The Web3 fantasy of an art market shorn of mediators is proving a mirage. With the pandemic compressing our experience of art into a digital plane, NFT marketplaces upended the gallery system by offering services tailored to the native crypto community. Yet the return of pseudo-normality has also coincided with a resurgence of the role of curator both within and outside of the digital marketplace. Despite the appeal of Web3 as an open horizon of creative exchange, artists are increasingly mindful of the added value specialist curators can bring.
2021 marked the first year that major art institutions, galleries, and auction houses collectively embraced NFTs in both physical and new digital spaces. The ongoing assimilation of NFTs by the art world is also introducing a new wave of curators who have adapted to the needs of natively digital artists. Last year witnessed a number of watershed exhibitions: From “The Artist is Online” at König Galerie (Berlin and Decentraland), to “Pieces of Me” — a collaboration between TRANSFER and left.gallery — to “Proof of Art” at the Francisco Carolinum Linz and in Cryptovoxels. Given the problems posed by hybrid forms of display, I asked five curators about how they address the challenges of curating the digital.
One of the first curators I approached was Robert Alice, who established The Robert Alice Project in 2019 to promote blockchain culture across the visual arts. Portraits of a Mind: Block 21 (2019-ongoing) was the first work of art from the project, comprising a physical and NFT component. It sold at Christie’s in October 2020 for $131,250 — more than seven times its high estimate. Alice was subsequently invited to co-curate Sotheby’s “Natively Digital” NFT Sale in June 2021.
India Price: Was Sotheby’s your first time curating an auction?
Robert Alice: Having worked with museums and galleries in the past, I’ve had great experience in understanding the processes of art historical research. But to be given the opportunity to curate a show with Sotheby’s was a real privilege and a chance to challenge my academic grounding in art.
For the NFT medium — which offers such ease of access — I think curation is necessary in order for the space to evolve with an academic grounding. However, this doesn’t necessarily entail “curation” in its traditional sense. We are already seeing innovative ways to modernize the art form itself. Whether it’s SuperRare’s $RARE token, or the JPG curation platform, understanding how we can further develop curation will be one of the most interesting facets of the medium.
IP: How was your experience working with an auction house? Was the space sensitive to the needs of digital artists?
RA: Sotheby’s were very helpful throughout the entire process, from co-curating our selection of artists, to hosting the show across four different locations. They were also able to incorporate each of the different NFT file types directly onto their website, allowing each work to be experienced as the artist had intended. Given Sotheby’s traditional audience, and the novelty of the space at the time, I felt this to be a very important feature.
While the bidding in the sale followed a more traditional online auction style, Sotheby’s have now incorporated on-chain bidding. I believe this shows their commitment to the NFT space and its community.
IP: What did you want to achieve through your selection of artists and their works? Was there a message behind it?
RA: I had always intended to show a wide variety of artists, both old and new to the space, which I thought was necessary in order to convey the chronological development of NFTs over time. We were fortunate enough to consign the first NFT ever created, Kevin McCoy’s Quantum (2014-21), which provided the perfect historical reference point, not only for the sale itself, but for those new to the medium.
As the first curated NFT sale of its kind, and one that was accessible to a global audience, we had a responsibility to encompass the true breadth of the space, hence the inclusion of avatars, generative art, crypto art, and even photography. This allowed us to offer a platform to numerous artists, revealing the range of the NFT as an artistic medium.
Bringing individuals like McCoy and Rhea Myers the recognition they deserve in the NFT space was a very gratifying experience. Equally, to offer artists who are newer to the space, like Justin Aversano, an opportunity to sell their work alongside these individuals, and at Sotheby’s, was immensely rewarding.
IP: Can you elaborate regarding the different modes of display?
RA: The displays at the sale were of a very high standard. Through a mix of projectors and screens, Samsung were able to show viewers and collectors how versatile NFTs are as an art form. At the time, there was still huge skepticism surrounding NFTs. It was therefore crucial to display each work in the best possible format. Many traditional collectors had presumed that NFTs were bound innately to our phones and computers, so to have the opportunity to exhibit them physically was an exciting challenge to navigate.
We were able to exhibit the sale at Sotheby’s virtual gallery in Decentraland. Amusingly, the Bond Street building was transposed into the digital realm. As NFTs and crypto offer a borderless environment for creativity and opportunity, we understood the importance of making the show accessible to anyone with an internet connection.
