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September 4, 2023

How to Decentralize a Museum

As HEK Basel launches its new DAO, a group of friends explores how the institution is evolving
Credit: Dorota Gaweda and Eglė Kulbokaitė, Mouthless Part IIIl (2023). Photography by Franz Wamhof. Courtesy of HEK Basel
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How to Decentralize a Museum
Exploring the Decentralized Web — Art on the Blockchain” is currently on view at HEK Basel. Join Friends of HEK here.

Having devoted its 2023 exhibition program to the developments surrounding DAOs and blockchain technology, last month HEK (House of Electronic Arts) launched Friends of HEK as a DAO in its own right. As part of the institution’s Web3 strategy, the recent exhibition “Collective Worldbuilding — Art in the Metaverse” addressed decentralized processes of collaborative working as well as the joint creation of virtual worlds and organizational structures. The museum’s new show, “Exploring the Decentralized Web — Art on the Blockchain,” focuses on blockchain as an artistic medium.

Both exhibitions, as well as the institution’s experiments in decentralization, are documented in a forthcoming publication, Algorithmic Imaginary. Art on the Blockchain and in the Metaverse, set for release in October. Here the museum’s director, Sabine Himmelsbach, asks a number of friends of HEK how Web3 is reconfiguring the institution.

Installation view of “Collective Worldbuilding — Art in the Metaverse,” at HEK, 2023. Photography by Franz Wamhof. Courtesy of HEK Basel

Sabine Himmelsbach: HEK recently launched its own decentralized autonomous organization (DAO), Friends of HEK, replacing a traditional membership card with a new model of tokenized community. This allows members of the DAO to participate in decision-making and in the curation of exhibitions. Why have you joined Friends of HEK? What do you see as being the long-term benefits of this kind of collaboration between museums and their audiences? Is something fundamental changing?

Armin Blasbichler: Friends of HEK isn’t precisely a DAO. Rather, it is a globally distributed community of individuals who share the same values and are incentivized to engage in shared agency. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to collaborate on the conception of this project, which left me with no reason not to join it. In my vision, the project encapsulates a kind of earth-moon relationship — distinct bodies sharing a core material while possessing independent orbits and characteristics, interconnected by the gravitational interactions they exert upon each other.

Having participated in some mission-driven DAOs across different fields, I’ve discovered that having a voice in such organizations imparts a unique quality — a vested interest that transcends mere economic considerations and idealistic principles. Instead, it fosters a sense of shared stewardship. I’m excited to witness HEK expand this potential into the cultural sphere.

Damjanski: I consider this an experiment and a very interesting one. It’s an intriguing approach to transforming the conventional one-way communication of an institution into a multiway conversation. In its most radical manifestation, it has the potential to pave the way for a novel institutional operating model in the future. Imagine all visitors could have an impact on what will be shown. I’m curious to see how this plays out and what happens next!

Installation view of “Collective Worldbuilding — Art in the Metaverse,” at HEK with work: Lea Ermuth, An invite, to eternity (2022). Photography by Franz Wamhof. Courtesy of HEK Basel

Linda Loh: I have wonderful memories of my visit to HEK in 2017. I was interested in digital art long before that, but the art world wasn’t, so it was exciting to feel immersed in “my artists” after doing the rounds of all the art in Basel and beyond. I joined Friends of HEK because it felt like a way to keep in touch with a progressive community at the forefront of current developments. Because I’m based in Australia, I won’t be a regular in-person visitor to HEK, but it’s a novelty being connected despite being on the other side of the world. As an artist, the potential to participate in exhibitions was a factor, and I like the idea of hearing about online events and exhibitions that I might not notice otherwise. 

Fundamental changes are already happening, with museums reconsidering their role in society. Blockchain technology and DAOs are just a part of this evolution, enabling new means of audience engagement and other things not yet dreamt of. The challenge might be to maintain long-term engagement. With the best of intentions life gets busy and enthusiasm wanes because of diversion, no matter how appealing the institution or community. How can people be reminded periodically of the good things to check out? Spending all day on Discord is not the answer and communication methods are fragmented these days. 

