Curators Stina Gustafsson and Chris Dake-Outhet delve deeper into the concept of the Market Makers exhibition, that took place in Berlin this past October.
The world of NFTs, fervently relying on graphs and quantifiable metrics to validate its stance, cannot be easily disentangled from its market dynamics. There’s an inherent duality in crafting both a market and an artwork concurrently, ensuring that this market-artwork nexus remains integral to such creations. It’s tempting to believe that many art enthusiasts, if they were being sincere, appreciate its candid nature.
During the height of NFT mania, a particular vision of re-institutionalization emerged. Leveraging the influence of established “markets,” certain NFT projects attempted to petition and lobby for integration into collections and exhibitions of prestigious institutions such as the MoMA. For these projects, premiere art institutions and museums were akin to the “federal reserve” of art valuation. Several of them aimed to capitalize on the strained financial positions of these institutions, marking another chapter in the ongoing narrative of the privatization of public institutions. This scenario mirrors the journey of contemporary Bitcoin investors, who once stood in opposition to financial institutions and governments but now celebrate as Bitcoin integrates into these very systems.
Economically compelled, publicly funded art museums were forced to consider the prospects of deaccessioning their classical works—pieces with a blue-chip value that seemed impervious to traditional markets due to their historical significance. In addition, these institutions found themselves having to re-evaluate the value propositions of their programming to maximize its economic effect. These shifts in value perception meant that institutions, traditionally seen as protectors of long-term value, now had to act as speculators. While this role was once the domain of mid-sized galleries, museums—which could be viewed as the reserve currency for art—were thrust into this speculative realm. In parallel, austerity measures reduced their funding; their “abstract” contributions were challenging to justify and quantify regarding government spending. As a result of this shift, many institutions were forced to reduce their collections to mere assets and financial inventories, the prospect of involuntary deaccessioning reminiscent of the “max pain” concept known to traders.
When Web3 conforms to the format of traditional art exhibitions and institutions, especially in the context of a physical exhibition or permanent collection, the foregrounded “market” frequently experiences a unique moment of suspension. While NFTs, by their very nature, thrive on continuous evolution and iteration, their acquisition and placement within more traditional exhibitory spaces such as museums bring about a temporary halt to their fluidity. Even when the core of the artwork is deeply rooted in the abstract realm of network gestures, its tangible representation takes precedence in these spaces.
Even when the essence of the “art” lies in the immaterial expanse of a nuanced network gesture, its embodiment and “materialization” become the focal point in traditional exhibitions and art settings.
This crystallization pins down a specific moment in time—reminiscent of capturing the fleeting moments of a live performance, freezing it for exhibitory posterity. This freeze is not just a physical representation but a market pause, where digital art’s fluid value and nature are momentarily anchored in place and time, contrasting sharply with the constant evolution and flux inherent to its original digital domain. Though a halt like this would intuitively affect the value in a negative way, in some cases, the reverential halo effect of the museum or similar institution instead potentially adds to it, as they are still somewhat considered to have almost prophetic aptitudes when it comes to determining what will be important—extracting value from their historical status as vanguards and self-fulfilling oracles in the art world.
What often leads to clashes within the institutional art world is the stark contrast in the time spans and life cycles that NFTs adhere to (in a more holistic sense, the internet itself), a pace significantly faster than what museums and other traditional institutions are accustomed to. Renowned for their deliberate pace, art institutions find it challenging to react swiftly, primarily due to missions and programs meticulously planned years in advance—for some, another artifact of having to rely on the pragmatic bureaucracy of public funding.
A partial mitigation of this temporality was the emergence of NFT “pop-up” exhibitions that recently punctuated both independent and public institutional programming. While there is a palpable excitement surrounding pop-up exhibitions in the NFT space, art museums inherently embody a different form of permanence in the majority of their exhibitions. Even when compelled to sell artworks to generate profit or simply to ensure their survival, museums primarily acquire pieces with the intention of contributing to a permanent collection, often with little to no desire to part with them. Again, this distinction underscores a certain static quality that contrasts with the dynamic and ever-evolving nature in which many NFTs exist—the digital tokens reflecting the rapid movements and fluctuations of the market.
Arguably, many of the releases within the NFT space would have a more at home in a commercial gallery setting, a scene that is much more attuned to the movements of the markets and is more comfortable with a commercial scene that is in flux. With the market at heart, the commercial gallery space emits something similar to a financial “white cube,” the main interest for many projects is the act of selling, aligning more seamlessly with the ever-shifting market landscape. These two don’t fit effortlessly, though, as there are aspects within both that oppose each other. While one argues that one of its main beliefs is transparency, the other is inherently known for its opaqueness.
Paul Seidler, artist and researcher focusing on economic systems, decentralized programs, and computation, suggests that “[t]he very market structures that have developed around NFTs, on the other hand, rely on a constant open perpetual pricing, which brings its own hurdles.” As Seidler argues, simply being more transparent with pricing did potentially solve some problems but also brought its own burdens, even some we have seen before, such as an extreme focus on the price.
The recent interactions between NFTs and traditional art institutions expose significant tensions. NFTs, characterized by their digital fluidity, conflict with the permanence and rigidity of traditional establishments—grappling with their dual identity as both market and artwork and seeking integration into prestigious institutions. As this medium continues to permeate traditional art infrastructure, this resulting interaction highlights a substantial contrast: a new type of transparency and opaqueness in a rapidly evolving market landscape.