For what concerns the intersection between technology and art, the most fascinating topics are: digital art, applications of artificial intelligence to art, online sales, which have experienced 500% growth as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, artists’ and collectors’ use of social media, technologies such as augmented, virtual or "mixed" reality for artistic fruition and lastly the fingerprinting, blockchain and tokenization technologies.
I would like to focus especially on the latter. Nowadays we often talk about NFTs and digital art. However, the topic of tokenization is not only tied to these two applications, but it is also associated with the possibility of creating security tokens for art pieces. It is estimated that globally over $1,74 trillion are invested in art and collectibles. Thanks to technology and especially to tokenization, it might be possible to integrate this sum in wealth management practices. In the past 10 years, we have been able to identify the difficulties of including an art related offering in financial and wealth management practices. This is mainly due to issues related to art work valuation, liquidity, lack of transparency and of an adequate regulatory system. At present, even though multiple solutions are being developed to overcome these challenges, a widespread and systematic approach to identify art pieces with certainty is yet to be implemented. Over time, technology will enable for a more holistic approach to wealth management, comprehensive of art related services.
Should it be possible to tokenize the aforementioned $1,74 trillion as security assets, and therefore treat them as financial products, the Wealth Management sector could better manage collectibles, also from a collection management, valuation and protection standpoint. One of the possible future applications could be “art secured lending”, which consists in granting loans to purchase art pieces on a parametric base, and thus insured by the blockchain system. Protection, monetization and transferring value to the next generations are fundamental themes.
Lastly, future applications of the tokenization technology in the art world could support cultural institutions with liquidity issues. For instance, some cultural institutions in the USA who were experiencing economic hardship have sold art pieces of their collections to support themselves financially. Although it is a rather controversial and provocative topic, instead of selling art pieces from their collections, why do cultural institutions not create security tokens for an art piece instead? This would allow selling partial ownership of the piece to other private and institutional clients, but the tangible art piece would remain exhibited in the cultural institution’s premises. At present, such a solution would be impossible to implement in Italy and in Europe, but one day it could become a way of “monetizing” art pieces.
Written by Adriano Picinati di Torcello
Adriano Picinati di Torcello is Global Coordinator for Deloitte Art & Finance and leads all activities related to the Deloitte Art & Finance division in Luxembourg. Since 2008, Deloitte’s Art & Finance operations have started growing internationally. Adriano Picinati di Torcello is co-author of the biannual publication Deloitte and Art Tactic “Art & Finance Report”, which describes the main trends and topics related to the art world.
Deloitte Tax & Consulting, société à responsabilité limitée (“Deloitte”) grants Generali Italia S.p.A. (“Generali”) a perpetual, revocable, non-exclusive, non-transferable, royalty free and worldwide license to use, print and publish, in the form approved by Deloitte, the white paper entitled “L’Ecosistema Digitale dell’Arte” written by Generali based on the participation of Deloitte’s employee, Adriano Picinati di Torcello, to Generali’s conference on May 12, 2021 regarding the “L’evoluzione tecnologica del mercato dell’arte” (the “White Paper”). Deloitte authorises Generali to use Deloitte’s name in the White Paper only to the extent required in the framework of its publication. The licence hereby granted to Generali being limited, revocable, non-exclusive, non-transferable, royalty free and worldwide. Any and all publications and/or materials relating to the White Paper and/or any reference to Deloitte to be made by Generali has to be submitted in draft version to Deloitte for approval prior to publication and/or distribution. Deloitte reserves the right to request Generali to modify content of such publications and materials.” “Further information about Deloitte processing of personal data, rights of data subjects (e.g. access to, modification or deletion of data, or withdrawal of consent) and how such rights can be exercised, can be found in Deloitte Data Privacy Statement at https://www2.deloitte.com/lu/en/legal/privacy.html.
by Nicolas Ballario
In the past year, the majority of cultural institutions have had to deal with an “earthquake”, which caught many unprepared. In these months, we have realized that a physical relationship and contact with art is not the only one, but certainly the most important.