Another groundbreaking curator who works across both physical and online spaces is Micol Ap, founder and CEO of VerticalCrypto Art (VCA), a native Web3 curatorial media studio founded in June 2020. Most recently, Micol curated an NFT exhibition during Frieze LA at NeueHouse Hollywood titled “ART & NFTs: The Digital Roots,” a two-day pop-up exhibition in collaboration with Rarible, Tezos, and Whitewall featuring 18 artists at the leading edge of digital art.
India Price: You’ve described your work as “Web3 native curation.” Tell us more about this.
Micol Ap: I started documenting the art NFT space in early 2020 by creating the VerticalCrypto Art Twitter profile, which began as my own exploration of the NFT space. I’ve never been an “insider” of the art world, but I have been surrounded by artist friends in Hackney, East London who never really “made it” in the traditional structure of the art system.
Crypto art felt akin to what I was seeing in my day-to-day life, coupled with the ethos of blockchain technology and decentralized systems. It really did feel like an underground culture, and I felt compelled to narrate and elevate the artists’ stories. That’s how I developed “Web3 native curation,” which involved reaching out to artists, asking them questions about their creative practice and their stories and then producing video content about them, which I started posting online.
I also wanted to showcase emerging talent. At the time, Rarible was a place to discover new artists and I spent a lot of time browsing the marketplace and selecting 10 to 15 art NFTs every week that I could talk about in short video snippets. That’s how it started. I just wanted to talk about the artists really.
IP: Having curated NFT exhibitions in the metaverse and in physical spaces, which do you prefer?
MA: They’re completely different experiences and actually both complement each other. “The Digital Roots” at Frieze LA occupied a physical space, supplemented by a metaverse gallery twin. Physical space has limitations which one needs to work around, whilst in the metaverse there are no limitations and one can curate creatively.
With VCA, we’ve been using Arium Spaces to produce our metaverse exhibitions. The beauty of the metaverse is that anything is possible without gravity, walls, or weather conditions, which for me is exciting. On the other hand, physical spaces are an important contributor to the impact of the works and the feelings, emotions, and sensations they elicit.
The material side of dealing with a physical set up of an exhibition makes you experience the work and therefore the way the exhibition is curated in a 360-degree way, which isn’t just viewership but also tactile sensations, scale, and feelings. I don’t know if I have a preference. I think we will see that actually all galleries and exhibitions will have a metaverse twin, for sure with VCA we will.
IP: Can you share some positive and negative examples of curation in the past year?
MA: I am not a trained curator myself and therefore I don’t think I am in a position to decide what constitutes good or bad curation. It would be like saying what is good or bad art. It depends on who looks at it, right? I can speak to some of the great examples of curation I’ve encountered. Simon Denny’s show, “Proof of Work,” at Schinkel Pavillon, in dialogue with Distributed Gallery, stands out as well as “Proof of Art” by Jesse Damiani and Anika Meier at the Francisco Carolinum Museum in Linz.
Someone who has made a lot of noise in both the NFT and legacy art worlds for many years is Kenny Schachter. Having curated contemporary art for over thirty years, Schachter has become an inveterate critic of traditional art world practices. He first discovered NFTs in September 2020, and has since dedicated himself to the space as an artist, writer, collector, and curator.
India Price: Your exhibitions often involve bright colors, bold use of text, and a surfeit of images that reflect your trademark maximalism. Tell us about this approach.
Kenny Schachter: Ha! I am a one-man band (for better and worse). I am referencing a screenshot of the inside of my head — it’s my past, present and future. As a writer, I view text not only as conveying meaning through words, but also aesthetically as imagery indistinguishable from a landscape or portrait. Regarding my maximalist mode of display, you should see my house!
IP: As the art world increasingly absorbs digital art and NFTs into major institutions, most recently the ZKM in Karlsruhe. What predictions do you have for the coming year?
KS: Art with a capital A is by far the least appreciated aspect of NFTs, it’s easier to sell 10K Cryppos (shitty infantile hippos) than a decent single edition for a fraction of the price. No, great art-art will never be mass, that’s not what I am after. As the $40 billion NFT market stands today, fine art NFTs comprise less than 10% of the market and it’s my life’s mission to change that. It ain’t easy, but then again nothing good ever is. I have high hopes that the bar will rise away from cash-grab fake financial security NFTs and gravitate to higher quality output like the work of Sarah Friend, who is one of my favorites in the space.
IP: What positive steps do you think curators should take when preparing for NFT exhibitions?
