NFT Goes to the Museum

Museums have been reluctant to open their doors to NFTs. It seems that the trend is changing, what could be the reason?

De Moon ·  · 10/21/22 ·  4 min

One can hardly escape the Bored Apes-starred billboards scattered across Tel Aviv’s highways nowadays. One invites to the city’s largest museum, another to a ‘tomorrow’ exhibition 5 minutes drive away; both for exhibitions of NFTs. Visiting one such, the view was scenic. An AI assistant was busy answering art enthusiasts bombarding her with “what’s all this NFT fuss about anyway” kind of questions. Van Gogh and Chagall, meanwhile, whose masterpieces hung a few meters away, seemed rather lonely. The takeover was striking.

Not so long ago have art curators despised NFTs. Now they’re exhibiting them.

Tel Aviv is no exception. NFTs are now sweeping the worlds’ museums by the dozens. One critic says they’re “weird“, another “ethereal” (what a hilarious pun), all visit. In Seattle, Amsterdam, even Ukraine: NFT-designated museums are not something reserved for the Metaverse anymore. But more momentous is NFTs’ acceptance as equals among already respectable, well-established, traditionally conservative museums.

The Louvre, MoMA, Rijksmuseum, the British Museum. Out of the world’s top 10 art museums, at least 6 have had their share of giving the spotlight to non-fungibles so far. Not only have they been exhibiting NFTs for a while now; they’ve also been busy minting them, including offering some very non-digital artworks for sale on the Mainnet. A recent New York Times article describing the current tide of interest among museums in NFTs, marked the final approval of this phenomenon’s existence.

Old-timers may remember it hasn’t quite been that way all the way long. “NFTs are an embarrassment to the art world“, read one headline at an art outlet. “Think cryptocurrency is bad? NFTs are even worse“, declared another, right before rhetorically asking “Does anyone aside from tech bros think this is a good idea?“. Another asked “Why Does NFT Art Look So Bad?“, and one more simplisticly announced “NFTs Are Terrible”. Some artists went further to pledge that NFTs Are “the Bane of Their Existence”.

Where this hate comes from is quite obvious. Gatekeepers will always shelter their castle from newcomers, even if their castle – conemporary art, in that case – is founded on priding itself for being revolutionary and inviting. Simply put, “the NFT Craze Reveals the Artworld’s Snobbism“, as Martin Herbert’s article in ArtReview goes. Writing there too, J.J. Charlesworth answers similarly in his “Why the Artworld Loves to Hate NFT Art” article.

But now a much tougher question arises: why doesn’t the artworld hate NFT that much anymore?

Follow the Money

Museums need money, and NFTs have money. If nothing else, it is this primal need that explains museums’ interest in engaging with NFTs, needless to say minting them. Far from a win for NFTs, this could easily count as another cynical exploitation of them; of which the NFT community is rightfully wary of after seeing too many brands joining at highs and leaving at lows. Except it is actually one of the most striking, unequivocal wins the NFT community has ever known.

The very promise of NFT in regards to art is, and always has been, to make it economically viable; to make it profitable. These are not mere words: art has long had a hard time finding funding, receiving it either from oligarchs, nouveaux riches or governments, but always in search for a better business model. NFTs vow to end this search. Some artists welcomed them, and quickly saw their gamble proven right. But the artworld as a whole has clearly been reluctant to adapt, mostly preferring the old and familiar rather than the new and unkown.

And then come the museums, the ‘temples of art’ as one once said. And even if with few praises to the NFT community; even if hesitantly, warily, far from wholeheartedly; even if as a mere tool for lining their pockets – they join the NFT revolution. Probably absentmindedly, perhaps against their own will, the museums have proved what has been clear to web3 savvies but less so to artists themselves: that NFTs solve art’s money problem.

Using NFTs, making money off of them, as cynical as it might be, the museums are doing NFTs a greatest service: they are realising their promise. The temple of the artworld – the same artworld that used to disregard NFTs – is now embracing them. Could there be a sweeter win?

Vive la révolution NFT

It is not just the money, though. The only thing museums – non-profits, at the end (though ones in desperate need for budget sources) – crave even more than money, is visitors. Despite being elitist and highbrowed at times, their mission statement is nonetheless being visited by the public. That they are exhibiting NFTs means – as intuitive as it is – that the public loves NFTs, or at least is very curious about them. And when the public goes to the museum, it wants to see NFTs there.

Thus NFT goes to the museum. But beyond all the utilitarian motives, beyond the needs and hidden interests, lies one truth NFT’s acceptance to the museum necessarily means: that the artworld finally views it as art. No vocal, enraged article or anti-NFT petition could ever dispute the fact that NFTs are now exhibited next to Chagall and Van Gogh’s paintings. That they have made it to the temple of art.

The importance of this approval – as marginal and anecdotal as it may first seem – cannot be overstated. Entering the museum means showcasing NFT’s benefits for the artworld at their most striking, having the upper hand in the public opinion, and being regarded as artistically worthy. Entering the museum means entering the heart of art. It is more than another proof that NFTs are here to stay; more than another battle won over the desperate gaurdians of the artworld. It is the victory.

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