98% of Art is Bad. A Conversation with the Founder of The Two Percent: Changing How We Experience Art
I studied art history in college. Of all people to be excited to go to an art gallery in the mecca of the art world, it would be me. Sadly, whenever I go to the large, blue-chip galleries in Chelsea to see what’s new in contemporary art, I feel intimidated. I leave feeling empty, not having absorbed anything or feeling adequate enough to return. And if I, a supposed “scholar” in the art market, can’t even enjoy these galleries, how can anyone else?
I was introduced to someone who attempts to solve this problem. His name is David Behringer, the founder of The Two Percent, which is part blog, part live tour. He firmly believes that 98% of art is bad. His mission is to inform blog readers and personally show visitors and residents of NYC the top 2% of art exhibiting at any given moment, whether it be in Chelsea, Lower East Side, Uptown, or in Museums.
The Two Percent Audio Hop tour offers a unique, refreshing alternative to a traditional art gallery tour. It challenges how we see art and gives us a way to experience it through technology. I was fortunate to have attended one of David’s beta Audio Hop tours when he was first testing out the concept, and then last Saturday morning I attended a Two Percent tour in Chelsea.
The tour comprised of a small, intimate group of seven; I got to know everyone by name by the time the tour began. David said we were going to look at 3D printed art that day, so he showed us the 3D printing process on his iPad and gave each of us a fun little keepsake: a 3D printed golf tee. I delightedly tucked the tee away in my pocket as we set out on a walk through Chelsea, listening to David through my headphones. The first stop on the tour was a high-profile Picasso exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery, whose works on display have a combined value of about two billion dollars. We entered the space discreetly, giving the gallery no indication that we were on a tour. We were given four minutes of silence to explore the space on our own. Then we heard a prerecorded version of David talking about the space and how he navigates the works of art. He didn’t speak to us in complicated “art speak,” nor did he try to make you like a particular piece. In fact, not liking certain works of art was encouraged. Later on came a recording of other artists talk about Picasso’s work. After seeing the remaining galleries, David gave us a pack of all the press releases of the shows and a list of all the shows going on right now in Chelsea. Leaving the tour, I felt a renewed sense of hope that I could approach these galleries and truly learn about the art exhibited inside them.
Later, David and I had a conversation about how the idea for the Two Percent began and of the ways the audio hop tour confronts people’s complex experiences with art.
AE: Where did the idea for The Two Percent blog come from?
DB: I had an art history degree and was interested in contemporary art, so I moved to New York in 2005 to get a job at a gallery. I went to galleries every single day, about 50 or 60 a day. I wasn’t taking notes. I was just quickly passing through them so that if I got an interview at any one, I would be able to say I was there and saw their most recent show. After a week of doing that I realized I loved it so much that if I worked at one gallery, I would be stuck in one place and couldn’t continue to see art elsewhere. And so I found a night job so I could continue to go to the galleries every morning. When people found out what I was doing, they would ask me for recommendations on what to see. I started emailing people a list of my recommended galleries, and at some point I made a one page website so that people see the galleries I recommended for the week. Five years into this, someone called me up and said, “My mom is in town, can you walk them around?” I told her I wasn’t a guide, but I figured I knew what was good and I knew how to get past the gallery staff, so why not?
I realized that if you can find art that is phenomenal enough, then you don’t need a guide. You just need someone to make you feel comfortable and valid. Someone who knows which door to open, because the gallery may not even be marked. So I did this tour for that person, and that person told their hotel what was going on, and then the hotel told the travel magazines, and that got me on trip advisor, and at some point I had to have a real business.
AE: How did these tours evolve into the Audio Hop tour?
I’d been giving private tours for three years. I’ve experimented with large groups and small groups, and I found that large groups were terrible. And as the business grew, I could give more tours, but I physically couldn’t give 5 tours a week. So the only direction you can go is expand the group size, and I had to find a way that resolved this problem. After three years I figured out how to use the technology that is now what makes up the Audio Hop. My job during the beta testing phase was to make the experience interesting for attendees and learn how to balance listening with the time to talk and interact.
I found during the beta tours that it was most interesting to participants to hear the artists’ voice as they explored the works. I also prerecord my own voice, which makes it easier for the listener to have the same formatting in each space. I give the listener 60 seconds of silence when they enter so they can acclimate to the space. You’re completely silent, and no one knows you’re on a tour. I am also using technology to take a step further. For example, right now there is David Hockey iPad drawings. I discovered what program he was using and I redraw one of his drawings on my iPad when we are in the gallery. I’m not as good as him, but at least you can see how that program works. For every show we see I have a different approach.
AE: While on a tour, have you ever experienced any strange or negative reactions by the people working at the gallery?
DB: No, I’ve had surprisingly great reactions. I was in one gallery and the gallery assistant noticed me, and those around me, completely silent, and she asked what I was doing. I told her and she said, “thank you, you have no idea how many tours come in and shout. What you’re doing is so great.” About three galleries have noticed so far and they’ve all had the same reaction.
AE: What do you see for the Audio Hop tour in the future?
DB: Because the content I use in the galleries is prerecorded, it’s easily scalable. I can do a tour of Fifth Avenue in the same way – the opportunities for using the Audio Hop tour are endless.
AE: Your tours help people distill the bad from the good. You are giving them the value of what you’re seeing based on your experience visiting all the galleries yourself and of deciding which ones are the best. In what ways do you think these tours change the way we look at and experience art?
DB: For me, the tours give a direct experience with a work of art. So often tours are not this way. They are often echoes, where you’re hearing someone tell you about what he or she is seeing and what therefore that’s what you should see. By hearing the artists voice or other recordings in the Audio Hop tour, each of us can interpret the works of art differently.
AE: What I found really important for me was that I didn’t need to show people that I was on a tour. I didn’t need to look at you and try to look around you to see the work of art. The recordings were kind of going into my subconscious, and I was exploring the art in my own way as I listened to the artists’ voices. I was in control. And, I could turn it off if I really want to.
DB: Exactly. Even in museum audio tours, you have to hit a number and physically stand in front of the work. There is so little content made that allows you to go wherever you want. Which, to be fair, is hard in museums. But in my tours I give you freedom to go and look at whatever you wish in that particular space. If you’re looking at one thing and another person’s looking at another thing, and you’re hearing the same information, you’re interpreting it differently. And both of you are correct, and we can all come together and chat about it afterwards.
AE: Are there any innovations that you admire that are changing the ways we experience art today?
There is a lot of potential out there, especially with Google Glass and image recognition. But one thing that I’ve learned with the beta testing is that technology can be as distracting as it is helpful. So that’s the balance. Image recognition is exciting, but you have to get your phone out and take a picture of something. I think it’s great and I’ll be experimenting with those two technologies, but you can’t ever let them get in the way.
AE: With the trend of art fairs being the primary method of galleries selling their art, what do you see the as the future of these mega galleries in their home space? Are they primarily for tours, like in a museum?
DB: They are becoming more museum-like. For many shows the purpose is to raise the value of the artist’s work by inviting the general public to see it. It’s not there for you to look at it and see if you want to buy it. As a result the artist’s other works in museums are more attended, and his or her pieces fetch higher auction prices. And although online sales and art fairs are becoming the dominant model to purchase art, I think you still need that artist brand generator. Galleries can also move faster than museums. As sales become a lesser component of the gallery, they will begin to focus more on awareness.
To learn more about the Two Percent, visit their website, and check out the tour ratings on TripAdvisor. You can also buy tickets for an Audio Hop tour here. Say hi to David at the Two Percent on Instagram or Twitter.