Last week, on July 15, Christie’s hosted its annual Art + Tech Summit, the fourth iteration of its one-day conference that explores new technologies in the art world. This year — no surprise for an auction house that spearheaded the landmark Beeple sale — the spotlight turns squarely on NFTs and specifically, how the medium is impacting the arts and culture. Attendees of the hybrid physical-virtual event saw discussions on NFT curation, the sustainability of the technology, and NFT applications in fashion and entertainment by panelists including TRON founder Justin Sun, Toledo Museum of Art’s Adam Levine, TikTok’s Nick Tran, and TIME Magazine’s Keith Grossman.

While the summit focused on the content and commerce of NFTs, museums were part of the discussions — as well they should. As NFTs have come to dominate digital art discourse, cultural organizations have been experimenting or exploring the format, however tentatively: ICA Miami recently acquired its first CryptoPunk, the National Museums Liverpool’s Crypto Collections has been using the blockchain to reimagine ownership, while LACMA has just joined the conversation. For institutions eager for insights into why and how NFTs can play a part in museum futures, the event offered further food for thought. Here are three key takeaways.

NFTs represent an emergent movement with an existing audience base

On Instagram, the hashtag #NFT boasts 1.2 million posts. On Twitter, using #NFT will reveal an entire ecosystem of artists, digital galleries/marketplaces, and fans. Showing no signs of slowing down (for now), NFT remains a popular topic, if not an emerging movement worthy of documentation and yes, collection.

This means, for museums devoted to tracing, recording, and preserving art history, now’s the time to plan strategies to engage with the medium. While ensuring organizations remain conversant with the contemporary moment, NFT participation also invites greater visitor interest. The highly accessible medium is centered by a thriving community (and market), making a great entry point for museums interested in attracting new audiences. For a digital form that’s new, versatile, and incredibly democratized, too, institutions have broad range to engage and encourage interaction with NFTs.

Key Quote: “NFTs are an art form. If you think a NFT is throwing up a picture of something that you made before, and then just putting it up there and selling multiples of it, as far as I’m concerned, that’s both not interesting, and probably isn’t going to last a long time.” — Paul Budnitz, Founder and CEO of Superplastic

NFTs and cryptocurrency could boost fundraising

Michelangelo’s “Doni Tondo,” which the Uffizi Gallery minted and sold for $170,000 in May. Image: @cinello.official on Instagram

With the market interest in NFTs rising, museums can’t ignore the medium as a potential revenue stream. NFTs, after all, do fetch tidy sums and post-pandemic, some cultural institutions might be finding themselves in financial straits. The Uffizi Gallery and Hermitage Museum are raising funds by minting and selling NFTs of works in their holdings; and NFTs can also be retailed in innovative ways, possibly as museum collectibles, for example. Additionally, partnerships with NFT platforms and related services can facilitate institutions’ entry into the crypto realm. 

Simultaneously, museums could also consider accepting cryptocurrencies as admissions fees, donations, and even endowment funds. Crypto adoption remains slow, but nonetheless, holds promise for cultural fundraising. 

NFTs can launch conversations on sustainability

While NFTs have revolutionized the digital art space, the environmental toll they take has also been a topic of contention, if not controversy. Museums planning to acquire and/or exhibit NFTs should take into account the works’ environmental impacts and the ecological responsibilities of cultural institutions, while being mindful, transparent, and upfront with visitors throughout. Paradoxically, their involvement in NFTs might serve as a window into conversations on environmentalism and sustainability — a key area of discussion as museums continue to engage in social issues from gender and sexuality to race.

Key Quote: “Can NFTs and cryptocurrencies directly contribute to sustainability? I do happen to think that there are opportunities in carbon markets and decentralizing power grids. I don’t know how well they jive with the existing NFT space, but what’s been interesting to see is that because NFTs are the first phenomenon that’s been popular outside of the cryptocurrency market, NFTs were really the first opportunity for mainstream people to actually understand what was going on underneath the hood.” — Kathleen Breitman, Co-Founder of Tezos and Coase


Analysis Market