The art world has been one of the most severely hit by the pandemic’s outbreak but it also is amongst those which better reacted to the crisis, given its ability of showing solidarity and actively organizing initiatives, such as online auctions, to support those in need during these troubled times. This period has taught us that no matter how interesting and engaging online auctions may be, from a content perspective, these may represent a “side dish” but not the art world’s “main course”.
As a consequence of the pandemic:
Museums were able to continue some of their activities via digital means, but in multiple instances this has not been sufficient to support their financial needs, leading several cultural institutions to sell part of the works from their collections to replenish funds for acquisitions or to move forward. Thanks to online sales, the greater China region (incl. Continental China, Taiwan and Hong Kong) has become the largest market for auctions, overtaking the USA and UK. The auction’s main axis has shifted towards the East and for the first time, the online auction sector was able to acquire a significant portion of the overall market and to double its size compared to the previous year.
Perhaps, the widespread adoption of digital means in 2020 has prevented a disastrous economic collapse as in 2009 from occurring. However, this may be attributable to a specific cause: while in the past year the number of billionaires worldwide increased by 7%, they decreased by 30% in the 2009 crisis. Such a polarization is ultimately what supports the market.
On one hand, auction houses have had the opportunity to continue their usual activities through online channels by organizing online only, hybrid auctions and virtual private sales. Galleries on the other, have faced greater challenges and difficulties because of the pandemic. Approximately 50% of gallery revenues derive from sales during art fairs and in the past year, most of these have exclusively taken place online. Consequently, auction houses have embraced this as an opportunity to prevail over their main competitor: galleries. The strength that auction houses have of expanding their operations internationally and of embracing new online selling channels may pose a threat to the artistic research carried out by galleries, which ultimately protects and safeguards the art market as a whole.
Auction houses do not predominantly focus on conducting artistic research. Moreover, art galleries in Italy also face greater “structural” issues compared to auction houses, such as having to pay resale rights twice when they operate as intermediaries. Should political forces not intervene to implement structural changes, such as ones of financial nature, the risk is that new digital openings will eventually cannibalize the artistic research conducted by museums and galleries, which lays the foundations for the entire art system. This would inevitably lead us back, especially in the contemporary art system, to a closed, polarized and exclusive art world with little space left for artistic research as it had been until 2009.
Written by Nicolas Ballario
Nicolas Ballario is an art professional who attended Oliviero Toscani’s academy “La Sterpaia”. He has collaborated with multiple cultural and artistic institutions and was awarded the Bassani prize, one of the most important acknowledgments in the world of journalism. He is currently a contributor for the Rolling Stones Magazine’s Art section and has collaborated with Mudec and Il Sole 24 Ore Cultura for multiple culturally themed podcasts. He is both a television presenter for La 7 and Sky Arte and a radio one for Rai Radio 1 and Radio Radicale in Italy.
Credits: Ilde Forgione, currently responsible for the management of Uffizi’s Tik Tok page; source : https://forbes.it/2021/04/28/ilde-forgione-la-socialmanager-che-ha-rilanciato-gli-uffizi-grazie-a-tiktok
Magnum is one of the world’s leading photo agencies, representing some of the greatest photographers in history. The artists in its portfolio are in the top 33.46% highest growth artists worldwide in each of their respective career stages, according to data from Wondeur. Represented artists include Alec Soth, who is in the top 4.67% of artists most collected by the top 100 museums in the world, Dennis Stock, who ranks in the top 2.46% of artists with the highest institutional recognition worldwide, and emerging creatives like Carolyn Drake, who is in the top 0.057% emerging artists with the fastest career growth worldwide. And then of course there’s one of Magnum’s founders, the trailblazing Henri Cartier-Bresson, who is in the top 0.14% artists most collected among the top 100 museums worldwide.
