Experiential Retail and the Shared Economy at The Allies

Creating experiential pop ups are, more than anything, an exercise in the shared economy. The point of The Allies was to showcase and sell work by six artists, think about what they mean, understand how they’re linked and use their energy as fuel for a new type of gallery. What I realized in the process is that it is entirely impossible to group these artists with photographers, illustrators, painters and printmakers of the past. The Internet’s produced a new modernity, and artists who harness the Internet’s tools – Instagram, PayPal, Kickstarter, corporate clients’ global reach, the 24/7 promotion cycle – are new modern artists. Their style of work is a response to the new modern possibilities provided for them. And so it goes with pop ups too. Funding by We Are Pop Up and Martenero, a Kickstarter by Made in the Lower East Side, a rejection of the traditional gallery model by these six new modern artists (who can reject the gallery because they can sell and promote on their own) and a landlord willing to experiment with a pop up made The Allies possible.

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For The Allies dinners, we shared our space, story and guestlist and received sustainable food, expert prep and service in return.

Curating vibrant new modern artists in a traditional gallery would be like mixing sparking water with flat. We made The Allies retail space effervescent by creating a lifecycle that mimicked the pace of our artists and the pace of New Yorkers. The Allies artists are constantly creating and changing, so the gallery was constantly creating different content. New Yorkers – and all people – have different needs at different times of day. They don’t visit galleries in the morning, but they do attend yoga classes. They don’t go back to galleries twice to see the same exhibit, but they do go to the same space twice for different types of events. The lifelike nature of The Allies allowed us to invite New Yorkers in more frequently, and for different reasons. We could reach out to press multiple times as pictures and anecdotes changed. We could curate different audiences – street artists and architects for one dinner and pop up-space owners for another – at different times to drive different conversations and relationships.

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Experiential retail creates multiple lead characters who run the show at different times. We tapped The Rad Trads to play for press and collectors the night before the opening party.

Increasing “Surface Area” To Produce a Shared Economy
The experiential landscape meant just as much for businesses as it did for the audience. The Allies gallery was a story, an experience with an arc. Since it changed form throughout the day and the week, Imagination in Space could engage multiple partners in ways that fit them best. I think of it as surface area. By creating an experience, we could increase the surface area of the space. Think of, say, American Apparel. Great store, locations with high footfall, lots of in-store traffic. Not much surface area. When you walk in the store, you can only buy and leave. I already know I can’t discover anything new, so every store is just shut off to me. Imagine, though, if American Apparel curated pop ups a la Harrod’s. Each pop up would be able to utilize AA’s brand recognition, footfall and instore traffic to build awareness and sales for itself. AA could use curated pop ups to create new content, social media buzz, new types of visitors and another storyline inside its existing space. They’d increase the surface area despite keeping the real estate generally the same. All they’d be changing was the story.

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A shared economy equation: Rug by Kea, chairs and table from Made in the Lower East Side, flowers and table clothes from artist Yazmany (vases are pint glasses), table settings from Imagination in Space, ingredients from Farmigo, menu by Ango, guests from New York City

At The Allies, we could have placed a bowl of Apples from Farmigo at the front entrance and written: “Check out the site.” That would increase the surface area a bit, and would create a shared economy of space. That’s a low, shallow touchpoint, and an odd fit in an art gallery. We’d be taking attention away from the art, reducing an online farms market to a set of apples, and we’d be responsible for supplying and tending to the apples each day. Curate a pair of dinners, though, and we’ve opened up an opportunity for guests to intimately discover and build relationships with Farmigo’s food, story and head of marketing Jay Lee. The rub, of course, is that instead of tending to apples, Imagination in Space now had to prepare dinner for a dozen guests back to back nights. Instead, we brought on Ango, a farm-to-table catering startup to select, manage and prepare Farmigo’s ingredients.

Increasing the surface area through an experiential story created an incredibly efficient shared economy. Imagination in Space had no food or cooking skills but we had a space, an interesting story and a guestlist. Farmigo had delicious, sustainable ingredients but no story, prep team, space and audience. Ango had the skills but no ingredients, space or audience. By bringing on Farmigo and Ango, we created a supply chain that went: farm-trucks-warehouse-chef-team-set up-prep-serving without spending a dime. All Imagination in Space paid for was the photographer to help tell the story. All Farmigo paid for was wholesale costs on food. All Ango paid for was prep supplies and staffing. We linked Farmigo and Ango (who’d never met) and did it all within the context of a pair of dinners where conversation revolved around mash ups of previously unconventional cultural models. While in a pop up that mashed up cultural models. With guests who are mashing up cultural models (Eric Tan from PinkCloud.dk, for example, is raising funding for a pop up hotel; Bevin Savage Yamazaki installed a boat outside the New Museum and a slide inside it).