KS: Just be honest, passionate, act in good faith, and speak to people not down to them. Communication, dialogue, conversation: The most simple forms of exchange go a long way to breaking down resistance born of fear and rejection. Teaching about crypto and NFTs and helping onboard the weary and leery is not just a thing to consider, it’s an obligation to organically grow this burgeoning, yet flawed, field. What most people fail to realize is that art is a slow burning process. Nothing good comes easily, these things need to be nurtured and I am patient. Well, not really. But when it comes to my art and NFTs, I am a lifer, and I am prepared, willing and able to go the distance. And I will.
It is increasingly hard to ignore online institutions such as MoCDA (The Museum of Contemporary and Digital Art) which provide education and context for their new audiences. Here, MoCDA’s co-founder and Director, Serena Tabacchi, discusses the museum’s permanent collection and rolling exhibition program, as well as the role of roving curator in the age of the metaverse.
India Price: How did working at the Tate inform or inspire your approach to curation at MoCDA?
Serena Tabacchi: Working at Tate gave me a great foundation in collaborating with artists, their estates, and other museums. When I co-founded MoCDA, I wanted to foster a creative approach to arts and culture but in the digital space. The main difference was that our audience was all around the world and not physically available for us to look them in the eye, read their body language, and interact with them while looking at a work of art. Knowing how to deal with artists and the public in real life gave me the opportunity to replace the part missing from this decentralized global community.
IP: As MoCDA is an exclusively online initiative, what is important to you when curating in the metaverse?
ST: The way in which online galleries came to life and the metaverse evolved was so fast and uncontrolled. Curators rarely discussed the best course of action in developing virtual architectures. What is clear to me, after nearly three years curating online shows, is that collaboration between artists, architects, and curators is essential. The role of curators has also changed, and nowadays there needs to be a deep understanding of what is actually possible in virtual environments. Total freedom to roam can result in confusion and it may also detract from the viewer’s attention to the artwork itself.
As a curator, one has to know one’s tools, the artworks, and the artist’s desire to create a seamless experience for the public. The curator is like the narrator of a story: Their voice is heard but it doesn’t interfere with the storyline, it can only enhance it.
IP: How do you find new artists, and new artworks to grow MOCDA’s collection? Do you have a selection committee? Does the museum follow set criteria?
ST: We have a committee of seven curators and tech experts who gather once a month, aiming to collect artworks that are meaningful and representative of our times. We try to balance our selection between established and emerging artists to ensure broad representation that reflects a plurality of voices working within the digital arts and new media. Most works are also NFTs, however we are not solely focused on crypto art. We endorse contemporary digital art more broadly and welcome all kinds of files, seeking to expand our collection to include physical digital artworks, for instance works with a device or hardware component.
The collection will soon be open to the public and we are not looking to sell its works in the foreseeable future, only to make accessible editions through which art enthusiasts can support the museum in preserving the collections, encouraging more acquisitions and supporting the artists directly.
IP: Tell us more about your work with The Sandbox Game.
ST: At the Sandbox, we develop experiences, not only games. But gaming is also about how we, as humans, engage with stories. As its name suggests, The Sandbox is an open box where one can take building blocks and construct any type of experience one might conceive of. There is a play-to-earn element attached to it in case the user wishes to develop blockchain assets, avatars and a metaverse economy, however it is not mandatory to monetize a game.
I’ve had the pleasure of working on a number of Sandbox games so far, from Hack the Tao (2020) by crypto artist duo Hackatao, to Mike’s Maze (2021) by artist Fabiano Speziari. These two games are developed as art experiences, where characters pass from 2D to 3D avatars. They are based around a strong narrative framework and a clear artistic vision. The Sandbox helps to blend these elements together, linking them to the blockchain to ensure scarcity and artistic value for each voxel asset.
IP: How do you differentiate curation according to different forms of NFT art? I am thinking of your recent work for “Eternalising Art History” at Unit London, which involved tokenizing old master paintings held in public collections.
ST: Even when a canvas is digital and its smooth surface is far from the texture of oil on canvas, there is still the same appreciation for works of old masters like Leonardo, Raphael, and Modigliani. In this case, the application of digital knowledge was essential in order to create a show that united the past with the present. I had so much fun with it, especially since the works would never otherwise have shared the same room. As ever, it is all about the story you want to tell through the exhibition you are curating.
Born of the Web3 spirit of communalism, a number of DAOs and online protocols have emerged as alternative ways to distribute curation throughout a community. As co-founder of JPG and Creative Director of Fingerprints DAO, Sam Spike is well placed to explain how the blockchain can foster new forms of co-curation.
India Price: How does the co-curatorial model work at Fingerprints DAO?