And Magnum’s scope is widening. Alongside Magnum Gallery in London - a commercial space dedicated to exhibitions by artists from their stable of photographers - they recently also announced a new gallery in Paris, opening later this year. This is their first exhibition space in the city for 10 years. Samantha McCoy is the director of Magnum, Paris, and she is full of knowledge and passion about the medium she represents. This interview allows her to expound on her love for photography, and tell us about her life in art.
First of all, tell me how you got interested in art?
I was immersed in the art world from a young age. My father has a gallery in New York City, Jason McCoy Gallery, that specializes in modern art. Some of my earliest memories are of spending my Saturdays at the gallery, playing with the type-writer. At the time, my mother was working at the gallery as well. My parents would always bring us to openings, dinners. There was never really a boundary between the gallery, the ‘art world,’ and home, they always felt connected. My great-uncle was Jackson Pollock and, in fact, he was one of five brothers, three of whom were artists. All five brothers were very interested in, and engaged with, the pulse of America in the first half of the 20th century. As such, I learned from a young age that art was an integral branch of history, culture and identity, and that I wanted it to be an integral part of my life.
And what was your art journey from there, how did you end up at Magnum?
I worked for Jason McCoy Gallery for 4 years. The gallery is located in the Fuller Building, in Manhattan, which is also home to several fantastic photography galleries. Over time, my curiosity in photography as a medium grew, and I began to integrate photographic works into exhibitions I curated, alongside modern masters. When I heard about an opportunity to work at Magnum I was thrilled. There seemed to me no better organization to be a part of in order to immerse myself in the field. I also loved the idea of the cooperative. The nature of working for Magnum entails working directly for the 100+ affiliated photographers and estates without a middle man.
What do you do at Magnum?
I’m Gallery Director at Magnum, Paris, and my role is to present exhibitions and to work with collectors to place art works in the best collections around the world. I work closely with my colleague and gallery director in London, Nicolas Smirnoff, to curate art fairs and special projects. Together, we work with and for our photographers to ensure their work is properly represented. There’s not one day similar to the other.
It’s an honour to represent such a prestigious and historical brand and animate these remarkable archives in new creative ways. What’s more, I love working with a range of clients, from first-time buyers to museums. Photography is a relatively accessible medium in the art world.
We closed our old space in Paris with two exhibitions: Harry Gruyaert: Morocco and Josef Koudelka: Ruins.
Gruyaert was introduced to the power of colour when he first moved to Paris in the 1960s, and subsequently during a trip to New York in 1968 where he encountered the works of Pop artists Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg, but his revelation that colour photography was his preferred medium came from his very first trip to Morocco in 1969. This exhibition presented in Paris celebrated this epiphany and spotlighted one of his most significant and poetic bodies of works, spanning 40 years of the artist’s work. During his many trips to Morocco, Gruyaert developed a highly personal photographic language, revealing the essence of the colours, landscapes and people he saw and met. Indeed, he has become one of the most significant names working in color.
Josef Koudelka is one of the most important photographer’s of his generation and it was a treat to be able to exhibit an extract of his exhibition Ruins which opened at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in the fall of 2019. For more than 20 years, Koudelka traveled through the Mediterranean — visiting places such as Italy, Libya, Greece, and Syria — to photograph more than two hundred archaeological sites. Stark and mesmerizing panoramic photographs take the viewer to Delphi, Pompeii, Petra, Carthage, and other ancient locations, including sites now greatly altered or destroyed due to recent conflict. Ruins is a monument of architectural and cultural history, as well as civilizations long past.
Magnum is opening its first official Paris gallery in more than 10 years, what's the thinking behind the move?
Our most recent Magnum space in the 18th arrondissement was mostly a working environment for the other departments at Magnum and for our photographers. The latter would come and have meetings, leave negatives or prints, have coffees with other photographers and work. (This still happens in our private office upstairs.)
It was not really geared to the public, nor institutions, and the space was not evident to see works. The gallery director before me did a fantastic job of cementing an impressive programme nonetheless. When I took over, I couldn’t help but wonder what we could do if we had a more accessible space?
