Can Clubhouse Stay Cordial? The App That Lets You Pretend You’re Back at Art Basel
Over the last few weeks, the social media app Clubhouse has become the latest art world obsession. A purely auditory platform, Clubhouse provides the opportunity to start verbal chat rooms on any subject in any language. Currently available by invitation only, users open the app, see which conversations their network is engaging with, and can slip in and out of rooms, listening and speaking as they choose. While the app was launched in the US in March of 2020, its popularity in the art industry has skyrocketed over the last month. From engaging conversations to full-blown arguments between industry professionals, Clubhouse is a vortex of information, resource sharing, and connectivity that has mimicked in-person art world conversations and introduced entirely new opportunities to engage with a wide cross-section of the industry.
In a year when we’ve all been desperately connected to our many devices, the introduction of an additional app might seem counterproductive, even unhealthy. Moreover, there is no apparent need for an auditory app in an inherently visual industry. In theory, Clubhouse seems like an unnecessary platform for the art world. In practice, the app has targeted a social aspect of the art industry that we may not even have realized has been missing. While we’ve all found various ways to connect with people over the last year, much of our interactions have been happening within our existing networks in structured formats like virtual panels. Without art fairs or gallery openings, the serendipitous conversations and informal chatting that are crucial aspects of networking have been nearly absent. What the art world is missing is the very thing that Clubhouse provides: access to a wide cross-section of the industry and an auditory rabbit hole. There are art-related rooms on every subject including the market during Covid, ways to capitalize on social media, and art critique among others, as well as casual conversations without any agenda. Keeping conversations cordial, however, seems to be a challenge. The information shared is useful at times, and completely irrelevant, rambling, and self-promoting at others.
Like any encounter between big personalities, Clubhouse conversations can turn into heated arguments. Unlike the real world, Clubhouse chats are amplified and projected into the living rooms and headphones of hundreds, sometimes thousands of listeners. Such was the case with an arranged meeting between the collector turned dealer Stefan Simchowitz and Kenny Schachter, whose many labels include dealer, artist, advocate, and lecturer. Known for their contentious social media relationship, the two agreed to what may potentially be a monthly meeting, though the yelling and name-calling of the first round left the future of the match-up precarious. Interspersed amidst the insults and circular arguments were fruitful discussions including debates on the responsibility of dealers and galleries, the role of art critics, and the future of cryptocurrency in the art market. Shots were fired, half-apologies were made, and Simchowitz once again blocked Schachter on social media while the rest of us listened and frantically texted one another off the app.
While Simchowitz versus Schachter was an arranged meeting where arguments were anticipated, there have also been unexpected confrontations in seemingly innocent rooms. In one recent room on the topic of art criticism, an artist featured in the New Museum’s current exhibition called out and effectively kicked off the stage a critic who recently came under fire for posting a video of herself disrespectfully dancing in front of a work addressing Black grief and grievance. The artist rightfully brought up the offensive behavior, leading to a discussion that the newness of Clubhouse and minimal information provided on the speakers can lead to misguided and inaccurate information spoken by people acting as authority.
The artist who confronted the critic had every right to do so and addressed the issue in a professional, informed way. Unfortunately, not all comments are delivered with such tact. It’s not uncommon to join a conversation where users are arguing about people not even in the room. Moreover, the phrase “I don’t know you, but…” is being thrown around as if it gives permission for misinformed and rude comments. Whether the target of the comments is present or not, the chance that they are given a silent stage to respond is slim. More likely, some other emboldened speaker will start talking until only the loudest voices in the room are heard.
