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What it took for Stockholm’s popular photography museum to make it in New York City

February 6, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC
Opened in January 2020, Verōnika is restaurateur Stephen Starr's newest restaurant.
Courtesy of Fotografiska

“Nowadays, you can’t just put art on the wall,” says Yoram Roth, chairman of the board and majority shareholder of New York City’s latest cultural destination, Fotografiska, a 45,000-square-foot museum dedicated to photography.

The physical manifestation of Roth’s statement is made apparent after a quick walk through the venue. In addition to the three floors devoted to the various exhibitions, the space is home to Verōnika—a Stephen Starr restaurant—two bars, an event hall, a café, and, found right upon entry, a gift shop.

Verōnika at Fotografiska
Courtesy of Fotografiska

What Fotografiska is effectively trying to offer is an entire experience—one that allows for visitors to enter in the morning and, potentially, stay until late at night. (The museum is open either until 11 p.m. or midnight daily.)

Given the destination’s for-profit stance (Fotografiska New York is one of very few for-profit museums in America), questions arise: Is this a replicable concept? How successful can an enterprise this massive, this expensive, and this niche-oriented be in a world now dominated by the virtual? How many cities can prove to be ripe enough to accommodate such an endeavor and, in turn, how can Fotografiska appeal to the different behaviors and tastes of audiences across the globe?

The original Fotografiska in Stockholm.
Courtesy of Fotografiska

The original Fotografiska, still in operation, opened in the Södermalm district of Stockholm in 2010. The board opted to set up a second location in Tallinn, Estonia, in June 2019. Just a few months later, in December, Fotografiska New York landed in a historic landmark building in the Flatiron District (the same building at the center of infamous scammer Anna Delvey’s much-chronicled art-world and financial fraud).

Delving into the city selection process, Roth runs through each one: Stockholm is where the majority of the board is from. Telliskivi, the downtown Tallinn area where the museum is located, was undergoing a cultural resurgence that lent itself to the space. And New York, according to Roth himself, “is the capital of all culture. If we’re going to get a chance to work with the best artists and if we’re going to be leaders in photography, it means we have to be in the leading cultural city.”

A rendering of the building exterior of Fotografiska in New York City.
Courtesy of Fotografiska

Trying to celebrate, in Roth’s words, “the whole breadth of photography—everything from the big names that are pop culture to emerging artists,” is no easy task when everyone with a smartphone calls himself an artist. Whether because of naivete or honest hope, Roth disagrees: “Ten years ago, when the smartphone came out, everybody said, ‘Photography is irrelevant.’ I think it’s actually gone the other way. Now that everybody has 10,000 terrible pictures on their phones, there is a higher appreciation for [good] photography, both in terms of the skill set that’s required and the unique creative eye.”

He goes on: “Because we’re confronted with thousands of images a day, we’ve become inundated and subsequently immune to photography. But when you stand in front of a high-quality print, you have a different experience. It returns to being art.”

That creativity is reflected in the selection of exhibits. A committee consisting of the museum’s founders (brothers Jan and Per Broman), a board member, and the director of exhibitions from each location picks the touring shows, which amount to about two-thirds of the 20 exhibits mounted at each branch per year. The last third includes exhibits meant for, and appealing to, the local culture set.

“We know New York is a very different city than Stockholm and Tallinn,” explains Amanda Hajjar, the exhibitions director in New York. “We will have exhibitions [here] that speak specifically to our [local audience],” she says, bringing up a specific show now on display at the location: Anastasia Taylor-Lind’s “Other People’s Children,” which delves into the childcare crisis that has taken over the city.

Photographs by Ellen von Unwerth at the “30 Years of Photographing Women” exhibition.
Courtesy of Fotografiska

Hajjar mentions medium and quality of work as top priorities when selecting which shows to set up. “We look at genre and practice, and we always want a diversity of artwork in the building, such as fine art conceptual work, fashion photography, photojournalism, and mixed media.”

When asked to compare the various museums, Roth brings up visitors’ age. “The one thing we see in common across all these different [locations] is that we tend to target a really young audience,” he says. “We tend to be somewhere between the 28- and 35-year-olds. They are the ones who are culturally curious; they are the ones who are spending the money that they are earning on travel and on experiences and on dinners; and that makes it sort of a go-to place.”

But the critical question: Are people around the world willing to pay for this—undeniably expensive—experience? (General admission in New York costs $28, which is $28 more than the free entry that plenty of local nonprofit cultural destinations offer.) According to Roth, yes, given the for-now incessant hunger for things to do and to post about online: “People nowadays seek experiences, and then they seek to share that experience.” And it seems that Fotografiska is here to provide and profit from that human tendency.

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