Creating community in virtual spaces
The professional development artist incubator NEW INC is a program of the New Museum. Founded in 1977, the New Museum supports and exhibits the work of contemporary artists and sparks dialogues on contemporary art. This mission, and the museum’s focus on living artists, has led to activities featuring artists working with digital technologies, from special exhibitions to augmented reality walking tours and a host affiliation with Rhizome, an early pioneer advocating for born-digital art.
In 2014, the New Museum established NEW INC to provide practical resources and build community among creatives working at the intersection of art, design, and technology. Cohort tracks include Art & Code, Creative Science, and Extended Reality, along with two rotating tracks developed with members’ input. Running annually from September to August pre-pandemic, the program offered in-person convenings, workshops, mentorship sessions, and a co-working space that also served as a meeting ground for networking and chance encounters with peers.
With the physical space suddenly shut down due to the pandemic, NEW INC worked to recreate this lively atmosphere online. The team organized virtual studio visits, online office hours, and virtual mentorship matchmaking in addition to events on Zoom. Staff took on active Zoom facilitation roles, using prompts, reactions, posing questions in video and in chat, and finding tools to share content, gather input, generate word clouds, and collaborate.
Staff, however, note that such facilitation can be overwhelming, involving juggling interactive tools, technical troubleshooting, sharing screens, and active facilitation. With so many stimuli and responsibilities simultaneously at play, Maddie Aleman, NEW INC community manager, underscores, “It’s important to be mindful that we can’t be everywhere at once and we also have to be present.” Borrowing phrasing from writer and curator Legacy Russell, Aleman celebrates “embracing the glitch” as well as “loosening ideas of perfection,” bringing humanity into digital spaces that are now “part of the world that we live in.”
Aleman is also engaging in a period of reflection, working to avoid over programming and considering how to balance in-person and virtual programs. Explaining, “I’m in a process of doing less with an emphasis on more intention and purpose,” she shares questions she considers when taking a step back:
- Do attendance numbers remain steady?
- Are the right people in the virtual room?
- What is the post-event relationship—is there time to support participants who reach out and to build bridges?
- Are events providing the desired opportunities—to connect, share, etc.?
She also notes a need to self-assess: “If you feel like it’s a chore, the people you are serving will feel it.”
NEW INC’s evolution over the past two years has also involved reevaluating its core values. While once the program touted entrepreneurship and innovation, today NEW INC emphasizes collectivism, stewardship, justice, and interdisciplinary collaboration. In addition to centering these values in activities with cohort members, the program is in the process of developing an accessibility plan and creating a list of BIPOC vendors to hire for needs such as documentation and live streaming.
In summer 2022, NEW INC will embark on a strategic planning process. Virtual formats enabled the program to expand nationally, leading the team to envision possibilities such as a virtual membership tier, in-person regional convenings, and national partnerships with other artist services entities. Looking forward, Salome Asega, NEW INC’s director, sees a need for ongoing flexibility in budgets and among staff, recalling that “we’ve had to pivot and then re-pivot in projects because we’re learning as we go.” She also notes the need to continually reassess how to meet cohort members’ needs and “what artist professional development in this time means,” observing, “We’re operating in a whole new world.”