As Museums Begin to Adopt NFTs, They Face New Opportunities – and New Risks

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Non-fungible tokens have the potential to be a new way for artists to explore and monetize their work, just as art forms have shifted and changed throughout history, according to a Toronto-based curator.

NFTs are a type of digital asset and are typically used to buy and sell virtual works of art using cryptocurrency. Each NFT has a uniquely identifiable token, and its ownership can be traced through a ledger known as a blockchain.

The art from the Bored Ape Yacht Club collection, which includes 10,000 unique NFTs, has sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Claudia Lala, curator and founder of LALAContemporary – a Toronto gallery that hosted its first NFT art exhibition last year – says she sees them as a “new language” in the art world that shouldn’t be ignored.

“We respect [artists] once they’re gone or once, you know, history legitimizes them,” she told CBC Radio. Day 6.

“Art essentially evolves because of ideas that are shattered by new artists and new movements, and so I believe this is one of them.”

The crypto-assets have come under criticism, however, with some calling them a “scam”. Artists have accused collections of selling their artwork as NFTs without permission, and the cryptocurrency that powers them draws heavily on energy resources, so they have a large environmental footprint.

Mark Bland’s digital artwork, pieces of which are available as NFTs, were featured at LALAContemporary last year as digital prints and displays. (LALAContemporary)

Yet a handful of galleries across Canada have embraced NFTs, showing off the digital artworks they contain. A dedicated NFT museum also opened in Seattle last month.

Meanwhile, major institutions are also jumping on the trend.

In September, the British Museum started selling more than 200 NFT postcards featuring works by Japanese artist Hokusai, in partnership with a platform called LaCollection.

Freelance arts journalist Dorian Batycka says the move is a welcome change of pace for the often-retreat art industry.

“The art world urgently needs to be shaken up,” Batycka said. “The art world tends to be very opaque, based on cultural gatekeepers who have a vested interest in maintaining a very opaque system in a very top-down, vertical, hierarchical way that seems inscrutable to many.”

“And I think that’s where maybe NFTs can help.”

Visitors view digital artwork on display during the Seattle NFT Museum’s opening weekend. The digital artwork contained in NFTs can be displayed on screen or in traditional media such as printouts. (Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images)

But integrating art into collections has not been without its challenges. A recent NFT purchase by the Institute for Contemporary Art Miami stalled last month as professional appraisers have struggled to determine its value.

And last year, the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Germany lost access to two CryptoPunks – NFTs stored on the Ethereum blockchain – worth 60 ETH (currently over $200,000) after an error in copy paste.

Challenges for museums, institutions

Sean Stein Smith, an assistant professor at Lehman College, part of the City University of New York, sees NFTs as a way to prevent counterfeits and illegitimate copies that would dilute the value of a work while providing the ability to share the originals.

“NFTs are good for the arts community and they are good for artists and content creators, but pose some complications and questions for all institutions, art galleries, museums trying to take advantage of the increase in interest in NFTs,” said Stein Smith, who sits on the board of the Wall Street Blockchain Alliance.

He says institutions should ask themselves a few key questions: Are they covered when it comes to buying and holding crypto assets? And do they have the staff and infrastructure to handle and store these works of art?

“Art collections, museums, galleries, curated collections won’t always be the most innovative institutions — for good reason,” Stein Smith said.

Digital artist Mark Bland showcased his collection, Fractal Totems, as part of LALAContemporary’s first NFT show. Bland is selling the works, which are animated, as NFTs as well as in limited edition prints. (Marc Bland)

It is also not uncommon for crypto assets to be hacked. In early February, a security exploit led to the loss of cryptocurrency worth more than US$320 million, according to blockchain news site Coindesk. Decentralized financial research firm Elliptic estimates that US$10.5 billion worth of crypto-assets were lost in 2021.

New York-based Appraisal Bureau is a company that provides NFT appraisal and assurance coverage to institutions. New York Magazine reports that the company has also partnered with Malca Amit, a security company, to store the digital assets.

A company executive told the magazine assets will be stored on disconnected hard drives in vaults alongside gold bars and diamonds.

Despite the challenges, Mark Bland, a digital artist from Toronto whose work was featured at LALAContemporary, says it’s hard to ignore the momentum behind NFTs in the art world right now.

“For a museum to get on board, it’s not surprising to me that it’s just in a small measure like postcards or possibly doing auctions or hosting these pieces that become the historical elements of that time, of that period,” he said.

Bland’s solo show at LALAContemporary featured both prints from his collection, called Fractal Totems, as well as an immersive darkroom experience of the animated artwork. He thinks there is room for both mediums in the world of digital art.

Lala says her gallery is set to reopen next month with a new exhibit. She remains committed to sharing NFTs as part of what she describes as her artistic “platform”.

“We can’t ignore what’s happening with NFTs,” she said. “I felt like it was something that needed to be shown.”


Written by Jason Vermes. Interview with Dorian Batycka directed by Glory Omotayo.

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