When French artist George Rouault’s painting The Three Judges was first presented in 1936, Rouault’s gallery placed it in a 17th century frame. His dealer saw the need to contextualize his bold Expressionism for audiences still uncertain of such daring.
Galleries and curators have always been critical to the introduction of new styles or media in art. It is no different today in the world of NFTs. While most NFT platforms — focused as they are on volume — are overwhelming, galleries and museums have been articulating the ideas that artists using blockchain seek to address long before NFTs reached mainstream attention last year.
From Kate Vass Galerie in Zurich to Grey Area in San Francisco, there are upwards of 30 major galleries committed to presenting meaningful works using NFTs as a sales mechanism or blockchain technology as an integral part of the works’ concept. This doesn’t even include virtual and tangible institutions supporting this emergent creative practice.
Artists, curators, and institutions have adopted a variety of approaches to this nascent field of art. Here are some of the most interesting:
Art As A Global Digital Community
In April 2021, as mainstream audiences were just beginning to wrap their heads around NFTs, the longstanding code artist Casey Reas launched Feral File.
The online gallery started with monthly group exhibitions that are now even more frequent and also include some solo presentations. Exhibitions like The Bardo or For Your Eyes Only featured recognized digital artists who were just beginning to explore NFTs, while shows like Jason Bailey’s Field Guide highlighted those who have reached prominence through the native crypto art scene.
The online context of the NFT community endows it with an ability to be more global than many mainstream contemporary art physical galleries can afford. For example, Beijing-based curator Iris Long, curated The Long Cut for Feral File to introduce artists less known in the EU and US to Reas’ audience.
Meanwhile, Reas has used the platform to draw greater attention to Argentinian artist-coder Manolo Gamboa Naon, Brazilian generative artist p1xelfool, and Chinese visual artist Raven Kwok. Reas accompanies each work with a thoughtful curatorial text discussing the tenets driving the concept so that audiences are truly introduced to the artist and their practice.
Feral File also adopts a group ethic for its sales model, so that artists who participate in a group show receive one of each other’s works, creating a community of collectors who are invested in supporting each other long term.
“Community” is a word frequently bandied about in blockchain discourse, but Discord and Twitter “communities” are often challenging to penetrate and seem to frequently degrade into platforms where artists ‘shill’ (a popular crypto term for advertise) their latest works. It reiterates a kind of hyper-individualizing that is antithetical to the distributed technology’s own rhetoric about being interconnected.
Feral File not only offers a diversity of artistic backgrounds, geography, and curatorial approaches, but also a range of pricing that can truly expand the “community” beyond first-adopter collectors already comfortable in the space. In its first year, Feral File presented 92 artists across 14 exhibitions, with a range of pricing from editions starting at $75 to one-of-a-kind works selling for $500K or more.
Brick-and-Mortar Galleries Go Virtual
Feral File may be an exemplar of a digital-native gallery in the space while Pace Gallery shows what happens when a leading blue-chip gallery engages with this virtual terrain.
Marc Glimcher’s model of cooperation has encouraged artists to explore and partner with various NFT platforms, beyond Pace Verso, the gallery’s hub for Web3 activity.
John Gerrard worked with the invitation-based NFT platform Foundation on “Western Flag” (2021). Zhang Huan’s Ash Square (2022) and Celestial Burial (2022) were presented in parallel with Verso and Snark.art, a creative laboratory encouraging experimentation with blockchain. Subsequent to Art Blocks’s partnership presentation of Leo Villareal’s “Cosmic Reef” (2022), the two announced on June 7th an ongoing relationship with a curated display on the Art Blocks site.
This collaborative ethos is fundamental to the ideals of Web3 – a term designating the aspirations of blockchain and other new internet technologies to improve on the black box, filter bubble capitalism of contemporary internet culture. And so it is striking to see in a blue-chip gallery, typically associated with competitive vying for artists and attention, this new approach.
Recognizing the concerns around the environmental impact of blockchain, Verso adopted the Palm Network, a more ecologically-friendly sidechain to Ethereum. The carbon emissions associated with Proof of Work, the most-used crypto verification technique, are undeniable and efforts to support alternatives are central to many involved in the space.
Ironically, however, Jeff Koons’ “Moon Phases” NFT project plans to participate in a forthcoming rocket launch to the moon. In typical Koonsian fashion, that project may be fodder for amusement, but others like Glenn Kaino and Tommie Smith’s “Pass the Baton” represent the cutting edge of emergent technologies’ potential use for social activism.