For any museum function, we will always need to ask whether blockchain and DAO structures are the right tools for the job, and whether they are flexible enough to accommodate the vagaries of human interaction and attention. 

Clara Peh: I was excited to see HEK Basel launch Friends of HEK as there has been extensive research and speculation on how a DAO structure could be adopted for cultural organizations, but this is one of the first attempts I have seen that truly aims to integrate the DAO community into the organization’s ongoing work. It is still too early to comment on whether this will be a successful approach to more democratized decision-making and community engagement, but I appreciate the initiative. At the very least, setting up a DAO demonstrates that the institution is interested in enabling its community to have a stake in some of its decisions, opening up possibilities beyond its walls.

Anne Schwanz: We [OFFICE IMPART] joined Friends of HEK because we have appreciated the work of the institution for years. With the token and the approach to a decentralized solution via digital membership, it felt more accessible and inclusive than a regular institutional membership that depends on the physical location of the museum. This version of access offers a way to belong, to participate in the togetherness, and be more active and directly engaged, even remotely. Technology in itself does not guarantee change, but its integration into organizations can help to actively shape them in a sustainable manner. 

Installation view of “Collective Worldbuilding — Art in the Metaverse,” at HEK with work: Ian Cheng, Life After BOB: The Chalice Study (2021-22). Photography by Franz Wamhof. Courtesy of HEK Basel

SH: HEK’s new exhibition, Exploring the Decentralized Web — Art on the Blockchain, spotlights the latest developments in Web3 art and culture. Many of the artists involved are concerned with the economic and social impact of new technologies. At a time when the role of the curator and the museum are in flux, what sort of curatorial approaches suit natively digital art?

AS: For me, the first thing is always the artists and their work, regardless of their choice of medium. I wouldn’t necessarily make a distinction between curatorial approaches to digital art because, after all, you’re dealing with art that just happens to be in a digital medium. What’s important to me is an exciting contextualization that creates added value that enables new references beyond the work itself. What interests us at the gallery are artists who use new technologies as material, find their own themes for them, and let their language have its say in the most varied and diverse forms. 

CP: In my own work as a curator who focuses on emerging technologies, I find that it is often important for me to play the role of a translator in order to set up a conducive context for works to be viewed in. Some of the most interesting works around blockchain subvert our interactions and expectations around the technology. To present this in an exhibition, I must first make these assumptions legible to a new audience such that they can understand what the work is seeking to achieve and challenge. While a growing segment of art-goers are digitally native, it is still a lot to assume that the general public are familiar with new technologies such as blockchain.

LL: I see too many approaches that are not ideal, including fake white cubes in the metaverse that display flat works in a tedious long line on the “wall” or else jammed together like a nightmare salon. Likewise, many of the physical “galleries” that have sprung up hosting “NFT art” exhibitions are rarely well-considered from a curatorial viewpoint. 

I support a hybrid approach — physical installations in destination venues are irreplaceable, but there’s a lot to be said for novel remote presentations too. As a remote visitor, I have enjoyed exhibitions where works are well integrated into a bespoke, responsive digital 3D environment that may be explored using home devices such as a screen or VR headset. What often goes unconsidered in physical exhibitions is the problem of excessive heat, EMF, and a lack of fresh air which can leave the visitor feeling depleted. Ultimately, the prime site is the mind and body of the viewer. Natively digital or not, perhaps that is the essence of the curatorial challenge. 

