How NFTs Are Transforming the Art World Beyond Recognition

April 28, 2022

It’s hard to believe that only a little over a year has passed since the ground-breaking NFT sale of Beeple’s opus by Christie’s, one of the world’s oldest and most respected art auction houses, that made headlines all over the world.

Even before that, the NFT art movement had been gaining rapid ground as digital artists began to flock to this new medium, spotting the opportunity to introduce the valuable new feature of digital scarcity to their work.

But it was evident at the time that the Beeple sale represented a pivotal moment in the history of art. Not only was it the first time that a major art auction house had undertaken a deal involving purely digital work, but it fetched a record $69 million, making Beeple the third-most valuable living artist on the planet.

Now, it’s impossible for anyone in the traditional art scene to avoid NFTs even if they tried. In December, NFTs took centre stage at Art Basel Miami, and I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Decentral Art Pavilion as part of the Venice Biennale 2022, which kicked off in late April. The Pavilion is showing an exhibition called “Singularity,” a showcase of decentralized art that aims to “educate, engage and enthral the aficionado and the collector.”

Old and New

It was fascinating to observe the juxtaposition. An exhibition of digital art using cutting-edge technology, as part of the Biennale, one of the world’s best-known and longest-running art events – all against the backdrop of Venice with its rich history and culture. It wasn’t just digital art installations causing a stir but also ones that celebrated diversity and queer culture such as the OTB Group owned fashion brand Diesel that helped put on an exhibition of Tom of Finlands work, which truly pushed the boundaries of expression. One thing that really struck me was the fact that all the differences between the traditional art world and this emerging digital art scene can be ascribed to one word – accessibility.

Anyone who wants to can go and create digital art, mint it as an NFT, and list it on a site like OpenSea for the market to decide what it’s worth. Unlike the traditional art world, there are no critics, appraisers, or galleries acting as gatekeepers for up-and-coming creators.

Moreover, the relatively small and closed world of traditional art meant that the pool of potential buyers was also relatively small. In contrast, NFTs have found entirely new audiences among cryptocurrency and blockchain enthusiasts, many of whom are willing to pay thousands or even millions for a sought-after piece of work. By the start of 2022, the NFT art market was already beginning to catch up to the fine art market, and it seems inevitable that by the time the year ends, it will have surpassed it.

One of the most baffling things for those approaching NFTs from the traditional art world must be that some of the most highly-prized collections are cartoon apes and 8-bit characters, which are neither particularly thought-provoking nor aesthetically pleasing. However, holding one of these NFTs does convey membership of an exclusive private members club, along with other token holders from the same collection, revealing another layer of the NFT onion. More than “just” art, NFTs are also being used by artists, influencers, and businesses to curate VIP communities of loyal followers.

A Willingness to Transform, But Teething Problems Remain

For its part, the art world is taking steps to embrace NFTs, although there are inevitable teething problems. Those in the art world who want to embrace NFTs are finding that they have to create new protocols for valuing this new asset class. In some cases, the lack of this type of infrastructure is actively hampering efforts to step into the space. For example, in January, the Institute for Contemporary Art in Miami attempted to acquire a CryptoPunk for its permanent collection. Despite the best efforts of the institution to demonstrate its progressive credentials, the token became stuck in escrow while professional appraisers determined its value per the institution’s rules as a legal trust.

Tales like these illustrate that the convergence of art and NFTs is still at the beginning of its journey, despite the incredible pace of progress over the last year or two. However, they demonstrate a willingness on the part of museums and art institutions to accept these transformational changes and even use them to create new channels of funding - for example, by creating replicas of famous pieces of art as NFTs for sale.

Adapting Outreach to New Audiences

Invariably, embracing the NFT trend will involve changes for institutions in how they approach and engage this new generation of audiences willing to engage with digital art. On the most basic level, it will mean seeking out NFT communities where they convene online – Discord, Twitter, Reddit, and other social platforms. However, some understanding of how crypto communities operate online is definitely an advantage, as there are still plenty of scammers and fraudulent operators to watch out for.

Institutions wanting to take it a step further should be considering their digital transformation roadmap in broader terms. Establishing a presence in the metaverse enables galleries and museums to reach audiences worldwide without needing to pack and ship precious works worth millions of dollars. Sotheby’s has already set up home in the Decentraland metaverse, blazing a trail for others in the traditional art sector who can become pioneers of this new frontier. Ultimately, there’s a bright future for a virtual version of the traditional art sector in the digital realm. However, without the barriers to entry that existed before, the open nature of NFT art provides an irresistible opportunity to make art accessible to everyone.

By Seán Pattwell

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