THE WORD NFTs - can they take the keys from the art market’s gatekeepers?

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Anya Zakharova, managing director of Stellar International Art Foundation, believes non-fungible tokens - NFTs – can break the exclusivity of the art industry

With a small circle of collectors, gallerists and museum directors setting the tone and the pace, the art industry is still bound up in exclusivity, acting as a barrier to women, people of colour and the LGBT community, with each groups still having to fight harder to break into the business, while even the most celebrated of minority artists continue to be omitted from exhibitions worldwide.

Yet over the past year the enforced digitalisation of the art world, induced by the pandemic, has finally started to move the dial in terms of inclusivity. The move online has been a democratiser, with industry rituals once preserved for the elite, such as art fairs, live auctions and prestigious exhibitions across the globe, suddenly accessible to all.

The latest development in this shift change is NFTs, which are drastically changing the world of art and collectibles.

Non-fungible tokens are digital tokens tied to assets that can be bought, sold and traded. Just like cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, NFTs exist on a blockchain which acts as a secure, digital, public ledger. The key difference between NFTs and cryptocurrencies like Bitcoins is that Bitcoins are limited and fungible, which means you can trade one with another, with both having the same value. Conversely, as no two artworks are the same, NFTs are unique, unlimited and non-fungible. So while they can appreciate and depreciate in value, they cannot be interchanged for another NFT.

Digital art has been in existence since the 1960s, yet it was always overlooked by traditionalists for many reasons – it’s easy to duplicate, there was no way to establish authenticity and as a result it couldn’t hold value.

NFTs have burst onto the scene as a solution to all of these problems, and they’re white-hot. In the last month alone collectors have spent more than £145m on an array of NFT-based artwork, memes and GIFs. That figure doesn’t even include the recent sale by digital artist Beeple who sold a piece for a record-smashing £50m million with Christie’s - the third highest price ever fetched by any living artist, after Jeff Koons and David Hockney.

Clearly NFTs are having their big-bang moment, but what do they really mean for the art industry long-term? As with every new novelty it’s hard to predict what will come of it. At face value the idea of paying six to eight figures for artworks which can be seen and shared online for free seems slightly absurd, so it’s easy to pass NFTs off as just a fad. However, when you look at the benefits they offer for artists and collectors too, it’s hard to believe their eminence will be short lived.

For collectors the advantages are clear – the technology ensures traceability and transparency of provenance, making information about past sellers and prices publicly available and in turn reducing the possibility of fraud. For artists, NFTs enable them to create and share their art as they have never been able to before and so have the potential to address many of the longstanding power imbalances that have defined the physical market for hundreds of years.   

Until now many digital artists have had to host their work on platforms like Instagram and Facebook, getting almost nothing in return. With NFTs it doesn’t have to be like that anymore. Now that it’s possible to truly own and sell digital art for the first time.

The utopia where artists from all backgrounds are free to create and earn their worth feels closer than ever. NFTs are levelling the playing field and taking the keys away from the traditional gatekeepers of the art world.

Of course, the trend is not without its dark side, and even though I am hugely optimistic about what NFTs can do in terms of inclusivity and diversity there are still hurdles to overcome. The NFT poses a barrier in that it costs money and requires a good understanding of technology to sell NFTs, and so prevents some creators from getting in on the action.

Through my work with Stellar International Art Foundation, where for the past three years we have supported female diaspora artists, I know that addressing imbalance in the traditional art market isn’t about giving one off donations but about giving artists real avenues and platforms to display their work. Now the same must be done in the world of digital art.

NFTs are a fantastic tool for accelerating diversity and acceptance, but only if they are truly accessible to all. So the focus now needs to be on providing training and education on how artists can get involved and maximise the returns of this new trend. And, importantly, there needs to be inclusive, digital platforms which give artists from all backgrounds a means to display their digital work.

Only when every part of the ecosystem has been scrutinised and redesigned will the art market truly transform for the better.

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