Installation view of “Collective Worldbuilding — Art in the Metaverse,” at HEK with works: Katharina Haverich, butternut babe (2022); bear claws, 2022, ... dreams about girls (2021-22); ... dreams about girls (2021-2022); Afro Dominatrix (2022); Soldier’s Day Dream (2022). Photography by Franz Wamhof. Courtesy of HEK Basel

D: Despite all the online chatter about the role of the curator, we haven’t developed many new curatorial approaches. On the one hand, the classic role of the curator makes sense in order to create unique narratives and document art movements. On the other hand, a more bottom-up and decentralized approach can help to capture the zeitgeist as it emerges.

An offline example is last year’s group show at O’Flaherty’s, titled “The Patriot,” which felt both decentralized and punk at the same time, like a real-life Cryptovoxels exhibition from the early 2020s. By contrast, an interesting online experiment was RATS (Rapid Art Token Swaps). Hosted by Steve Klebanoff and Jay Delay, RATS allowed users to trade art for art, trade art for a token, or trade a token for art. Once all 100 tokens were claimed, anyone could trade their own NFT for one in the vault, which included some Chromie Squiggles. This led a number of users to try to game the system by uploading all kinds of NFTs to barter for others. By this point, you know the vault is a collection of very random photos, but the entire curatorial process is documented like a beautiful performance on the blockchain. 

These examples of decentralized curation produce quite different, more open-ended, narratives to those that institutions usually tell. 

AB: Contextualizing information generates knowledge; contextualized knowledge creates meaning. These skills remain essential for mediating any art form. At a time when the number of digital creators is exploding due to disruptive technologies like crypto, Web3, and AI, anyone is able to create for a global audience in real time. Even my 11-year-old son has minted photomoshed trash cans and sold them on NFT marketplaces. But who curates the memes, feeds, tweets, and copymints, not to mention the incessant iterations of generative art algorithms? 

Software agents like Botto leverage crowd wisdom; digital art platforms rely on gamified long-form curation; while some artists opt for short-form models and investor-collectors hunt for grails. Whatever the case may be, these practices lack inquisitive human-centered narratives. Projects like Feral File, Le Random, Verse, and Zien lead the way in this endeavor.

Installation view of “Collective Worldbuilding — Art in the Metaverse,” at HEK with work: Omsk Social Club, Heart of an Avatar <3 (2023). Photography by Jonas Schoeneberg. Courtesy of HEK Basel

SH: The blockchain’s digital geography allows physical institutions to extend their reach and reimagine their collections. From your perspective, what have been the most successful museum strategies that leverage new technologies in recent years?

LL: I have enjoyed seeing institutions such as LACMA and the Serpentine Galleries set up art and technology “labs,” thereby opening up experiments, dialogues with digital artists, and remote viewing opportunities. LACMA’s collaboration with Epoch Gallery worked well, leveraging the latter’s skills at building worlds responsive to the art and able to be explored online and in VR. The ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe shares a focus on the digital realm, offering various ways to experience their exhibitions via video platforms and custom websites. 

AB: We’ve witnessed significant commitments from institutions including the Centre Pompidou, Kunstmuseum Bern, the Francisco Carolinum Linz, and Buffalo AKG, among others. Their strategies encompass familiar approaches, ranging from fundraising models to digital art commissions and even the acquisition of art NFTs into permanent collections. While it’s encouraging to see museums entering this space, the potential for novel avenues is extensive.

Beyond the institutional landscape, intriguing approaches are emerging from natively Web3 projects such as the Museum of Crypto Art (MOCA), a platform for decentralized curation that is driven by a cypherpunk ethos and crypto culture. JPG is also dedicated to promoting and preserving the NFT ecosystem’s cultural objects through online exhibitions and NFT canons created by the community. 

Traditional museums can draw inspiration from Web3 initiatives such as MOCA and JPG, while tailoring strategies to their own specific missions and heritage.