The gallery we’re opening in the 11th arrondissement is not far from where most art galleries and exhibition spaces are located. We’re excited to be closer to the pulsing cultural heart of Paris. The Pompidou Centre and Picasso Museum aren’t far.
The gallery will be more open and welcoming. It will feature a proper exhibition programme and offer upscale presentations. We also have a private sales room on the ground floor to showcase special vintage pieces. Magnum is really at the crossroads of photojournalism and art and it’s now time to push the artistic side of the institution. The new Paris space will uniquely combine museum-quality commercial presentations, and work hand in hand with our new online programme of exhibitions. We want to respond to art and culture enthusiasts at every level. It’s an exciting new chapter for Magnum.
Lots of galleries have closed over the past 18 months, but Magnum is expanding - is it a risky move in the current climate?
This is true but we’ve also seen a slew of important international galleries opening spaces in Paris recently. The post-COVID era will allow for new creative ways and we already see very innovative initiatives.
This space is both a means and an end for the fresh vision we have for the Magnum gallery strategy. The expansion encompasses both digital and physical programming and that’s also fairly new. When COVID-19 started, the art world had to learn and switch exhibitions online. The situation is fairly different now and the return to physicality is crucial. We feel collectors’ and the general public’s appetite to come and see exhibitions, engage with our programme and discuss with us. The art world is a very social environment too. Our physical gallery will allow all these things.
How would someone go about starting a photography collection? Where do you begin?
We encourage collectors to focus on their passions above all. It’s so much more rewarding to lead with feelings toward artwork rather than with a financial agenda. We often tell collectors to acquire fine prints because they want to enjoy them every day on their walls or share them with their friends. Of course it also helps that these pieces are investments. Photography is an accessible medium and Magnum offers a wide array of work from experimental contemporary prints to classical vintage and lifetime treasures. There’s truly something for everyone.
Some collectors start conversations around themes they love, countries they’ve visited or their preference for black and white over colours. For us, it’s important to guide everyone through their choices and support them with answers on editions, notable collections in museums, quality, vintage versus modern prints, as well as the significance of a photographer’s oeuvre within an art historical context. It’s a journey with collectors and art lovers that is built over time.
What's unique about collecting photography? Are there certain conservation techniques you have to be aware of?
Photography has become a tool that almost everyone has access to everyday. This is not the same as sculpture, or painting. But while anyone can take a picture, and there are many interesting photographs taken by amateurs, it remains an artform just like any other. The more you look and learn, the more you appreciate. There are aspects of collecting photography that are unique to the medium including the film, printing process, paper, edition structure, age of print.
Always be careful not to store photographs in direct sunlight and be careful that a print, if unframed, is not stored in variant temperatures. This is especially important for older silver gelatin prints. Ideally, pieces should be framed with museum quality anti-UV plexi or glass for conservation purposes.
Do you yourself collect art, do you have a favourite piece?
Yes! Though I do not have a favorite piece, it fluctuates. I feel very attached to each piece I’ve acquired. The first photograph I acquired from Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco was made by an unknown photographer: it pictures a bomb being dropped over a city in Italy in WWII. It is incredibly jarring and reminds me of the fragility of life. At the moment I am enamored by a Raymond Depardon artwork from within the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1981 that I acquired from our gallery last year. It’s part of a fantastic series Depardon made called New York Correspondence, and reminds me of home (not to mention Depardon’s incredible aesthetic).
How do you think photography is viewed in the wider art context?
The market for photography has grown increasingly over the past 50 years and I believe we will consider to see it do so. One has only to look at the auctions for proof!
What are your hopes for the coming year, post-pandemic?
I am very excited for the opening of our gallery in October. We will be opening with an exhibit by Bruce Davidson and Magnum nominee Khalik Allah. The exhibition will showcase two views of New York and span 50 years of photography. As such, it will reflect the richness of Magnum: both its history and future.
I’m also excited about our 75th anniversary which is around the corner (2022). Magnum has never followed trends and photographers mainly respond to and interpret the world we live in, as witnesses to the world’s events and changes. Their views on the COVID era will be interesting to revisit in the future.
