Kenneth Schlenker—a French-born tech entrepreneur and ex-Google employee—isn't the most predictable person to disrupt New York's stolid art scene. Several startups have tried to bring the art world online, mostly by creating marketplaces for buyers and sellers. But art is personal and highly social—e-commerce, on the other hand, not so much. "Art is more of an experience than a product purchase," says Schlenker, echoing the sentiment that stands behind Gertrude, his newly launched web platform for hosting and attending in-person art sessions. Gertrude is Schlenker's way of recreating the Parisian salons that gave prominence to so many figureheads of the modernist era.
Schlenker realized that you don't need Gertrude Stein, Picasso or even Paris to host a salon. Instead, a salon from Gertrude comes with a simple list of ingredients: 40 people, 10 works, a curator, an artist and one hour. With the help of Gertrude, curators can choose an artist, propose a salon and find attendees. On the other end of the interaction, art enthusiasts can browse from dozens of salons and pick one to attend. The idea is to give wide-spread access to small-scale events on a recurring basis. Attendees may choose to purchase art, but the emphasis is on the experience of the evening.
Since Gertrude started hosting private salons, venues have included the homes of private collectors, studios and hotel penthouses. Our experience was at the latter, specifically the penthouse of Manhattan's Standard East Hotel. Artist Nobutaka Aozaki was in attendance, and the event was hosted by post-war and contemporary art specialist and curator Heidi Lee. In addition to seeing Aozaki's adorable "Jeff Spoons" sculptures and hearing Lee's insights, the real highlight was the opportunity to engage, ask questions and socialize with others in the greater art community. The salon setting makes discussion de rigueur—something that is lost in gallery and museum environments.
The value of a good curator is something that is often overlooked. With Gertrude, the importance of a curator goes far beyond selecting and placing works, as they are responsible for managing the flow of the evening. An important aspect of Gertrude's set-up is the ability to follow curators and survey their past salons in the site's archives.
Initially limited, the scope of Gertrude is likely to expand greatly in the coming months. Schlenker hints that new cities (LA, SF, Miami and, naturally, Paris) will be added to NYC, and that greater access might be provided with the help of live-streaming resources like Google Glass. The first salons will be free, but Schlenker expects that to change with the rise of premium experiences. For now, New Yorkers can head over to Gertrude to find and book upcoming salons.
Photography by Amanda Vincelli