AS: It started for me with “Proof of Work,” initiated by Simon Denny at Schinkel Pavillon back in 2018 — an exhibition that played a role in shaping art discourse around blockchain and Web3 whose curation was decentralized and communication transparent. Hito Steyerl’s 2021 project, WEM GEHÖRT DIE BUNDESKUNSTHALLE? (“​​WHO DOES THE BUNDESKUNSTHALLE OWN? VOTE!”) also followed this logic. By “occupying” the Bundeskunsthalle through the purchase of the ENS (Ethereum Name Service) domain, the public was able to vote on the future of the Bundeskunsthalle according to three different models. Right now, I find it exciting to follow the discussions taking place in the We Are Museums Lab, which has been engaging with the cultural possibilities of Web3 for years.

Installation view of “Collective Worldbuilding — Art in the Metaverse,” at HEK with work: Omsk Social Club, Heart of an Avatar <3 (2023). Photography by Franz Wamhof. Courtesy of HEK Basel

SH: Web3 is premised on decentralization and a new kind of economic agency in a world of online communities. How free are digital creators right now to build careers without relying on gatekeepers? Are we seeing new forms of mediation emerge?

CP: I believe that digital creators can indeed access new pathways and possibilities to build their careers, while Web3 has probed a broader understanding of art as well as what people are willing to invest in as artistic practice. Through NFTs, artists have been able to reach out to an international audience and share and sell their works without requiring a specific mediator. The Web3 ecosystem has also enabled a greater number of artist communities to emerge across borders, including NFT Asia and Cyber Baat, while collectors are also taking a more active role in the primary market, such as 6529’s Memes Collection. On the other hand, in this paradigm artists have become reliant on their social media followings and direct introductions to reach out to new audiences. 

What was once the responsibility of a gallery — to chart out an artist’s long-term career and help them gain exposure while shouldering various costs — has now fallen to the artist as an individual. 

From my position in Southeast Asia, it also appears that artists based in certain geographies have had more support than others. A quick Google search of “top selling NFT artists” as well as SuperRare’s “Top Artists” chart surfaces very few artists outside of the US and Europe. 

AS: Over the course of nearly 20 years in the art market, we have observed a clear shift in roles and a dissolution of relationships based on dependency since the beginning of digitalization. Creators are now more self-determined and visible, and can therefore interact more autonomously and independently with other players. Individual arrangements offering greater flexibility are more natural nowadays. However, this does not mean that gatekeepers no longer play a role; indeed, they still hold a lot of power, but there are new players in the market and new mediators, including marketplaces. Beyond pure sales, contextualization and curation will become increasingly important, while networks and communities remain important players with the power to influence careers.

Installation view of “Collective Worldbuilding — Art in the Metaverse,” at HEK with works: Jonas Lund, Red Telephone (2020); Optimisation Strategy (2020); Jonas Lund Token (JLT) 1041 (2019); Walk with Me (2022). Photography by Franz Wamhof. Courtesy of HEK Basel

D: Right now, there’s definitely a bottom-up energy that is surfacing a bunch of artists from different communities. While I am not convinced that this energy is infiltrating traditional institutions, I hope it will as time goes on.

AB: This new kind of economic agency is built on an open, decentralized, censorship-resistant, borderless, peer-to-peer value exchange infrastructure which enables any two parties anywhere in the world to transact value without intermediaries in real time. This ingenious technological achievement is freely accessible to everyone. However, it doesn’t guarantee success for all. While some artists have re-emerged or forged their careers exclusively by embracing Web3’s capabilities, there will be artists who struggle to establish a career despite their involvement with Web3. There’s no magic trick to address this. 

Passionate individuals, some without formal training in art or the creative industries, have emerged as influential figures in the digital art space. At the same time, a new breed of collectors has flourished, with many assuming pivotal roles as thought leaders and beacons of guidance. 

LL: It’s great that this movement has heightened the acceptance of digital art and introduced artists to new audiences. With the momentum brought by blockchain platforms, and the promise of systems for handling royalties and provenance, artists have felt a new freedom and many have thrived. But we also know that royalty systems are fragile and gatekeeping is built into human nature. Not all platforms are open to every artist, and selective curation of events and online exhibitions is not necessarily a bad thing. 