We’re at an exciting moment within Magnum’s history – thanks partly to our new gallery and presence within the art world – which attracts younger collectors, new talent, and opens opportunities in new territories.
It feels like anything is possible. Paris is certainly booming at the moment with the opening of new art foundations and galleries. I hope to see our gallery become a staple in what many consider to be the photography capital of the world.
Interviewed by: Eddy Frankel, author of ARTE Generali
Wondeur is a game-changing modern company, using cutting edge artificial intelligence technology to - they hope - revolutionise the way we think about art and art collecting. Sophie Perceval founded the company alongside Olivier Berger, and here tells us about her love of art, her hopes for its future, and the collaboration with ARTE Generali.
How did you first get interested in art?
I grew up in Paris surrounded by avant-garde art and music. I spent a lot of time at the Centre Pompidou as a kid. I was never big on drawing or painting myself but I loved to look and look and dive into pictures, like you would into a portal.
What was your art journey after that initial discovery?
When I was 22, I spent 6 months in Madrid studying Economy and Political Science. The Prado, Reina Sofia and Thyssen Bornemisza became a second home in the day, and at night, discussions with my friends would often turn into heated debates around contemporary art being a scam or not. That’s when I realized that art was my true North Star. Although I was trained in business, my first job out of school was publishing exhibition catalogues for the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain in Paris. I often joke that the 5 years I spent at there were my “art degree”; I worked with Paul Virilio, Cheri Samba, Daido Moriyama, Raymond Depardon, Adriana Varejao, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Ron Mueck, Rinko Kawauchi, David Lynch, Agnès Varda, Jean Paul Gaultier... Working with living artists was the best job I could ask for, and I fell in love with the printing machine’s unique smell of ink and grease.
When did you start Wondeur, and what was the inspiration?
With my co-founder Olivier Berger, we started to work on Wondeur in late 2017. But the story really begins in 2012, when we created an experimental documentary platform for emerging artists that was pushing the boundaries of art discovery online. We won tons of awards for it, it was quite cutting-edge and entirely self-funded. Within the platform, we had an innovation lab where we developed experiments with augmented reality and leveraged formats like gifs for storytelling. As strange as it may seem, the artificial intelligence project Wondeur came out of this lab. In 2017, we realized that no matter how much our audience connected with an artist and their art, when it came to buying a piece, there was a major gap: the price of the work would always feel irrational and unjustified, whether it was $100 or $10,000. Most people simply didn’t know what to think of the price they saw next to a piece they loved. Artists themselves struggled to put a price tag on their pieces. We started to ask around and figured out there was a massive problem in the market because very few people knew how to simply explain art prices. This lack of trust in prices seemed like an important problem to solve if we wanted to expand participation in the art market. Wondeur started as a simple artificial intelligence model you would prompt with an artist’s name to get the most likely price range for their work based on their past achievements.
What exactly is Wondeur, how does it work?
Today, Wondeur is a complex system of datapoints we collect on a daily basis to document artists' careers and compare them on a global scale. We look at everything experts look at when they assess an artist’s career: solo and group exhibitions in museums, commercial galleries, non-profit institutions, publications, residencies, awards, public sales… We compare and track trajectories in order to understand what is going on in regional ecosystems. Since we can identify what causes prices to evolve in the long run, we can detect risk on value (upward or downward), measure the impact of art institutions on artists careers, measure the evolution of bias across time, track leading indicators of future growth for entire categories of artists. By doing all that, we bring clarity to how art behaves as a cultural and financial asset.
This seems like really impressive, game-changing technology – what are your hopes for the future of Wondeur?