Jerry Gogosian aka Hilde Lynn Helphenstein is an active Clubhouse user known for her Instagram account rife with memes that put a badly needed, often unwanted, mirror to the art world. Helphenstein joined Clubhouse in December of 2020 and, as with the rest of the industry, her engagement has increased over the last few weeks. On the current state of the platform, she told Cultbytes, “Clubhouse is quickly devolving into a pretty toxic space. People yelling over each other, accusing each other of rumors, and expressing a lot of anger. I wouldn’t say it’s great for dialogue and reaching mutual understanding. If you want to hear people troll each other or fantasize about getting rich on NFT’s then that’s your scene. It reminds me of when everyone got a Yelp account and suddenly felt like they were restaurant critics. Occasionally I’ve come across entitled opinions, but they get shouted out of the room by angry moderators. Just writing this makes me feel anxious and more resolved to stay on a path that involves less social media, more action, and more love.” The good news is, it takes just as little effort to join a room as it does to leave one, and many rooms are better off left behind. Not all conversations devolve into something better suited for Bravo, and comments should be taken with a grain of salt. For those looking for more positive interactions, one room that tends to have constructive and inspiring conversations is called The Artist Lounge. Ultimately, Clubhouse is providing a candid view into what art industry people are talking about and what is keeping people connected.
One very hot topic is the rise in NFTs, non-fungible tokens, in the acquisition of art. The subject is virtually unavoidable and has increased as the sales of NFTs have skyrocketed. A unique version of the old, animated flying cat called Nyan Cat sold for 300 Ethereum, approximately $560,000 last week. Christie’s will offer an NFT by Beeple (Mike Winkelmann) in a single-lot sale from February 25 to March 11. Platforms such as Nifty Gateway and Foundation are among the ways artists and collectors are connecting and creating a peripheral crypto art market. Enter any art room on Clubhouse and you’ll likely hear the term NFT being tossed around as if it’s commonplace. As Kenny Schachter told Cultbytes, “if I see one more room on NFTs I will puke.” Schachter is not wrong in his exaggeration. Clubhouse is rife with NFTs conversations to the point where some moderators will ask speakers not to bring up the topic at all. However, as much as we might be gagging at the thought of NFTs and hoping to never say the word “non-fungible” again, the conversations are everywhere, and even Schachter himself released three works on Nifty Gateway this week that crashed the server, sold out immediately and earned the artist a six-figure profit.
Whether users choose to join or contribute to a room is completely up to them. Indeed, engagement is one of very few elements of Clubhouse that can actually be controlled. Users create their name, have the option of adding one small photo icon, a bio, and link their Instagram and Twitter. Apart from these very limited tools, the quality and quantity of engagement is based on the rooms you enter, whether you choose to speak, and the content of your remarks. Scottish artist Steven Cox, who is a frequent art room participant, shared poignant insight into this aspect of Clubhouse: “What I find interesting is that everyone is reduced to a single profile icon and everyone is given an equal chance to speak and to be heard within topic-specific rooms. By virtue of this, the idea of hierarchy is sort of redundant (albeit a few moderators who are a bit power hungry). Connections are being made on the basis of what ‘value’ you bring to a conversation.”
On the passionate response the art world has had to Clubhouse, Helphenstein told Cultbytes: “I don’t want to call Clubhouse democratic, per se, but the fact that it is open to almost anyone to jump on any conversation and just by raising your hand and potentially get put on the ‘stage of panelists’ gives the appearance of egalitarianism. Many portions of the art world that have long felt unlistened to or unseen suddenly have a space to talk, whether they are heard outside of their echo chamber is a completely different story. I think the majority of people on there are trying to figure out how to make more money, thus the eternal NFT conversations and we all know the art world is PASSIONATE about making money.”
While far-reaching connections have become possible with Clubhouse, the informality of the platform is a double-edged sword that invites fluid conversation without the fear of retribution, but there’s always the lingering thought of who is actually listening. This came up in a few rooms, one in which a journalist identified herself, leading to a lengthy, semi-cordial discussion on the “unspoken agreement” that everything said on Clubhouse is off record. However, who exactly is listening and what they are doing with what’s being said is completely unknown. People are engaging in deep conversations about a huge range of topics, but what is to stop someone from taking their ideas and using them against the speaker or for their own profit? With such a new social platform, it’s hard not to wonder in what ways people will capitalize and monetize their engagement.
