In the dimly lit cellar of Hollywood's membership-only Magic Castle, 20 or so art-adventure seekers gathered for cocktails and magic-inspired, experimental performance art by Glenn Kaino and Derek DelGaudio. The chitchat at the castle's bar, however, was less focused on sleight of hand and more on contemporary art fairs.
"Will you be at Frieze this year?" one young women asked another, while reaching for a cracker and dollop of soft cheese.
"Of course! You?" replied a woman in a black silk suit.
The response: "Always."
The invite-only evening Tuesday with A.Bandit, which is Kaino and DelGaudio's art collective, marked the inaugural meeting of the Cultivist in L.A., a new global art club. The Cultivist has physical offices in New York and London, but its members are in cities around the world — New York, Miami, London, Berlin, Paris, Rio de Janeiro — who stay connected via a website and an upcoming mobile app. Organizers said 104 institutions also have partnered with the Cultivist, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim in New York, and the Tate in London.
For members, the $2,500 annual fee brings information on art happenings city to city, including personalized itineraries and VIP access to museums and international art fairs such as Art Basel in Switzerland, Frieze London and Paris Photo. Members also are invited to private parties, dinners with artists and exhibition previews.
Though the club is selling exclusivity, founders Marlies Verhoeven and Daisy Peat, who ran a more expensive VIP program at the auction house Sotheby's, pitched their program as a way to bring privileged access to a broader group of people.
"We wanted to make it more accessible to anyone who had a real interest in art — break down the barriers of the art world because sometimes it can be real intimidating," Verhoeven said.
The Cultivist won't pitch art to individuals, its founders said, or cultivate deals between artists and members. It will sustain itself on membership fees and makes about $700,000 in global museum donations to partnering institutions that grant special access, founders said.
L.A. has about 25 paying Cultivist members from the worlds of technology, art, fashion, entertainment and business. A large majority are active collectors, not surprising given the financial resources needed to pass by the club's virtual velvet rope.
Private cultural clubs aren't new. There's the Core: Club in New York and the Arts Club of London, for example, but they're largely local enterprises with physical home bases, whereas the Cultivist is something of a global pop-up.
What might surprise skeptics most are the names who have signed, whether they be the participating institutions or more than a dozen "artist ambassadors," who were invited to join for free because of the cachet they bring. Those who might provide studio visits or collaborate on event programming, as Kaino and DelGaudio did at the Magic Castle, include Marina Abramovic, Cindy Sherman and Dustin Yellin.
"We invited them to diversify the membership base," Verhoeven said. "At Sotheby's, at events, it was a very homogenous group of top-top collectors; here it's a mix of top collectors, designers, business people, architects and now emerging and established artists."
Kaino said one reason he joined the Cultivist as an artist ambassador was to connect with a culturally savvy audience and to test out performance material. He and DelGaudio are working on a book and developing a May 2016 performance at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood. Tuesday night's Cultivist event, for which they were not compensated, was a way to test bits for both projects: card tricks, a historical talk about Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray and a "focus group" Q&A with the audience about art.
"This isn't about publicity for us or drawing collectors," Kaino said. "It's about wanting to support alternative structures that support artists. They're providing new pathways for new ideas and for collaborations."
The community around Cultivist events also was a big draw, Kaino said.
"As a practitioner of imagination, our job is to imagine the possibilities of how the world might be," he said. "And that can't happen alone. Gallerists, artists, collectors — this is an independent environment where they all come together."
DelGaudio joked that he doesn't have collectors of his performance art. "For me, it's about the dialogue between the artists and people who enjoy art and now have new and different ways of experiencing it," he said.
Lorenzo Martone, 36, who founded the bicycle design company Martone Cycling, joined the Cultivist as a paid member three weeks ago. As a collector of contemporary art who's bicoastal and travels a lot, his time is limited, he said. He learned of the Cultivist through his friend Laura de Gunzburg, deputy director of membership for the club. It appealed to him because it was a fast and efficient way to learn about new artists.
"You can join any museum club and there are talks and workshops and probably hundreds of people," he said. "That's not a bad thing — but this is intimate and feels more curated."
Susan Hancock, 63, a retired tech entrepreneur and art collector, joined because she's interested in learning.
"I didn't get an art history degree; I got an MBA," she said, "and so I feel I have a lot of catching up to do."
Others, many of whom already are steeped in the art world, have less lofty reasons for joining.
As the Magic Castle cocktail party thinned out, Eliza Osborne, executive director of the Centre Pompidou Foundation, put it most simply: "It's just fun to get out and meet like-minded people."