Earlier this week, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York announced the sale of 29 artworks, which form part of the William S. Paley Collection, a bequest by the late founder of CBS. Works by Picasso, Bacon, Renoir, and Monet are due to go under the hammer at Sotheby’s in the fall, with an estimated value of some $70 million. Proceeds from the sale are destined for a new endowment, established by the William S. Paley Foundation, to further MoMA’s mission — and particularly, its goals in digital media and technology (and possibly NFTs).

What’s happening


Works from the William S. Paley Collection, including Picasso’s 1919 painting “The Guitar,” will be sold by MoMA to fund an endowment for digital media and technology. Image: MoMA

Once established, the endowment for digital art will enable MoMA to expand the virtual presence it’s long cultivated. As Glenn Lowry, the David Rockefeller Director of the museum, told the Wall Street Journal, MoMA hopes to increase its digital output (currently made up of virtual tours and video chats with curators), spearhead its own streaming channel, and even team up with academic institutions to offer art-related degrees.“We’re growing our digital audience, not losing any,” he adds, “so we realize we need to increase our capacity off-site and online.”

More interestingly, the fund might see MoMA acquire digital art and NFTs. According to Lowry, such acquisitions are not out of the question for a museum that’s been watching the space for potential purchases or artists to work with. Last November, the institution teamed up with Refik Anadol for Unsupervised by providing the metadata of its archives to inform the AI algorithms that generated the piece. 

Why it matters


Launched alongside the William S. Paley Foundation, the endowment will enable MoMA to further its ventures in digital art and technology. Image: MoMA

Lowry is accurate in his assessment that any moves MoMA makes toward NFTs or digital art will be closely watched. “We’re conscious of the fact that we lend an imprimatur when we acquire pieces,” he told the WSJ, “but that doesn’t mean we should avoid the domain.” However cautiously, the museum has been contemplating its Web3 entry: the collaboration with Anadol aside, it’s been hiring for a Web3 Associate and with the William S. Paley Foundation, has been deliberating “the heightened importance of new media in reaching and engaging audiences,” according to press materials.

In fact, museums are increasingly awakening to the opportunities inherent in Web3 — not just in blockchain mechanisms, but in the possibilities of engaging with NFTs. Ahead of MoMA, big-name institutions including LACMA and the Guggenheim have masterminded digital art initiatives that put them in dialogue with the space, while other venues such as Fotografiska have staged NFT art exhibitions to reach digitally native visitors (particularly helpful at a time when museum visitorship remains dicey). Meanwhile, ICA Miami already has a CryptoPunk in its holdings.

For NFTs and digital art to hit mainstream acceptance and adoption, there’s much education and onboarding to be done. And as part of their remit, cultural institutions could well play a role in educating audiences about the technology (as the likes of MCA Denver has done), advancing the understanding of a new medium that is forging ahead with or without the imprimatur of any museum.

What they said

“It is a testament to the visionary philanthropy of William S. Paley that the bequest he made through his Foundation anticipated that, over time, the needs of the Museum would evolve in ways that could not have been foreseen or even imagined 30 years ago.” — Glenn D. Lowry, the David Rockefeller Director, MoMA

“I remember how my father loved the great artworks he collected, and which were an important part of my own experience growing up. It’s deeply satisfying that the Foundation is able to use this group of works from his collection to further support MoMA, to which he was so dedicated.” — William C. Paley, Vice President, William S. Paley Foundation


NFTs & Digital Art Projects