Sam Spike: Fingerprints DAO is a Web3 organization dedicated to art and culture, with a particular focus on the curation, collection, and production of art, that uses blockchain as an artistic medium in its own right. The Fingerprints collection began as 26 Autoglyphs (2019) — the second NFT project by Larva Labs, and widely considered the first “on-chain” NFT artwork. This means that the art can be reconstructed entirely based on information stored on the blockchain. Over the past year, the collection has grown to include work by artists such as Rhea Myers, Mitchell F. Chan, 0xDEAFBEEF, Sarah Meyohas, and Harm van den Dorpel, among many others.
The curatorial process works as follows: DAO members elect a curatorial committee composed of a small number of their peers. This committee decides which artworks to acquire and when. Any Fingerprints member can suggest an acquisition, and the committee must debate this suggestion internally and report their decision to the rest of the DAO. I’m very proud that in the space of eight months, Fingerprints DAO has grown into arguably the leading collection of blockchain-native artwork in the world. Central to the project from the start has been a clear curatorial thesis around the idea of “smart contract art” — art that uses smart contract code as an artistic medium.
The DAO’s biggest strength so far has been its willingness to say “no” — not to chase the latest, most fashionable thing, but only to acquire works that we believe will be important many years into the future. This wouldn’t have been possible without a strong culture of trust and patience between DAO members, and a liberal mandate granted to the curation committee in charge of acquisitions.
Our upcoming project with terra0 at Art Dubai is a good example. Rather than show up to an art fair with a bunch of screens and exhibit our existing collection, we invited terra0 to produce something for the booth. They came back with a proposal, which was great, and we’ve been doing everything we can to help them realize their vision. I’m excited for Fingerprints to debut in a physical setting. It’s also funny that a big art fair is the venue for our first real face-to-face with the traditional art world. We’re not a gallery at all, but it’s hard to pin down exactly what we are in relation to existing art organizations.
IP: Tell us a bit about JPG and its “open gallery ecosystem.” What are you trying to accomplish there?
SS: JPG is a protocol for NFT curation. For a long time, the NFT space conflated the concept of curation with that of private collection. JPG gives people a way to express their taste and knowledge by creating thoughtful displays of NFTs without having to own them. Curation is an essential activity for the production of cultural value, and cultural value is essential for the long-term health of any arts ecosystem. Unless we have ways for people to tell stories, share new perspectives, and discover affinities between different cultural objects, we will be forever trapped in a cascade of market-driven cycles without memory or human meaning.
Robert Alice is a London-based artist, curator, and pioneer in the crypto art and NFT space. His Portraits of a Mind (2019-ongoing) is the first NFT to be sold by a major auction house. Alice’s work has been featured in The New York Times, Financial Times, CNN, Forbes, Fortune and Vogue and exhibited in New York (Christie’s), Beijing (UCCA Center for Contemporary Art) and Shanghai (JinArt Institute).
Micol Ap is founder and CEO of VerticalCrypto Art, a leading Web3 native curatorial media studio dedicated to NFT fine art, digital art, new media and metaverse culture. VerticalCrypto Art is focused on elevating the discourse around the metaverse through curated content, exhibitions, auctions, and special projects as part of a mission to bridge the fine art, contemporary art, and Web3 artist economies.
Kenny Schachter has been curating contemporary art exhibits in museums and galleries, and teaching for more than thirty years, presently in the graduate department of the University of Zurich, The School of Visual Arts, New York, and New York University. In 2021, Schachter curated “Breadcrumbs: Art in the Age of NFTism” at Nagel Draxler in Cologne, Germany and “NFTism: No Fear in Trying” at Institut in London, UK. He is currently the subject of a documentary being produced and directed by Chris Smith (Tiger King/Fyre Festival), and a Hulu/ABC NFT film, and has been profiled in The New York Times Magazine, The Independent, The Observer, and The Daily Telegraph.
Sam Spike is the Creative Director of Fingerprints DAO and co-founder of JPG, a protocol for NFT curation.
Serena Tabacchi is the director and co-founder of the Museum of Contemporary Digital Art (MoCDA). Tabacchi holds a Bachelor of Arts in performing arts from Link Campus University, obtained a Master of Arts in text and performance from Birbeck, University of London, and holds a degree in text and performance from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA).
India Price is the sales and partnerships lead at GAZELL.iO, the digital art arm of Gazelli Art House. She manages the artist residency program, assists with curating the digital project space, and coordinates artist NFT drops. Prior to her work in the digital art world, India gained experience working for traditional art spaces such as Christie’s, David Zwirner Gallery, and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. India studied History of Art at University College London with a focus on Post-Internet Art.