Imagination in Space’s Model
The Imagination in Space model is to leverage the expertise of many partners to create a new cultural model. The same rule applied for dinners as it did for morning yoga. Each day, I’d come in early, sweep up the backyard and then hand the keys over to Angelica Olstad from Pop Up Yoga NYC. She’d lead her class of students, lock up and come back the next day. We shared the space to produce a dynamic shared story, shared revenue, shared photos and shared guest lists. With Martenero, we did the same. It’s a wonderful shared economy based as much on the story and situation (both, essentially free) as it is on hard resources like real estate. By opening up morning to an entirely different story – yoga vs. art – we were able to increase meaningful surface area. By creating another storyline, Imagination in Space created an opportunity for another lead character.

The Allies in NYC: A New Modern Art Pop Up

In May, Imagination in Space x We Are Pop Up closed The Allies, a pop up art show in NYC’s East Village. The show was a collaboration between artists (London’s Elmo Hood and Inkie and NYC’s Joey L, Sam Spratt, Misha T and Yazmany), retailers (Martenero watches, Heidi Gardner jewelry, Kea rugs), foodies (Farmigo and Ango, architects (PinkCloud.dk and Columbia’s GSAPP program  and space purveyors (We Are Pop Up and Made in the Lower East Side). Plus daily morning yoga from Pop Up Yoga NYC.

What was The Allies, exactly? An art gallery. A prototype for a new modern art gallery that’s more dynamic, vibrant, welcoming and democratic than traditional galleries. A decade after the Internet made the world social and open-source, galleries are generally still closed off, anti-social and repetitive. They run the same hardware: square rooms with white walls, a front desk, tiny art placards, minimalist window decals and opaque pricing. They run the same software, too: aloof staff, one event per show, free wine and the stiff soul of a library.

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A vibrant new modern art gallery
The Allies featured art, of course, but within the spirited rhythm of a festival. Over eight days, we hosted a press preview with live jazz, a launch party, an offsite after party, a pair of innovation dinners, a Memorial Day picnic and yoga. We made artist placards much bigger so guests didn’t have to stand an inch away like Mr. Magoo. We gave partner bios and artist bios equal emphasis. We played with acceptable landscape features, and broke whitespace rules – putting an aquarium with ticking watches adjacent to editioned Inkie prints. We priced democratically, not fearing that a low-price option would cannibalize the perception of a high-priced item. Art anchored the product selection, but it didn’t end there; The Allies extended into other unisex, one-size-fits-all options like watches, jewelry and yoga.

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The Allies is the second in a series of Imagination in Space art pop ups that are recreating the gallery model. (First up was American Dreams in London during Frieze 2013). The creative destruction starts with the artists we curated – new modern artists bound by a shared ethos of creating for the public, for commercial clients, for social media fans. Their style is polymath – based on, and fine-tuned by, the tastes of everyone, not the tastes of gallerists, art critics or an esoteric school of thought. Feedback is real-time, reach is global and mediums are endless. Artists, like bloggers a decade ago, don’t have to filter through gatekeepers. They go straight to the people. And even more important, artists no longer just interpret the world around us; they create worlds around us. Think about Banksy’s trip to NYC last year. He came, he conquered, we saw.

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For The Allies, we curated artists who are similar in their co-option of viral cultural canvases. Sam Spratt trained as an oil painter but illustrates on a Wacom tablet. He gets his work out to millions by creating for entertainment icons like Childish Gambino, Janelle Monáe and an upcoming presidential thriller. Joey L’s commercial work – headshots of DeNiro, promo assets for The History Channel – spreads his photography onto Times Square billboards and city phone booths. Inkie grew up in Bristol, tagging walls. Now he organizes street art festivals and paints snow at ski resorts. Misha T dominates the art battle circuit, creates murals and extends his style into product lines. Elmo Hood started under the Westway and created a viral art series out of playing cards. Yazmany’s public art brings thousands of balloons to international cities and, next month, a living sculpture of colored people in South Africa. If The Allies artists could be summed up in four words it’d be: Turn Down For What?

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The Allies By The Numbers

Like every retail brand out there, we think constantly about how to create a thriving, lifelike, experiential environment. With The Allies, we wanted to mirror the energy of new modern artists. (More about the experiential nature of The Allies in an upcoming post). But does energy and art gallery mix? Yes. Over eight days we generated $18,366 in sales with $2,600 more pending. Guests, artists and partners used #theallies hashtag on Instagram more than 100 times, our Facebook fan page doubled to 410 (uh oh, Audi here we come!), and secured 350 new email addresses for future invites. We received coverage from Artnet, Street Art NYC, Artinfo, Artnerd, Well and Good, The Wild and The Skint and had the opportunity to showcase incredible art from new modern artists for eight days in the heart of the city.