That said, there seem to be more opportunities for direct connection and cultural participation in Web3, while hierarchies seem flatter. 
Installation view of “Collective Worldbuilding — Art in the Metaverse,” at HEK with work: Sarah Friend, Untitled (2023). Photography by Franz Wamhof. Courtesy of HEK Basel

SH: Last year, Frances Liddell identified the problem of “tokenism” as a situation where participants have a voice without the power to have their voice heeded. What new kinds of institutional norms do we need in order to safeguard the museum as an inclusive space? How can we ensure that tokenized membership does not become tokenistic?

AB: …and allow me to add: “How can we encourage institutions to have skin in the game and demonstrate a vested interest in fostering an inclusive space for the digital age?” Mere virtue signaling and symbolic representation games are ineffective. Credibility acts as the reserve currency, earned through actions.

Blockchain tokens, whether fungible or non-fungible, serve as programmable anchor points capable of unlocking rights, bestowing agency, and presenting opportunities for collaboratively constructing resilient structures of value. Therefore, thoughtful design of such vehicles is imperative. Furthermore, any such endeavor must pay heed to community dynamics and recognize that operating on a transparent public ledger establishes an enduring social contract between the holder and the issuer. Open innovation forges credibility with a community, leading to the organic emergence of norms for shared stewardship and governance.

D: It’s all about the structural incorporation of tokenized members, their actions, and the impact of their decisions on the institution. 

Ultimately, it will come down to how much control an institution is willing to cede and how much it opens itself up to its members. 
Installation view of “Collective Worldbuilding — Art in the Metaverse,” at HEK with work: Holly Herndon & Methew Dryhurst, CLASSIFIED (2021). Photography by Franz Wamhof. Courtesy of HEK Basel

LL: I feel cynical about the utopianism surrounding Web3 and blockchain. At this stage, any membership involving blockchain is by nature exclusive, due to the technical barriers for most people. If only a tech-savvy subset of a potential audience has the power to make decisions, then results will invariably be skewed. Much depends on the design of the DAO and the policies of the institution as to how much power a token holds, and which aspects of the institution are influenced by token holders. For all the potential of blockchain, is it really the ultimate tool for a job whose requirements we may not be clear about yet? That said, I’m all for the experiments happening here — how else will we learn and debug? The fog clears as we move through it. 

CP: Firstly, it would be important for the museum to build an inclusive community to make decisions and suggestions toward its programming. This requires the museum not only to reach out to those with a vested interest in the institution, but those who represent underserved communities who could benefit from a relationship with the museum but who may not have been represented in the museum’s previous work. Secondly, the membership program would need to consider areas beyond the concern of the online community, including the museum’s operations and wider programming. 

As a participant, the museum team should be able to retain its own say in the exhibition calendar, curatorial decisions, and so on. But there are other areas in which the community might participate — determining topics for exhibitions as well as the types of workshops and talks put on by the museum. 

AS: Circles of friends and supporters have a very long history and are not a recent by-product of tokenized membership. 

Incorporating technologies whose structures are decentralized, transparent, and embedded with the principle of participation can help to transform Web2 accessibility into Web3 integration. 

At the moment, we don’t need one general solution but individual solutions that reflect the diverse needs of each institution and everyone involved, from the employee to the visitor.

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Armin Blasbichler is an architect, artist, and designer based in Switzerland. He has held positions at universities and art schools across Europe for 15 years, most recently serving as the creative director of the MA in Design at the Basel Academy of Art and Design. In 2014, he discovered Bitcoin and was drawn in by its disruptive implications for society and economics. In 2017, he minted his first NFT and has been actively collecting art on the blockchain ever since. His fascination with the technology and its innovative, subversive culture prompted him to leave his tenured position to fully explore this space. He is currently working as a consultant and producer for Web3-based art projects. He provides guidance to curators and institutions and is dedicated to equipping artists and creators with the necessary skills to harness the capabilities of Web3.

