Art-world denizens have watched the development of Superblue—the immersive art platform founded by Pace Gallery president and CEO Marc Glimcher with backing from billionaire Laurene Powell Jobs—with a mixture of fascination and skepticism.
When it first debuted in mid-2020, Superblue was pitched as a way for the art industry to tap into the experiential art craze that had made event production companies a fortune. The company proposed to transform the art economy by monetizing art the same way record companies or Hollywood producers do: Instead of selling an artwork to a single person, sell tickets to a much, much broader audience.
But that vision has been harder to realize than its founders anticipated. On Friday, ARTnews published an investigation into the company, which has been facing stagnant growth and internal disagreements over its direction.
Once intended to operate as many as half a dozen sites around the world, Superblue currently runs a single 50,000-square-foot location in Miami. After just over two years, the company has burned through millions of dollars in investor cash, ARTnews reported.
Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of late billionaire Steve Jobs, who invested in Superblue through her company Emerson Collective, relinquished two board seats as early as December 2021, according to ARTnews, after having invested a reported $15 million. A representative for Emerson Collective did not respond to request for comment.
Meanwhile, Marc Glimcher, who spearheaded the initiative—initially calling it PaceX before renaming it Superblue at Jobs’s behest—quietly transitioned from board chair to advisor in the fall. A representative for Superblue said that Glimcher sought to focus on his position as Pace CEO and that Superblue artists continue to engage with the gallery.
Sources told ARTnews that Pace likely invested around $10 million in Superblue over time, with $15 million more coming from Therme Group, a German company focused on wellness, and another $10 million from Philadelphia investor and art collector Michael Forman, among other backers.
The Superblue representative told Artnet News that as a private company, it does not disclose information related to its investors, board, or projects in development.
For a time, Superblue was scouting out high-profile locations around the globe, at one point even touring the current Frick Madison as a possible site, sources told Artnet News. It also worked for years on an ultimately abandoned plan to open in Houston, ARTnews reported.
But it did not find the kind of rabid audiences that quickly swarmed the likes of Immersive Van Gogh or the immersive Tokyo museum founded by TeamLab (which also shows with Superblue).
“There were a lot of moments that felt stagnant,” a former employee told Artnet News. “While it’s common in startup culture to have timelines that don’t necessarily pan out or get pushed back, growth was not happening at the speed in which it was anticipated.”
A spokesperson for the company told Artnet News that “Superblue will be opening other long-term experiential art centers as well as temporary installations… in cities globally and will announce those plans when ready.”
In early 2021, Artnet News reported that Superblue was planning to hire to 60 staff members in Miami to complement its existing team of nearly 40 split among New York, London, and Miami. More recently, that scale seems to have contracted: a representative said the company has “more than 20 full-time employees” and works with around 20 more “consultants and contractors around the globe.”
As growth slowed, some employees described a culture clash between seasoned gallery veterans and executives from entertainment backgrounds like Cirque du Soleil and Madison Square Garden. Meanwhile, sources said, Powell Jobs’s “value-driven” investment collective sometimes found itself at odds with Superblue’s less explicitly mission-driven art projects.
Superblue’s business model is considerably different from a traditional gallery. The company pays each artist an upfront fee to create an immersive work, as well as a royalty from gross ticket sales throughout its run.
Admission to the Miami space currently costs $36. Artists and collectives including Es Devlin, TeamLab, and James Turrell have projects on view. (None responded to a request for comment from Artnet News.) Since every Superblue artist receives funding directly from the general public, the relationship becomes more lucrative the more popular an installation is—just as in mass-culture businesses like Hollywood, pop music, and book publishing.
Artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, who created a new installation on view at Superblue in Miami, told Artnet News he believes in the company’s vision. “I dislike most mainstream immersive experiences, as they just present what people already want to see,” he said. “So long as Superblue continues [to remain] focused on the art, taking curatorial risks, I believe they will succeed.” Dent-Brocklehurst and the team “have my trust,” he added, “despite initial hardships.”
Nevertheless, the company has reportedly been burning through cash. According to ARTnews, construction costs on the Miami space ballooned to at least twice the initial $8 million estimate. Superblue also bears the cost of renting the space from the Rubell family, whose private museum is across the street.
A Superblue rep declined to release visitor numbers for the Miami venue beyond saying that “attendance has exceeded projections” and that “Superblue Miami is profitable.”
Although Therme Art’s Mikolaj Sekutowicz offered a welcome cash injection, he also reportedly created tension on the board, according to ARTnews, by capitalizing on Superblue’s board structure, which requires unanimous approval for any vote. Eventually, this deadlock caused the business to split into two factions, with Glimcher on one side and, on the other, Sekutowicz and Superblue cofounder Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst, who was promoted to CEO after Sekutowicz’s arrival.
Dent-Brocklhurst did not respond to Artnet News’ request for comment. A representative for Sekutowicz referred Artnet News to the press release announcing his board membership and directed any additional questions to Superblue.
There have been other high-profile departures as well: former Superblue sales director Robert Newland was indicted in March for his role in art dealer Inigo Philbrick’s fraud scheme. Founding partner Jorge Mora and several other senior staff members have also left.
Beyond the management issues, one former employee said the execution of the Miami location left something to be desired. “Individually, all of the artworks are spectacular, but the way that they’re presented makes for a clumsy experience,” the person said. “It ranges from small things like the signage looking a little dumpy, to things like it’s easy to forget how monumental some of these artworks are, especially the Turrell” light installation.
Another source said that Superblue and Pace, although technically separate companies, sometimes blurred together: “Things that were revenue-generating to Superblue started migrating to Pace, so that Superblue sort of ended up being the place that takes some of the expenses of producing these works and then the sales of the works or digital ventures end up in Pace.” It raised the question, they said, “Is Superblue a loss leader for a profit center at Pace?”
A Superblue representative said this description “reflects an incomplete understanding of Superblue’s activities. Superblue’s transition out of its startup phase will enable further distinction between the two companies.”
More Trending Stories:
The Art World Is Actually Not Very Creative About What It Values. What Would It Take to Change That?
‘It’s My Damaged Rembrandt’: New Book Asserts a Downgraded Portrait of the Dutch Master Is the Real Deal
Introducing the 2022 Burns Halperin Report
Possibly the Oldest Pair of Levi’s Jeans, Salvaged From an 1857 Shipwreck, Just Auctioned for a Deep-Pocketed $114,000
Mr. Brainwash, Made Famous in the Banksy Documentary, Opens His Own Art Museum Where Guests Enter Through the Gift Shop
Click Here to See Our Latest Artnet Auctions, Live Now
Follow Artnet News on Facebook:
Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.
Job satisfaction is on the rise, and it can be for you as well. getty Well here’s some good news: Job satisfaction is increasing. In fact, it’s at a peak in
Artificial intelligence (AI) has helped Fiona Dixon's team save about 2,700 working hours in the past six months. She's created a system that does some of the