October 1, 2023For Marlies Verhoeven, art collecting is rooted in connection and community. The townhouse she shares with her husband and three kids in New York City’s West Village is adorned with works by such contemporary artists as Harold Ancart, Rashid Johnson, Mary Corse, JR and Teresita Fernández, all of whom the couple has met and gotten to know through museums and galleries, studio visits and mutual art-world friends.
A consummate connector herself, the Belgian-born Verhoeven is the CEO and cofounder of The Cultivist, an international arts club that organizes exclusive events and customized travel experiences for members, who include, she notes, “chairs of museum boards, industry titans and famous fashion designers.” What ties them together is a passion for art and, for many members, a desire to engage with an art-minded community.
Inspiration for The Cultivist came from Verhoeven’s tenure as director of global marketing at Sotheby’s, a role she left a decade ago but not before recognizing an opportunity. She had helped develop and oversee an initiative aimed at enhancing client loyalty by offering access to private exhibition tours, cocktail receptions, VIP tickets to art fairs and other perks. Robust demand convinced Verhoeven that the program could be adapted as a standalone business, one that operated outside the financial interests of an auction house.
“In the art world, almost everyone has a commercial objective, even museums to some extent,” says Verhoeven, who founded The Cultivist with Daisy Peat, a former Sotheby’s colleague, in 2015. “Once you’re a Cultivist member, we have nothing to sell.”
Club-level members — of which there are “well over a thousand around the world,” according to Verhoeven — must apply and pay an annual fee. Benefits include concierge travel services that range from assistance with custom-tailored itineraries and booking expert guides to arranging visits to artists’ studios and museums, even for shows with hard-to-get tickets like the once-in-a-lifetime Vermeer exhibition that was recently at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.
In addition, The Cultivist organizes half a dozen art-focused trips per year, each typically capped at 18 to 20 members. The 2024 destinations are Japan, Marrakech, Berlin, Ireland, Puerto Rico, Detroit and Marfa, a popular excursion that has become a fixture on The Cultivist calendar.
The Cultivist team, now numbering more than 20, also puts together a year-round schedule of member events. Many take place in the locales where The Cultivist has chapters: New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Southeast Florida, London and Belgium. Upcoming highlights include a cocktail and tour of the Marina Abramović exhibition (the artist was a Cultivist founding member) at the Royal Academy in London, a lunch honoring artist Camille Henrot at the Château Voltaire during the Paris+ art fair and studio visits with Hugo McCloud in L.A., Gabriel Dawe in Dallas and Y.Z. Kami, Eli Ping and Miles Greenberg in New York.
A smaller number of museum events are organized for those with Enthusiast-level membership, a lower tier The Cultivist added in 2021. These members have access to 60 partner museums worldwide, virtual art talks and a network of vetted tour guides, as well as the Cultivist app’s destination guides. The goal, says Verhoeven, is the expansion of The Cultivist as a “global art-experience company.”
A similar spirit of outreach and discovery colors Verhoeven’s collaboration with 1stDibs, a collection of 100 artworks, objects and furnishings that she handpicked from across the site. It’s an eclectic mix, spanning etchings by McArthur Binion and Martin Puryear, vintage Line Vautrin brooches and Cartier jewelry and Donald Judd–designed furniture.
“1stDibs is all about celebrating the most beautiful pieces on earth, and in a way, what The Cultivist does is the same, focusing on bringing people to these incredible art moments,” says Verhoeven, a longtime fan of 1stDibs. Among her own acquisitions on the site are a pair of 1950s lounge chairs by Martin Eisler and Carlo Hauner that stand in the center of her living area and a postcard announcement for Keith Haring’s first show with the Tony Shafrazi Gallery, which she framed and now displays on a nearby bookshelf.
“It looks like the most amazing thing, with a great story, and I think people don’t realize they can find little wonders like that on 1stDibs,” says Verhoeven, whose picks include multiple items of art-world ephemera, such as a benefit-concert poster signed by Sol LeWitt, Philip Glass and Meredith Monk. “Part of my curation for 1stDibs is trying to highlight some of these opportunities on the lower end as well as the more serious works that you can find.”
The edit is also very much a reflection of her personal tastes, and a number of artists represented can also be found in the collection that she and her Dutch-born husband, Jacco Reijtenbagh, who works in finance, have assembled in the 1890s townhouse where they’ve lived for just over a decade. Verhoeven says she and Reijtenbagh fell in love with the combination of a traditional exterior with a contemporary interior, which features a glass-walled double-height space at the back. The couple undertook some modest renovations with designer Kati Curtis, tailoring the spaces to be comfortable for their family — their three children are now 11, 10 and 6 — while also creating a sophisticated art-filled setting for dinners with artists and friends.
Verhoeven and Reijtenbagh both come from collecting families, and early on, they made the decision to focus their buying on living artists — in part, because the work tends to be more accessible financially but also to distinguish their art from their parents’. The couple is especially drawn to work Verhoeven describes loosely as “abstract minimalist.”
A prime example is the recently acquired Rashid Johnson that presides over the combined living and dining space. Nearly eight feet wide, the abstracted seascape features a simple boat shape, in blue tones, that repeats and overlaps across an expanse of pitch black. “It’s a good illustration of how we follow an artist’s career and wait for work that makes sense for us,” says Verhoeven. “An incredible artist, Rashid made a wide variety of work that I love, but it didn’t always fit in our collection until he started doing this.”
Among the other art arrayed around the living and dining areas is a Jonas Wood painting inspired by Alexander Calder’s geometric mobiles, mostly abstract works by Cecily Brown and Ellen Gallagher and one of Mary Corse’s half-black, half-white paintings, embedded with glittering bits of glass and acrylic. (Both Wood and Corse feature in Verhoeven’s 1stDibs edit.)
A major priority for the couple has been to ensure that female artists make up 50 percent of their collection. One of the first works that greets visitors to the home is a Sam Moyer mixed-media piece combining painting and marble that is mounted above the staircase. Upstairs in the office, a wall is dedicated to a Teresita Fernández installation of 30 panels, each one a variation on a nocturnal landscape rendered in charcoal with auroras of gold metallic paint.
Layered in among the couple’s two-dimensional works are some lively editioned objects, including multiple pieces made for the Artist Plate Project, which benefits the Coalition for the Homeless. There are also a few larger sculptures, notably the giant candy-colored Clic pens by Johannes Albers, which are playfully tucked beneath the living room’s floating hearth, and Harold Ancart’s model for an urban handball court project, which the couple inventively enclosed in plexiglass and made into a living room table. “We didn’t really have space for displaying it as a sculpture in the normal way,” says Verhoeven. “It’s a great conversation starter.”
The couple does occasionally rotate art in and out — the stairwell’s Sam Moyer, for example, will soon be replaced by a Rebecca Morris painting that has been on extended loan to exhibitions. But they try to find a spot for any outgoing works at the Hamptons home they share with extended family. “We’re not big on storing things,” says Verhoeven, who adds that they’ve never sold an artwork. “We have a strong connection to each of the pieces, because they came with a story or are connected to a moment in our life. There’s nothing we want to part with.”