Our vision is that the more people know about art and the art market, the more they feel included and want to participate. Understanding how the cultural value of art is established and how that translates into financial value is important when you love art and want to support artists. Understanding the contribution of non-profit organizations and commercial galleries to artists’ careers is critical too. Recognising that female artists or artists with specific cultural backgrounds are selling at lower prices for no other reason than their demographic category, recognising that commercial galleries participate in the creation of cultural value and that auction sales don’t actually make careers, this all leads to different decisions as art collectors. So our hope is that Wondeur brings more fairness to the art world, that those who contribute to creating cultural value are rewarded for it, all along the value chain, from artists to gallerists to curators to collectors.
Wondeur is currently working in partnership with ARTE Generali. Where do you see the added value for collectors, brokers and art market players?
We love working with ARTE Generali because they are extremely focused on empowering collectors and brokers through technology. They have deep expertise in art, but what truly differentiates them, from our perspective, is their vision of a more transparent and better informed art ecosystem. Their offering integrates the best of insurtech with real human experts, so, as a collector, you get the best of both worlds. Being able to access momentum analysis on artists in your collection, for example (the functionality known as MarketTrends in the ARTE Generali app), is fantastic for a collector and their broker, and that raises the bar in terms of shared knowledge and expertise. This kind of new offering is paving the way to a more efficient art market with less information asymmetry.
Do you think that technology could ever interfere with the enjoyment of art?
If technology means access to knowledge, the short answer is no. Unless you believe ignorance is bliss. I always loved maps, I couldn’t live without mobility apps that help me plan my route. The art world is increasingly interconnected, international and complex. If we can leverage technology to better navigate it, I’m all for it. The end goal is to get to this moment of discovery. This can happen in the physical world, as it can happen online, and it doesn’t matter, as long as the encounter with art happens.
Do you see AI becoming more important in the art world? How?
There are two ways to look at artificial intelligence: a better version of us, imperfect humans, or a machine that helps us be smarter, faster. AI may become artists’ or curators’ assistants, just like David Bowie’s Verbasizer randomized sentences to help him write lyrics. We like to think of the machine as becoming the artist but I think it’s a fantasy, there is always a puppet-master.
Where do you see the future of art and technology's relationship going?
Technology provides tools to create, share, promote, trade... it’s already impacting all of these dimensions along the lifecycle of an artwork as artists, collectors, dealers, museums each embrace technology at their own pace. We started to incorporate NFTs in our analysis very early on. Digital art has been around for over 40 years but it was lacking this element of trust and certification to thrive, so NFTs are a great step forward for artists working in this medium. It’s a new way to get money in the pocket of artists and bring new audiences to contemporary digital art. The historical depth of our data allows us to understand risks around NFTs today. What we see is that there is definitely a market bubble for some artists. Our job is to look beyond the hype of sales results and focus on what drives change in the long run.
Interviewed by: Eddy Frankel, author of ARTE Generali
You’d think that the vineyards of the south of France would be beautiful enough as they are. All that rolling lush greenness, the stunning landscape, the seemingly endless summer sun. But it turns out that a whole host of vignerons spotted an aesthetic gap in between the rows of vines, because contemporary art just keeps popping up among the grapes.
Multiple winemakers in the south of France, and further afield, have taken to using their land over the past few years as an excuse for al fresco sculptural installations. Visitors can now combine sculpture walks with their wine tastings in a combination of art appreciation and enology that few can resist.
The Commanderie de Peyrassol near Brignoles in the Var is an enormous 850 hectare property, producing over 500,000 bottles of wine a year. And dotted among its vines, you’ll find sculptures by major modern and contemporary artists including Joana Vasconcelos, Arman, Antoni Tapies, Richard Long, Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle. There’s a Phillippe Berry hippopotamus approaching a pool of water, an enormous Gavin Turk door to nowhere, and a series of signature Bernar Venet curved steel sculptures. The project is the brainchild of vineyard owner Philippe Austruy, created in collaboration with the gallerist Valerie Bach, who treats the space as his own outdoor museum: he ‘dreamed of turning Peyrassol into a venue dedicated to contemporary art where individual works, in symbiosis with the outstanding setting, could express themselves to the full.’
