for a new model.
“We felt that to put together a forward-looking culture platform at this moment would be something that I think we’ll look back on 10 or 20 years from now as one of these lightning-bolt moments,” Wyatt says.