Feature - Museums 2.0 - March 2019


The New Museum’s NEW INC is a shared workspace and professional development program that brings together cultural practitioners and creative entrepreneurs. (Credit: Courtesy New Museum. Photo Rain Embuscado)

Museums profit from offering coworking spaces to artists and startups

by Susan Johnston Taylor 

As museums evolve and rethink their roles in their communities, some are opening their doors to more than the traditional guest. Accelerator and incubator programs, along with coworking spaces for artists and creative entrepreneurs, can drive extra revenue for museums.

The terms “incubator” and “accelerator” are often used interchangeably when referring to a program designed to help startup businesses. However, an incubator often focuses on nurturing early-stage companies, while an accelerator may focus on growing companies. Oftentimes, incubators and accelerators include coworking space, but they also offer more structured programming to help these businesses achieve their goals.

“You’re increasingly seeing the intersection of culture and commerce in a way that is not necessarily seen as a negative by the artistic community anymore, but seen as a positive,” says Zach Aarons, co-founder and partner of MetaProp, a venture capital fund that invests solely in real estate “proptech” (property technology). “You have a lot of these really big institutions that have a space that they don’t have anything to do with, that they would like to see activated,” Aarons says about museums that may have extra room available after a traveling exhibit departs or before a new exhibit opens.

Launching a coworking space (sometimes called flex workspace) out of unused space can provide museums with an additional revenue stream through rent payments. It can also provide “brand positioning around being a stronger community member,” says Adam Stoltz, national director of consulting services for Transwestern, a commercial real estate firm. “Museums and libraries present a great opportunity to stimulate creative thinking.” 

Here’s a look at three innovative programs and their impact on museums. 


Through ACMI Xcel, creative tech practitioners have access to ACMI’s audience to test, refine, and promote their ideas. (Credit: ACMI, Phoebe Powell)

ACMI Xcel in Melbourne, Australia

Sharing knowledge and developing virtual tour guides are the benefits of incubator programs Down Under.

The Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) launched ACMI Xcel, a creative tech accelerator, in mid-2017. 

“The organization’s very engaged with the industry and decided it would be great to have the very first Australian-led coworking space for creative industries. From that experience, we realized we had an opportunity to do a deeper dive,” says Helen Simondson, head of ACMI special projects. 

Before entering the 12-week business accelerator, companies first attend a two-week boot camp. “That allows us to select the teams that we think have a great product, but are also really ready to accelerate that product,” Simondson says. “Mainly they come from creative industries. They may be the practitioners or theater-makers.”

Some of the products have a direct connection to museums. For instance, one company is developing an artificial intelligence-powered virtual tour guide that can deliver tours in any language. “We may use the tour guide, but so will other museums,” Simondson says. “We’re helping build the museum culture broadly.”

Some museum-led coworking spaces separate tenants from museum staff, but Simondson says integrating the two groups has been mutually beneficial. 

“They get gravitas from being at the museum that does explore creative tech and has a good reputation internationally,” she says. “We get their knowledge and their way of thinking. It shifts us from being siloed.” 


Dogpatch Labs is a startup hub providing new businesses with a valuable community with which they can grow, share knowledge, and form connections. (Credit: James Keating, Yohei Ishikawa)

Dogpatch Labs in Dublin, Ireland

Digital storytelling techniques and promoting Ireland as a technology startup center is the focus inside an old warehouse in Ireland.

Former Coca-Cola CEO Neville Isdell purchased Dublin’s historic CHQ Building in 2013. The space now contains EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum, which Isdell founded. 

“EPIC tells, in a very innovative, technically advanced way, the history of Irish emigration and the stories of well over 350 Irish emigrants or their descendants,” says Mervyn Greene, Isdell’s stepbrother and managing director of EPIC.

EPIC is also home to startup hub Dogpatch Labs. The tech startup takes up a quarter of the building’s usable space, including three floors containing a coworking and ideation space, while the former whiskey vaults serve as special event venues. Dogpatch Labs is currently home to more than 450 members and more than 50 companies—mainly tech startups working to scale up.

While EPIC reflects on Ireland’s history, Dogpatch is focused on its future. Greene says technology serves as the common thread between the two. 

“We use advanced digital storytelling techniques to make it as entertaining a history lesson as possible,” he explains, “using in a couple of instances virtual reality and, hopefully in the future, augmented reality to create a 21st century museum.”

Having both institutions under the same roof makes the CHQ Building a destination for those interested in innovation. 

“We’re one of a number of organizations trying to promote Ireland as a technology startup center,” Greene says. 

When Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, visited Dublin last July, they got a history lesson at EPIC and attended a roundtable on women’s equality in Ireland at Dogpatch. 

NEW INC in New York City

Technology and art have come together in the Big Apple. 

New York City’s New Museum launched NEW INC, the first museum-led incubator program, in 2013.

The New Museum’s mission focuses on new art and new ideas, with NEW INC serving as an extension of that mission. 

Alex Darby, head of strategic operations for NEW INC, says the professional development program “broadens the capacity of the museum to weigh in on discipline-diverse conversations.”

The program was designed to occupy the middle ground between traditional business incubators and artist residencies, according to Darby. 

“Traditional tech incubators may be too business-focused for people who are more on the creative side,” Darby says, adding artists in residence are not business focused.

Participants get dedicated workspace, enrollment in the professional development program, and access to NEW INC’s mentor and alumni network. The annual program kicks off each year in September, and participants pay a monthly membership fee to take advantage of professional development services, office space, and shared equipment.

For the program’s fifth year (running through June 2019), NEW INC grouped participants into smaller, discipline-specific cohorts including museum technology, creative experiments, immersive experiences, and social impact. 

“We found that over time—even though we haven’t called out those specific tracks in the past—we’re finding gravitation toward these different buckets,” Darby says.

Diversity—of background, discipline, age, and thought—is key to NEW INC’s success, according to Darby. 

“Each year is a new group of people, and we operate a program that is extremely discipline diverse,” she says. “Each cohort becomes its own entity in terms of its needs, its expertise. Every time we have a new membership year, we learn something new.”

Susan Johnston Taylor is an Austin, Texas-based freelance writer who frequently covers small-business issues.


Making Coworking Spaces Work

Budget for community building. Coworking tenants don’t just expect amenities like coffee and printers; many also want opportunities to connect with like-minded people. 

“There is a cost and overhead,” says Mervyn Greene, managing director of EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum. “It’s not just a reception desk to check your credentials as you walk in the door. You need full-time people who are working hard to create opportunities to get together to network.” Dogpatch is an Irish partner for Google, so it works with Google to host industry talks and other meetups for tech professionals and entrepreneurs. 

Partner up. A museum may not have all the resources it needs to serve startups, so partnerships with local businesses, professors, or service providers can help fill that gap. “Cut deals with law firms and accounting firms,” MetaProp’s Zach Aarons says. “Create stuff like that in advance so they have those sorts of resources available.” ACMI Xcel brought in a business coach to teach participants lean startup methodology. NEW INC partners with Nokia Bell Labs and the Ford Foundation. NEW INC also has a large mentor network. 

Get staff involved. Museum employees may be able to offer expertise on marketing, audience development, or other areas, but they can also learn alongside participants. ACMI Xcel often brings staff into its boot camps. “It helps in a museum context to move the organization into intrapreneurship (someone within a company who takes risks in an effort to solve a given problem) and more design thinking,” says Helen Simondson, head of ACMI X and special projects. “There’s a really great synergy between running those kinds of accelerators and building skill sets within the museum.”