A short drive to the east, at Chateau Sainte Roseline in Les Arcs sur Argens, you’ll find a chapel which is home to the desiccated remains of a local nun. But there are far less gory visual treats on offer too, including a Marc Chagall mural and sculptures by Alberto Giacometti. The vineyard itself also regularly hosts selling exhibitions of contemporary sculpture. Unlike Peyrassol, which is essentially an open air private museum, the approach at Sainte Roseline is far more like a traditional gallery, with outdoor shows or work by artists like Arik Levy and Jim Dine.
But the real jewel in the southern French vineyard art crown is the incredible Chateau La Coste near Aix en Provence. Owner Paddy McKillen has gone to huge lengths to make his vineyard a serious art destination. Artists including Liam Gillick, Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy were invited to create works directly on site, making for an art walk unlike any other. The winery buildings are by Jean Nouvel and Tadao Ando, there are sculptures by Louise Bourgeois and Alexander Clader dotted around the place, and McKillen has even bought a handful of previous Serpentine Pavillions to place on his grounds. That’s before you even enter the temporary exhibition spaces, which have hosted work by the likes of Yoshitomo Nara, Conrad Shawcross and Tracey Emin.
These ultra-ambitious, beautiful vineyard projects in the south of France are in fact just the tip of the oenological-cultural hybrid iceberg. Major wine brands like Pommery and Ruinart invest heavily in art, and vineyards around Italy, Spain and the rest of France have been getting in on the act too.
All of these projects help to give a cultural edge to the business of winemaking. These vignerons have used art as a way of standing out from the rest of the wine crowd, and as a way to get visitors through the door. And as long as it means that there’s more art to see in the world, who could complain?
Written by: Eddy Frankel, author of ARTE Generali
Frank O. Gehry, Pavillon de Musique (Intérieur), 2008 © Gehry Partners et Château La Coste 2016. Photograph © Andrew Pattman 2016
Château La Coste - Tadao Ando, Art Center, 2011, © Tadao Ando 2015
Tadao Ando. Gate © Chateau la Coste. Photographe Andrew Pattman 2017
In a period, in which physical encounters with art works were reduced to nearly none, it has come as no surprise that it is a digital technology which captures both dreams and nightmares for anybody engaged in the art world. Following the already now subdued hype around blockchain technologies and cryptocurrencies, now NFTs or “non-fungible tokens” make headlines: not only the art press, auction houses and now also galleries, but also the global offer of digital talks and conversations seem to find no other topic than NFTs. And the waves are spreading, with mainstream papers, economists and financial analyist being interested in the financial speculation around ‘cryptoart’ as a potential asset class. There seems to be no escape from what has been lauded recently as the art world’s Napster by Christie’s Expert Noah Davies (https://www.coindesk.com/nfts-are-the-art-worlds-napster-says-exec-at-christies-auction-house).
The art world likes its hypes and not everything that shines will turn out to be gold. But as hypes go, it is so widespread that a closer look at what this new buzzword means and how individual art lovers might be able to engage with it – or decide to stay well away – seems relevant now.
What are NFTs, and how do they relate to art?
NFTs have nothing to do with art per se. NFTs are unique, that is non-fungible, digital data records kept on a distributed ledger (a blockchain) that are capable of being traded – hence the idea of a token – and which then represent the ownership of a digital asset. While making a splash in the art world, the most recent development seems to be the ownership of people’s Tweets. Important is that the sales transaction remains in the digital space and is more often than not related to digital art (or other digital collectables) which are being paid for by cryptocurrencies (Ethereum) only. Successful digital art platform worth visiting are Nifty Gateway MakersPlace, SuperRare and Verisart.
What does this mean for the potential consumer?
