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Digital art banks on breakout moment with blockchain’s help

April 23, 2020, 11:00 AM UTC

Lyle Owerko is a celebrated photographer known for an iconic 9/11 photo, and for an art series called the Boombox Project, whose patrons include Madonna and Jay-Z. In mid-March, on a day much of the country went into lockdown because of the coronavirus, Owerko opened a new exhibition—online.

The exhibition was an extension of the Boombox Project, featuring several dozen unique digital prints in a variety of colors, costing $20 to $2,500. To Owerko’s pleasant surprise, most of them sold out, including the one pictured below:

The exhibition took place on Nifty Gateway, one of a growing number of websites that use blockchain technology to offer collectors a unique work of art. The use of blockchain, which creates a tamperproof and indestructible transaction record, means that a given digital image can be designated as distinct and authentic—even if a version of it can be easily reproduced in screenshots like the one above.

“Enforcing scarcity in digital art couldn’t happen before. The digital art movement has existed for decades, but until recently you couldn’t box it up and create an asset out of it,” says Tyler Winklevoss, who, along with his twin brother, Cameron, owns Nifty Gateway, which was founded in 2018.

For the Winklevoss twins, Bitcoin billionaires who gained fame for their legal battle with Mark Zuckerberg over Facebook’s founding, blockchain technology promises to create a major new art and collectibles market. They hope that collectors will come to see that digital art can be unique in the same way as original prints or portraits—which can fetch enormous sums even if they are widely reproduced as gift shop collectibles.

Nifty Gateway, which is operated by a second pair of twins, Duncan and Griffin Cock Foster, says it has so far sold thousands of digital collectibles, though it has not disclosed a specific number nor the site’s overall revenue.

For Owerko, the Boombox artist, blockchain also promises a way to combat the blatant counterfeiting and illicit reproduction that has long frustrated artists in the Internet age. He likens blockchain’s tracing system to a vehicle identification number (VIN), which provides a way to register and identify every car bought and sold.

And according to the Winklevoss twins, digital art portals like Nifty Gateway provide a way for artists—unlike in the world of physical art—to collect royalties when one of their works is resold. They also claim that in the case of original sales, the percentage they take as a commission is much lower than the 50% physical galleries typically collect.

The company declined to disclose the specific commission it collects on sales or the royalties that artists can earn for those resales.

But while digital art, which typically consists of photos and illustrations sold on websites, may be receiving new attention during the pandemic, it’s still a tiny fraction of the broader art market, and one that’s unfamiliar to many art lovers.

The traditional gallery world has taken a battering during the pandemic. A survey by the Los Angeles Times suggested that a number of galleries in that city expect to close, and that dozens had applied for the Paycheck Protection Program. Some owners are also mulling future exhibits that admit only a handful of people to respect social distancing, while others are offering “online viewing rooms” (a.k.a. websites) where art fans can view and purchase works. The idea of selling purely digital art did not come up, however, in the Times’ detailed overview.

Katy Arrington, an Australia-based illustrator, is nonetheless optimistic the market will grow. She has been exhibiting unique digital works on MakersPlace, another blockchain art portal, created by former employees of online pin board Pinterest.

“It connected me to a community that really valued digital art; it was pretty awesome,” says Arrington, who added that using the blockchain software required to exhibit her illustrations proved difficult at first, but has since become more intuitive.

In the case of Nifty Gateway, the company opted to conceal the blockchain software altogether, meaning customers wishing to buy digital art don’t have to do anything more than enter a credit card number. (Buyers who want to look under the hood at the blockchain registry are still able to do so.)

But while the technology may have arrived to facilitate a new market in digital art, it’s an open question whether such art will appeal to more than a small niche of collectors. After all, the appeal of owning art for many people is the pleasure and status that can come with displaying it—a difficult proposition if the art is locked in a screen.

Owerko, however, is optimistic that a growing number of people will embrace digital art, in part because of new monitors and digital paper that will enhance the ability to display it.

Says Owerko, “We’ve moved through so many creative environments in the last three decades, that this is the next evolutionary step.”

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