Over the last year, NFTs have been the biggest disruptors of the art world. Major auction houses quickly explored high-profile NFT auctions, Damien Hirst opportunistically weighed in and even Art Basel got a taster recently. Among the larger museums, the Uffizi in Florence sold an NFT authenticated digital rendition of Michelangelo’s “Doni Tondo,” (1504–1506) and the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg has initiated plans to auction some of its most renowned masterpieces as NFTs. Recently, the British Museum announced plans to sell NFTs of 200 Hokusai artworks in tandem with its upcoming exhibition. Among others, ICA Miami acquired a Cryptopunk NFT while the Whitworth art gallery in Manchester sold a limited edition based on William Blake’s “The Ancient of Days” (1827). But these have been exceptions rather than the rule.
Museums have legitimate reasons to hold back from hurriedly exploring NFTs, ranging from legal and copyright issues to being wary of market frenzy. But in dismissing NFTs purely as a commercial fad, they are also glossing over their own biases and deficiencies. Museums have actually been resistant to embracing digital technologies across the board. Steeped in an organisational culture shaped by curators where the focus remains academic and rooted in the physical experience of art, adoption have been largely limited to creating digital archives of collections, egged on by the pandemic and the resultant need to raise social media engagement and online access.
This narrow approach to embracing digital art and technologies reinforces the perception within the NFT art community that legacy institutions like museums are elitist and antiquated. Ironically, museums have done little to add to the dialogue on the progressive possibilities that NFTs provide for the art world — a robust way to establish provenance of artworks and to facilitate long-term resale royalties for artists.
So how do we frame the discussion so that museums can engage with NFTs critically and yet tap into meaningful opportunities? First and foremost, they need to understand that NFTs are a trend at the intersection of technology, finance, and culture with potential for innovation and social impact that goes beyond the market speculation. While the media has been fixated with commercial possibilities of art since the Beeple auction, NFTs have a wide range of emerging applications for gaming, sports, collectibles, utilities and virtual environments. Museums need to acknowledge NFTs as a natural step in the evolution of contemporary art in sync with our digitally driven lives, whose emergence has only been catalysed by the pandemic. Larger museums have actually been more open minded in their contemporary acquisitions, but the underlying mindset remains that their collections should comprise only physical objects.
Cultural institutions therefore need to ask themselves the larger question: How do they engage with digital and digitised art? They also need to shed their bias for acquisition and ownership of objects and focus on what really makes them socially relevant — the act of exhibiting them. To do that, they need to build the right infrastructure and technology partners while working with digital artists, curators, and collectors who have a more informed understanding of this fledgling ecosystem.
The “Ancient of Days NFT,” (2021) digital multispectral image, 5257 x 7200px, edition of 50 with 2 museum proofs (courtesy of the Whitworth, the University of Manchester)
Whitworth Art Gallery which collaborated with Vastari Labs for the William Blake NFT project offers some valuable insights. As a smaller institution with more freedom to experiment, it was better placed to begin with. Instead of tokenising the original artwork, it sold a limited edition of a multi-spectral imaging of the artwork, thereby circumventing potential ethical or copyright issues on the original while creating awareness about related scientific analyses. They also chose the Tezos blockchain platform which has a much lower carbon footprint than other cryptocurrencies. The revenues from the sales will be used for social projects that benefit the local community. Critically for the museum sector, NFTs not only present an opportunity to democratise fundraising but also to walk away from questionable fossil fuel sponsorships. Post-pandemic, museums also need to build communities online and develop digital revenue streams. NFT art merchandise, limited editions and souvenirs which ride on the popular trend of collectibles among Generation Z and gamers offer innovative possibilities. NFTs, which are characterised by their unique string of code on the blockchain, also create avenues to personalise such offers.
Ultimately, it is important that museums approach NFTs creatively and think beyond just tokenizing digital renditions of their popular artworks to chase short-term revenue.
Museums have been unable to explore technology projects in the past due to their risk-averse, scholarly, and object-oriented approach to managing their collections. NFTs and digital forms of art more broadly speaking, present a meaningful opportunity for museums to enhance accessibility to their collections, connect with a wider and younger community globally and raise funds in a post-pandemic world.