To discuss the potential impact of NFTs on the art market would take too long to discuss here and remains highly speculative at this point in time. What becomes more relevant is to understand how the buzz around NFTs might impact the end consumer or art lover on an individual basis. NFTs have really arrived in the art market big time with Christie’s spectacular sale of Beeple’s digital collage of 5000 images “Everydays” for 68 Million US Dollars earlier this year. This auction record meant that while people still might not understand NFTs, they feel more inclined to trust them, as they are endorsed by trusted brands in the art market. Ever since have auction houses tried to follow in Christie’s footsteps with both Sotheby’s and Phillips announcing NFT minted artworks for sale and also blue chip galleries stage exhibitions which feature some element of an NFT “drop” in which an art work appears in the digital sphere, such as recently with Petzel Gallery in New York (Simon Denny) or Pace Gallery (John Gerrard).
For potential collectors, NFTs can be attractive as they inscribe value especially to digital art works, which might be interesting for anyone not interested in hanging a painting over their sofa for example. They speak to tech-savvy consumers who are not interested in the traditional object focused art market. The technology is interesting for artists as it allows them to monetise something that was hard to ascribe value to previously, and smart contract technology means they receive loyalties should work be resold. If it really makes sense to possess digital ownership of something ideally unlimited digitally is a very different question, as is the one, if digital artworks will actually keep their value over time. If the notion of artificial scarcity will establish itself will remain to be seen. Not to mention that the quality of a lot of the work for sale needs to be carefully considered and the question of what good art is currently being stretched in the digital sphere. It is not surprising that many works are created by designers and the visual language is compelling but can be void of content.
But there are more drawbacks than just the question of quality control and art world validation. Minting NFTs, that is inscribing them on the block chain, draws immense amounts of energy. Artist and climate activist Joanie Lemercier became very aware of this when he conducted his first NFT drop in form of six videos. Having sold out within 10 seconds, he calculated that the transaction costs were 8.7 megawatt-hours; equivalent to two years of energy consumption in his studio. He subsequently cancelled further drops despite the potential to make quite a lot of money really quickly. The dominant blockchain currency Ethereum uses as much electricity a year as the country of Nigeria (https://digiconomist.net/ethereum-energy-consumption) due to the immense computer transactions (mining) needed to keep the information on the blockchain secure. There is a growing trend of artists raising alarm bells around the ecological impact of NFT transactions such as John Gerrard or Simon Denny.
Another real issue especially for the collector is the question about copyrights. Ownership does not equal ownership of rights, as became clear when the platform Opensea wanted to sell an NFT of a drawing by Jean-Michel Basquiat at the end of April, which claimed to include the copyright to the image and even the right to destroy the drawing itself after purchase. As the Estate of the late artists owns the copyright of all works, this was not possible, and the drawing was withdrawn from auction. We can expect more issues around legal facets especially as laws are not as robust yet in the digital sphere as in the dealings with physical art.
The landscape here is complex. Two contrary hopes focus on the new technology. On one hand the hope for greater equity in the art market, a greater acceptance for digital art for example, smart contracts that might enable artists to claim loyalties made from their sale and other ethically sound desires, that would enhance trust in the market for both producer and consumer alike. On the other hand, we see speculators aiming to make a quick gain by hyping up the general societal interest in the topic and especially new buying audiences that NFTs can reach, which were resistant to the art market before. It comes as no surprise that the purchaser of the Beeple NFT, Vignesh Sundaresan, also known as MetaKovan, is himself a Cryptoinvestor.
In a time when museums, art fairs and galleries slowly begin to re-open, it will remain to be seen if the talk of NFTs will become last year’s fancy, overridden by our desire to buy, look and confront physical works, or if its legacy and integration into the financial aspects of the art market may grant it a firm place in a globalised marketplace. Speculation is in any case ripe, and we have seen in the past what happens when art market bubbles burst. The tech magazine Wired called the NFT craze recently the 21st Century Tulip Fever. And financial expert James Bowden called NFTs “speculative bubbles brought about by stimulus cheques in the US, lockdown boredom and low interest rates.” (https://theconversation.com/nfts-are-much-bigger-than-an-art-fad-heres-how-they-could-change-the-world-159563) So before you invest, wait at least until lockdown is over.
Written by our ARTE Generali author Stephanie Dieckvoss, London