To date, Verso has followed the ‘drop’ format most widely used in the space where one artist launches a series or singular work. Though this means that audiences get less diversity in discovering art using NFTs, it’s also an opportunity to examine in greater depth how a particular artist is adopting blockchain, addressing critical issues with it, and testing its potential.
Verso is led by three women: Christiana Ine-Kimba Boyle, Amelia Redgrift, and Ariel Hudes. None come from inherently technological backgrounds, but each represents how quickly mainstream contemporary art participants can advocate for and commit to innovative practices.
Many women permeate the NFT art scene as artists, founders, developers, writers, advisors, curators, and gallery owners. Behind the scenes of numerous blockchain-based organizations are countless women, whose contributions to this emergent space deserve more recognition.
My list is long but to highlight one other: Mila Askarova of London-based Gazelli Art House launched Gazelli.io, led by India Price, to support artists through a monthly residency as well as offering regular NFT drops and exhibition space in their physical gallery. Hybridity seems to be part of the future for art and NFTs.
… And The Virtual Joins The Physical World
Numerous NFT platforms are opening physical locations. Some like SupeRare’s SoHo pop-up in New York are tentative. Art Blocks, a platform committed to showcasing generative art, now presents two shows a year in Marfa, Texas, each with two artists from their Curated Collection — projects that offer an innovative approach to creative coding.
Generative art has a sixty-year history (recently exemplified in institutional shows for pioneers like Herbert Franke at the Francisco Carolinum, Linz and Vera Molnar at the Beall Center), which makes this both a historically-inflected and burgeoning sector of digital art.
Art Blocks has been bringing mainstream contemporary artists like Rafael Rosendaal, Jen Stark and Leo Villareal into the NFT space; highlighting established generative artists like Dmitri Cherniak, Tyler Hobbs and Reas; while also showcasing the brilliant works that many crypto-native artists are producing like Stina Jones, Matt Kane, and Han x Nicolas Daniel.
Since NFT smart contracts can automate a sum to specific individuals, charitable giving at primary sale or via resale royalty is a major consideration in the space – an aspect admirably distinct from the mainstream contemporary art world. Art Blocks’ mission “to bring inclusivity and equity to crypto” is the basis for its commitment to philanthropy that has facilitated $50 million in donations to over 100 charities around the world; up to 25% of profits from Dutch auctions are donated to charities selected by the artists. This demonstrates how the technology can enable activist efforts across the world, while supporting artists with resale royalties.
Ditching The White Cube
The gallery with the most innovative model, however, is undoubtedly EPOCH Gallery, founded by Peter Wu+ (the + sign in his name designates his conviction that his work is always inflected by collaborations with others).
At EPOCH, artists’ works are placed in an immersive virtual environment thematically linked to the exhibition. Recently, the locations have been one-to-one models of geographic locations varying from Matanuska Glacier for CRYOSPHERE or LACMA’s east campus for ECHOES.
Audiences move around and discover the works in situ, which endows the exhibition with a sense of space that makes evident how dull and claustrophobic online viewing rooms really are. Online, no reason exists to replicate the white cube. The installation of works in the environment creates a unit whole and so EPOCH sells the entire exhibition as editions, with artists splitting 60% of proceeds evenly with 15% supporting a charity relevant to the exhibition. The group shows have highlighted artists working in a range of media like Nancy Baker Cahill, Lawrence Lek, Jibade-Khalil Huffman, and Candice Lin.
Given the focus on the art’s environment, it comes as no surprise that EPOCH also takes its ecological impact seriously and selected Algorand, a blockchain developed by an MIT cryptography professor that uses the more ecologically-friendly verification technique proof-of-stake.
NFTs and blockchain-based works have been a part of a curatorial conversation around emergent technologies and digital culture more broadly for many years, but their recent efforts are admirable. This is where audiences need to be looking to understand why artists are engaging blockchain or NFTs. Here are the works responding to contemporary culture, critiquing the technology, proposing new social modalities.
Though curation may seem to reintroduce the gatekeeping that so many have decried around mainstream contemporary art, the galleries and curators help us learn enough to respond knowledgeably and navigate the media hype. Emergent art practices are always complicated and typically derided, but with a little help from our gallery friends we can get by the nonsense to embrace new ways of seeing.