Damjanski is an artist living in a browser. Concerned with themes of power, poetry, and participation, he explores the concept of apps as artworks. His app, Bye Bye Camera, is the camera for the posthuman era, removing anyone caught on camera. Never Not There transformed the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany into a dystopian server room, while the LongARcat app creates long cats in AR. In March 2022, he published his first decentralized app (dapp), Unhuman Compositions — a collection of 777 participatory generative photography NFTs, each generated when a person takes a photo with their smartphone. In 2018, he co-founded MoMAR, an augmented reality gallery app aimed at democratizing physical exhibition spaces, art institutions, and curatorial processes within New York’s Museum of Modern Art. He has exhibited internationally, including at NRW-Forum, Düsseldorf; König Galerie and Tropez, Berlin; Roehrs & Boetsch, Zürich; Pioneer Works, New York; and Museum of Contemporary Digital Art. 

Linda Loh is a visual artist working between New York and Melbourne. Her multimedia works navigate the elusive form and materiality of digital space with transformed sources of light. Since receiving a BFA in Expanded Studio Practice from RMIT University, she has exhibited in solo and group exhibitions in Australia, the US, and Europe. She has undertaken artist residencies around the world, including NARS in New York. In 2021, she completed an MFA in Computer Arts at the School of Visual Arts in New York. In 2022, she was involved in an innovative curatorial project resulting in an exhibition at Untitled Art Miami Beach. She is currently participating in exhibitions in Hobart, Melbourne, New York, Florida, and online as part of MESH Art Fair in Decentraland and Wild Media: Wired Wilderness.

Clara Peh is a curator and arts writer based in Singapore. Her practice centers on emerging technologies, digital visual cultures, and experimental practices. She is the Founder of NFT Asia, as well as the Curator of Art Dubai Digital 2023. Peh’s curated projects include: “Proof of Concept” at Co-Museum, Singapore; “Generating / Iterating” at TheUpsideSpace, Singapore; and “A Screen of One’s Own,” Superchief Gallery NFT, New York. She sits on the advisory board for the Julius Baer Next Generation Art Prize.

Anne Schwanz studied art, art history, and education. After more than 10 years as senior director of an international Berlin gallery, in 2018 she founded OFFICE IMPART, a multi-dimensional space and platform for contemporary art, together with Johanna Neuschäffer. The two gallery owners are experts for and about a changing art world who develop exhibitions both online and offline. She co-founded the research initiative Art +Tech Report, the Talk Festival “GOOD TO TALK,” and has curated several external exhibition projects.

Sabine Himmelsbach is director of HEK (House of Electronic Arts) in Basel. After studying art history in Munich she worked for galleries in Munich and Vienna from 1993 to 1996, later becoming project manager for exhibitions and conferences for the Steirischer Herbst Festival in Graz, Austria. In 1999, she became exhibition director at the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe. From 2005 to 2011 she was the artistic director of the Edith-Russ-House for Media Art in Oldenburg, Germany. Her exhibitions at HEK in Basel include “Ryoji Ikeda” (2014), “Poetics and Politics of Data” (2015), “Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: Preabsence” (2016), “unREAL” (2017), “Lynn Hershman Leeson: Anti-Bodies, Eco-Visionaries” (2018), “Entangled Realities — Living with Artificial Intelligence” (2019), “Making FASHION Sense” (2020), “Real Feelings — Emotion and Technology” (2020), and “Earthbound — In Dialogue with Nature” (2022). In 2021, she curated the online exhibition and conference, “Hybrid by Naturen — Human.Machine.Interaction” for the Goethe Institutes in Southeast Asia. As a writer and lecturer she is dedicated to topics related to media art and digital culture.

Exploring the Decentralized Web — Art on the Blockchain” is currently on view at HEK Basel. Join Friends of HEK here.