A couple months back, if you’d told a friend — over Zoom, naturally — of having acquired a cryptokitty non-fungible token (NFT) on OpenSea, the statement would have sounded alien, a baffle of jargon. Today, they’ll likely ask how much ETH you dropped. (Still sounds like jargon? Check out our explainer.)

The museum world, not unfairly, seems unsure how to react to these newfangled things — if something digital whose uniqueness rests in code can rightly be called a thing. Such has been the speed with which NFTs have moved from the realm of the most tech-savvy to the public (digital) square, so potentially profound the changes they pose for a notoriously slow-moving ecosystem that conversations about their future are happening openly and in real time. 

One such conversation was Cuseum’s Discussing & Debating the Potentials of NFTs in the Museum Sector on March 25, which welcomed museum professionals whose knowledge and experience of NFTs predates the recent furor. Here are four key talking points.

The environmental cost of NFTs 

The carbon footprint associated with mining coins has long been the open dirty secret of the crypto-universe, one the art world is confronting as it rushes into NFTs. The system is a vicious cycle, such that the greater the blockchain activity, the more complex the computing calculations become and the greater the energy expended. At present, NFTs are only a small portion of transactions, but at the current trajectory, one catalyzed by hype and increased awareness, this is quickly changing. That said, as one panelist countered, concerns surrounding the environmental impact of NFTs is a little disingenuous given the entire digital reality (upon which cultural institutions now rely) is built off unsustainable environmental practices.

Key Quote: “Environmental concerns are top of mind. The escalation of resources to create the idea of scarcity makes it hard for museums to get into and though there’s buzz about clean, green NFTs, we are far away and it would be wise for museums to pause before jumping in.” — Holly Shen, Former Deputy Director at San Jose Museum of Art

Music lessons

Kings of Leon’s When You See Yourself was the first record to be released alongside a collection of NFTs, which have since generated $2 million in sales. Image: OpenSea

The NFT lightbulb moment so far? Open Austria’s Clara Blume pointed to Kings of Leon’s album drop. The rock band released three types of tokens for When You See Yourself, which offered a first glimpse of how NFTs might change the relationship between artists and fans (or consumers, for the cynically minded). One offering was a special album package, another offered exclusive audiovisual art, and a third guaranteed four front-row tickets to every future headline tour. This may be promising, but as the panelists agreed, must be supported by tech policy that keeps pace with the times to protect both artistic copyright and the consumers themselves.

Key Quote: “Kings of Leon are trying to reassign value to something that has lost value over the past 20 years. It’s an effort for musicians to take agency back and it’s applicable to every art.” — Clara Blume, Head of Open Austria’s Art + Tech Lab

Minting for museums?

When not masterminding “NFT social experiment[s],” art collective Global Art Museum animates paintings in the public domain, ostensibly to launch and sell as NFTs. Image: Global Art Museum on Twitter

The notion of museums minting works came to the fore in mid-March when a group called Global Art Museum began listing NFTs from open access collections, such as those of the Rijksmuseum and the Art Institute of Chicago, purportedly as a social experiment. As slow-moving, non-profit institutions, museums shouldn’t be expected to launch full-bore into NFT marketplaces, but there are certainly areas of potential revenue generation. Collaborating with artists on charity NFTs, in the same way artists produce limited release prints or collectibles around an exhibition, is one option. Simpler still would be opening a cryptocurrency wallet and allowing people to donate (as many prominent charities already do).

Key Quote: “To mint an artwork, you need a wallet, which is where you save tokens. Have that and you have the ability to accept donations; people will love to support museums through wallets.” — Mark Sabb, Senior Director of Innovation, Marketing & Engagement, Museum of the African Diaspora

Will NFTs create more inclusive opportunities?

Barriers of accessibility and inclusion carried over from traditional to digital art that first emerged in the 1960s — practices mirrored as institutions belatedly began collecting digital work. Similar issues of diversity and representation may well come to dog the NFT sector, but at present, the removal of establishment gatekeepers is creating a more welcoming environment for artists and collectors alive.

Key Quote: “The type of artists finding [NFT] success shows the system doesn’t include everyone. The number of collectors is growing with more collectors of color — it’s a dramatic change.” — Mark Sabb, Senior Director of Innovation, Marketing & Engagement, Museum of the African Diaspora


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