Perhaps this “off-record” mentality is keeping some more influential figures off of Clubhouse altogether. Boston-based artist Joe Haley noted that there is an obvious absence of certain people like politicians and public figures engaging in casual conversations (i.e. not panels), possibly as a way to protect themselves from “damaging” conversations. This absence of “official” voices is one of the reasons Clubhouse has become so valuable to the average user seeking real-time, unedited advice. Someone from anywhere with any background has the opportunity to ask the group personalized questions and hear from artists, dealers, critics, and collectors from every level of the industry. As Haley put it, “I asked a question in a room about photographing my art and got better, and more personalized, results than a Google search could yield.”
Indeed, the ability to connect on a personal level and tailor your engagement to fit your interests and needs has made Clubhouse therapeutic for some and can give speakers a venue to unload their stress. In many ways, Clubhouse is an extension of the void that we are all already screaming into via Instagram and our other highly curated social media spaces. As Schachter told Cultbytes, “people are bored and anxious due to lockdowns.” Bored, anxious, or just interested in learning from and connecting with others, Clubhouse has proved to be useful to professionals from all corners of the art world. As Helphenstein aptly put it, “I think truly inquiring minds who also possess the emotional bandwidth for some of the CH (Clubhouse) characters and subject matter will be able to find gems of information and community that they may have not found anywhere else yet. For those people, I hope they enjoy it and make it worth their while it’s still free.”
Helphenstein added: “I’m also just vehemently against most social media apps sucking up more of my mental and emotional space right now…I think large social media platforms have played an appalling role in polarizing and dividing most of the world. Misinformation is rampant. Everything is decentralized in a way that makes it hard to believe anyone about anything. How many times this week did you start a sentence with ‘I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but…’ Call me old fashioned, a Luddite, or a hypocrite because I have Instagram, but I don’t need one more ‘free place’ trying to ‘teach me how to think differently’ that is ultimately a technocratic capitalist platform trap that I’ll be asked to give my money too.”
Helphenstein points to a large question looming with Clubhouse and how the increase in usership and activity will change the platform. At the moment, the app is invite-only and each user is given a few invitations to send out when they join. There is also a number limit for the rooms, which Clubhouse says is a way for them to avoid overwhelming their servers. However, the platform is already outlining the monetization of engagement. Cox noted that monetization could benefit museums or galleries to host exhibition walkthroughs, but on a wider level monetization could chip away at the very inclusivity that Clubhouse represents. “Currently, Clubhouse is popular because every user feels equal. In my opinion, every voice is important and every voice deserves to be heard,” said Cox. Will all of this lead to more privatized rooms? Will Clubhouse incorporate the ability to add links, images, chats, and direct messaging? More importantly, how much yelling and pontificating will listeners really want to hear? While conversations can be engaging and thought-provoking, there’s also a lot of self-proclaimed experts eager to hear their own voices.
At the moment, the candid informality of the app has reopened many previously closed networks and has led to new opportunities to connect with people from every corner of the industry. Clubhouse has provided a platform for the informal conversations that have been missing over the last year. How the app will look as more people join is unclear, but for now art world users can rest assured that no matter what room they enter, someone will be willing to discuss the subject du jour, if not to have real connections, then at least to hear their own voices and to continue screaming into the void.
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Annabel Keenan is a New York-based writer and art advisor. As a writer, she focuses on contemporary art, market reporting, and sustainability. Her writing has been published in The Art Newspaper, and Artillery Magazine among others. Keenan has worked in several major museums and galleries worldwide, including the Broad Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the printmaking studio Gemini G.E.L.. As an advisor, Keenan specializes in prints and multiples, and aims to make the process of collecting art more accessible. She holds a B.A. in Art History and Italian from Emory University and an M.A. in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture from the Bard Graduate Center. l Instagram l Email l