At first glance, The Cell might look like a typical brownstone or apartment complex in Chelsea, New York. But if you look closely, you’ll see a unique art fixture scaling the exterior: a floating human cut-out amongst a collection of ropes, tubes, lights, and more. Now what’s inside? An art experience that’s even more out of this world.
The Cell is a non-profit collective’s immersive art space—serving as both a theatre and gallery within a townhouse—that houses the unconventional exhibits and performances of New York City artists. In this episode, we speak with Kira Simring, co-founder and artistic director, and Jonah Levy, associate producer, to hear the founding story and how they’ve created and mastered a truly one-of-a-kind customer experience.
We also speak with Yelp reviewer Kate H., who, like many New Yorkers, had walked past The Cell many times. It wasn’t until an email newsletter caught her eye that she decided to try out the museum portion of the attraction. Her review reads: “[The] Garden of Eden [exhibit] is an immersive art experience with a dab of museum, a dollop of that really cool crazy aunt or grandmother’s house, a spoonful of voodoo, a sprinkle of theatre, a dash of fortune telling, and a splash of other world halloween creepies.” Kate elaborated, “It was just so out of this world, it was so artsy, so cool, and so fun. It just fills my heart with joy to be able to experience the arts during the pandemic.”
The Garden of Eden exhibit was intentionally designed to be experienced safely during the pandemic, serving as a welcome escape for those seeking entertainment during an isolating time. The exhibit offered an intimate, self-guided experience, even featuring a virtual tarot reading, which—as with many pandemic-related pivots—came with its share of hiccups and technical difficulties. When these problematic situations arose, Jonah and team handled them calmly. “I would always say, when [customers] come down, see how they’re feeling.” If a technical snafu prohibited the customer from having a top-notch experience, they’d offer something in return to make up for it. “If it was really messed up, we’d offer them a refund,” Jonah said. “Nobody really accepted that. People would say, ‘No that’s fine. We had a really wonderful time.’ Really, we were giving people this extraordinary opportunity to get out of their house and do something.”
Another factor that makes The Cell so special is its dedication to inclusiveness. “One thing that I love about what we’re doing here is that there’s an inclusivity element for a lot of the things that we are doing,” Jonah said. “For example, there’s a culinary artist in residence who wants to combine the worlds of art, food, science, philosophy, and history. And so his journey, his purpose, is to get a diverse audience to enjoy all of these elements together and create a dialogue together in bond over food. That’s something that really is for everyone.”
While every business survives by creating and retaining a strong customer base, The Cell also thrives in its ability to keep the artists themselves engaged, especially during a pandemic. “My major goal with continuing to operate the place is that artists get very depressed not making art. And I get depressed not making art. So that’s what we do. We have to figure out how to do it,” Kira said. “And any limitation that forces creativity is healthy for artists.”
Here are some other takeaways from this week’s episode:
- It’s normal to grow slowly. In fact, growing slowly has its perks. Like many small businesses and nonprofits, The Cell grew gradually. Kira said this pace gave her more control over the business and what it could and would become.
- Every business experiences technical problems. Try to proactively mitigate them, and in the cases where you can’t get ahead of the problem, calmly address the issues as a team. Check in with your customers to see how they’re feeling. If the experience was subpar, offer them a discount, a free item, or a refund. In the experience of The Cell, more often than not, customers were incredibly understanding.
- Market your business on multiple platforms. Customers absorb information in a wide array of places. The more ways you distribute details about your business, the more opportunity you have to meet them where they are at that moment. Consider snail mail, online ads, and community email newsletters, which is how Kate and many others found out about The Cell.
- Understand your audience. Knowing the characteristics of your customers helps you cater to their needs and customize your messaging based on their preferences. It can also make your business more approachable and inclusive.
Interviews by Emily Washcovick; photos from The Cell
These lessons come from an episode of Behind the Review, Yelp & Entrepreneur Media’s weekly podcast. Listen below to hear from Kira, Jonah, and Kate, or visit the episode page to read more, subscribe to the show, and explore other episodes.
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