Will NFTs change museums?
Author: Mandee McFerren
Image source: https://unsplash.com/photos/f5MWSw11jjo
As NFTs take over the art market, one has to wonder how else these digital pieces might change the art world. Art goes far beyond just those who can afford to buy it – and while the wealthy may be bidding crazy prices for the hottest NFTs, those of a more moderate income level could see the effects of NFTs somewhere a bit more accessible than a Sotheby’s auction – their local museum.
NFTs, or Non Fungible Tokens, are units of data stored on a digital ledger, called a blockchain, that certifies a digital asset to be unique and therefore not interchangeable. NFTs can be used to represent items such as photos, videos, audio, and other types of digital files, including digital art. Recently, NFTs have taken the art market by storm, offering a new type of collectible as well as an outlet for digital artists to sell their work at a greater scale.
While some see NFTs in the art market as just a fad, others argue that they are here to stay and will completely change the artistic world. Many are already looking at how to best approach the popularity of NFTs, from artists to artistic institutions, with the main question being raised: “How will NFTs change the art world?”
The complete answer to that question remains to be seen, but from it stems more specific queries, especially for museums.
Known for being a place where one goes to see physical artworks, traditionalists will most certainly oppose featuring NFTs in museums. However, museums are often public-owned entities that receive their funding from tax money, and the COVID 19 pandemic and subsequent closings of public places has put a large strain on the museum industry’s income. If navigated correctly, NFTs could be used to increase both revenue and foot traffic for struggling museums.
To break it down, we’ve taken a look at some possible questions that may arise when thinking about NFTs and the effect they may have on the museum world.
Have museums started buying NFTs?
Yes! But it isn't the norm – yet. While NFTs are taking the art market by storm, museums are often publicly-funded entities and therefore may not have the large amount of capital needed to buy the most popular NFTs. Many others are waiting to see how NFTs will develop in the art world, and if they are a worthwhile investment.
If museums do collect NFTs, how will they display digital art?
A few museums and galleries around the world have started to exhibit NFTs. While some exhibitions fit NFTs into a larger story line, many curators simply display NFTs in the most obvious way possible – on a screen. This brings the NFT into the exhibition or gallery and creates a physical objecthood for the NFT. Interestingly, many NFTs displayed in museums and galleries are not actually the certified authentic NFT file. Due to the fact that most NFTs are traded on markets that impose a 50MB file size limit, artists often have to create a higher resolution copy file for display on large screens.
Why would people come to see something they could see at home on their computer?
This is where curatorial creativity will really come into play in the museum-NFT relationship. While currently many NFTs are just being displayed on screens, it is true that one could simply look up the same NFT at home and see it on their own device. To make an NFT exhibition something that visitors want to attend, the NFT will need to be part of a bigger storyline or event. For example, Berlin's Schinkel Pavilion’s “Proof of Work” NFT exhibition in 2017 displayed a CryptoKitty on a Bitcoin hardware wallet, a device used to secure blockchain assets offline. The cat face appeared in grayscale on a simple little LCD screen, surrounded by chips and wires signaling the larger context of the NFT within the technological ecosystem. By creating a spatial narrative involving NFTs using physical objects exhibitions can offer more of an experience to visitors. Curators could also pair the showing of NFTs alongside a larger event, such as an artist talk or lecture, bringing viewers into the museum or gallery.
Should Museums make NFTs of their famous works? If not, what's the alternative?
Museum’s can, and have, sold NFTs of their famous works for profit. In May of 2021, the Uffizi Gallery minted and sold a single edition NFT of Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo (1505–’06) for $170,000. The museum reportedly split the profits 50/50 from the sale with its technology partners. While technically Doni Tondo is in the public domain, the NFT of Doni Tondo belonged, and was sold by, the Uffizi Gallery for profit.
While other museums could easily follow suit, there is still a lot of uncertainty and grey areas when it comes to NFTs of already famous physical works. Alongside these potential issues,
auctioning off NFTs of famous works at inaccessible prices simply perpetuates the idea that art is only for the wealthy, which goes against the general ethics of the NFT art world. Instead, many have raised the idea of selling multiple NFTs (say, 1000 of each artwork) for lower prices. This would allow more people to participate in the buying of museum NFTs, raising excitement about both the artwork and the museum as well as lessening the dependence of museums on ultra-rich donors.
What are the benefits and risks of museums engaging in NFTs?
Museum’s will benefit by engaging with NFTs because they are what is publicly popular right now. Even if they do not grow into a larger, more permanent sector of the art world, they are a part of modern history, making them worth taking notice of and documenting. If NFTs continue to grow and be popular, museums will continue to reap the rewards of engaging with them further down the line. As for risks, NFTs pose the same risks to museums as they do to many other industries. They are a relatively new technology and movement, and many things still need to be determined over time about the inner workings or regulations that accompany NFT collection. The risks in NFTs come majoritively from their newness, and a level of uncertainty of their future.
As we’ve said in many other blogs, NFTs existence in the art world continues to grow and change with every day. It remains to be seen where this exciting new technology will take artists, collectors, museums, and other participants of the art world, and the only way to see what happens is to keep watching!