LOS ANGELES—Tuesday afternoon, a handful of reporters trickled into a neon warehouse in Los Angeles’ Arts District, graffitied with the phrase: “You’re So Money.” This particular building isn’t a store—it’s an event space that reinvents itself semi-regularly for a string of transient pop-up exhibits. Last October, it was Cheat Day, a fantasia of pastry dumbbells and food art dedicated to “the snacks and treats that we dream of during our workouts.” Before that, it was the millennial pink, Wonka-wannabe Museum of Ice Cream. Now, the building has been taken over by Stacks House, an 11,000-square-foot temporary museum, which its founders call a “proudly for-profit feminist financial business concept.” Like its predecessors, Stacks House is a maze of colorful installations—only instead of ice cream, the theme is money, investment and debt.
Stacks House is the invention of “Experiential Marketing Maven” Patience Ramsey, former Hillary Clinton fundraiser Kindra Meyer, and personal finance influencer Farnoosh Torabi. In the past, pop-up museums have drawn criticism as costly, hollow spectacles for the social-media age—The New York Times’ internet critic Amanda Hess called her journey through several of these things “a masochistic march through voids of meaning.” Stacks House posits itself as a remedy to that—the founders call it a “pop-up with purpose.” That purpose, the website says, is to promote financial independence and help close the gap between women and wealth in America. “We want women to know being rich is OK,” publicist Jenny Gorenstein said during the press tour, standing by a shower of dollar bills.
But in a political moment defined by fury over inequality, with cavernous gaps between the incomes of managerial rich and the working poor; health care costs so high that GoFundMe fundraisers have become a virtual extension of the insurance infrastructure; and more than 44 million borrowers who collectively owe a staggering $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, Stacks House gives off the impression of missing something—if not, perhaps, everything. (As if to prove a point: the installation recently scored an endorsement from Goop).
Stacks House interprets its purpose with whimsy. A quick jaunt through the exhibit will take attendees through the Debt Boxing Gym, where women can pose in a bright orange ring bearing the word BO$$, or hit punching bags with statistics on student loans, “deadbeat friends” and credit card debt. From there, visitors can dry off on money-printed towels, take a ride on a mechanical piggy bank at the Retirement Rodeo, or hit the Stacks Salon—a mock-beauty shop offering tips on how to map out your next side hustle. “The only way we can affect change is through money,” founder Patience Ramsey told The Daily Beast. “Money is power, and we have to figure out how to have a lot of money to affect change.”
In a sense, there’s something radically transparent about Stacks House. Pop-up shops have always been concerned with shoring up capital of some form or another. Historians of pop-up retail—which do exist—have traced the concept back as far as 19th-century traveling merchants, which were central during the Industrial Revolution for establishing markets in hard-to-reach areas. But the idea really owes its origin to a man named Joe Marver, who, in 1983, opened the first Spirit Halloween Superstore—patient zero of the pop-up trend. Marver noticed that by setting up temporary locations during the Halloween season, he could multiply his profits. These days, according to the Business of Fashion, the company’s 1,200 short-lived storefronts generate 50% of its annual revenue.
At that point, Marver wasn’t calling his invention a pop-up—the word didn’t come around until the early aughts, according to Trendwatching.com. In an article dated January 2004, the fad site claimed to have coined the phrase “pop-up retail,” as a catch-all for a marketing trend capitalizing on what they called “planned spontaneity.” Even then, the word was all about money. In one of the early self-declared “pop-ups,” a Teen Vogue installation called the Haute Spot set up at a mall in New Jersey. “Our goal is to encourage people to shop in the mall,” a spokesperson told The New York Times. Stacks House has taken the concept to its most literal end. (In interviews with The Daily Beast, representatives consistently called their clientele “consumers.”)
For all its honestly, there is something sinister about the exhibit. Stacks House pitches itself as an educational experience to promote financial literacy. But information is scarce in the exhibits, swapped out for scripted mantras like “Let’s get that bread.” The main data comes from interactive beacons placed in each installation, and even those have their limits. The beacon in the boxing gym, for example, offers a list of different types of debt, and asks users to select all that apply to them. But each option leads to the same page, with generic advice about prioritizing the highest interest loans first, automating payments, and seeking help at non-profits. Another beacon quizzes users on their investment knowledge—but doesn’t provide answers to the questions they got wrong. In a phone call with The Daily Beast, founder Farnoosh Torabi offered an alternative vision of these beacons—less as a means of supplying data and more as a means of collecting it.
“The pop-up is going to tour,” she said, “and in each city where we invite women to come, we’re going to be learning about what their financial challenges are, what their financial health is, where their credit is, what kind of student loan debt they have, where are they in terms of investing, what are their biggest needs.” (Stacks House did not immediately respond to requests for comment on whether it will ask attendees for consent on data collection).
But the most unsettling aspect of the installation is that it leaves visitors with the impression that financial solvency is something they can control. There’s a Manifestation Mural, where visitors can visualize their financial dreams on the wall and “manifest” them into existence. The Money Moves section recommends requesting money in lieu of presents. And in the Retirement Rodeo, a wall of piggy banks offers tips on saving, with advice like “Coupons,” “Fewer Green Juices,” and “Quit Vice.” (This section was sponsored by Charles Schwab, which last year paid the SEC $2.8 million in settlement money, over allegations that they failed to report suspicious activity from investment advisors.)
The result is an exhibit full of incremental adjustments for individuals, without information on how money operates in a larger context. Stacks House doesn’t address the reasons people fall into debt or the systemic inequalities that have kept certain groups from accumulating wealth. It doesn’t mention government bodies like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—which recently scrapped an Obama-era regulation on payday lenders, requiring them to assess whether borrowers can pay back their loans before issuing them—or discuss skyrocketing healthcare costs, which can often deter people from seeking care. Instead, it propagates the myth that elbow grease alone might stave off catastrophe.
For their part, the founders say that Stacks House is just the first step in what will be a long project. When asked about addressing deceptive financial institutions, income inequality, and other larger systemic questions, Gorenstein said: “These are definitely the kinds of questions we want so we can get deeper and more nuanced with how we’re dispensing advice for the go-forward.” Stacks House also plans to host seminars in an adjacent event space to talk about important issues like debt management.
In a recent Forbes piece promoting Stacks House, writer Megan Gorman opens with an anecdote about an infamous, ‘60s-era advertising campaign. The ad features a young woman dressed as a superhero, touting the slogan “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.” It was capitalizing on the feminist wave of a Boomer Generation reeling from the revelation of women’s liberation. What was it selling? Cigarettes. The Virginia Slim “ultra-smooth” ad would go down in history as one of the most successful, if profoundly cynical, marketing campaigns of the century. It was also, perhaps inadvertently, an apt allegory for Stacks House: colorful, empowering packaging for a product that could, quite probably, be harmful.
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