With an Ivy League degree and a coveted job as an investment banker, Colborn Bell was on a traditional career path just a few years ago. But his passion for art and NFTs changed all that.
Bell says he bought his first NFT—Lady Luck, by Miss Al Simpson—in February 2020 for a couple hundred dollars. Now, he’s the founder and curator of the Museum of Crypto Art, a primarily virtual exhibition space and cultural institution that currently exists in Somnium Space, a metaverse platform.
Anyone with an internet connection can drop in to see the museum’s collection of nearly 6,000 unique NFT art pieces, including works from six of the 10 top-selling NFT artists in the world, according to cryptoart.io. Bell prices one of his collections at around $15 million, but says he will never sell any of the pieces.
“We are mandated to tell the stories of the artists and the artwork that is in the collection,” Bell told Fortune. “This means the foundation has mandated never to sell it, so we really just kind of remove ourselves from the markets.”
And while Bell has big ambitions for his museum and NFT art, he’s not as optimistic about the future of the NFT art market, at least in its current form.
“I am prepared, I think, for a cataclysmic market crash,” Bell said.
From banking to NFT art collecting
Bell began dabbling in cryptocurrency in 2017 when he first bought Ethereum. At the time, he says he was working as a wealth manager, taking care of a foreign family’s U.S. holdings, and had worked in developmental finance and investment banking before that.
NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are noninterchangeable digital assets stored on a blockchain. They usually take the form of a picture, video, or audio file in a digital format. NFTs can be sold, traded, or leased like any real-world asset.
After discovering cryptocurrency, Bell found that his background gave him the perfect skills to succeed in a parallel financial world, one that he felt offered him more agency to align his values with money.
“There were no financial products that were actually changing or having any material effect on the world in a positive direction, at least not for the average person,” Bell said.
Bell bought his first NFT in February 2020, well before NFTs became more mainstream in the spring of 2021. He cofounded and opened his crypto art museum soon after, in April 2020.
The museum consists of two separate collections: the Genesis collection, which houses over 200 NFTs minted by the very first NFT artists, and the Community collection, which consists of over 5,500 NFTs donated by community artists.
Bell personally donated 150 NFTs to the Genesis collection. It only includes NFTs that were minted before December 2020, which the museum calls “the earliest etchings on the blockchain.”
Some of the artists whose work is in the Genesis collection have gone on to incredibly successful NFT careers. That includes early work by the artist Beeple, who famously sold an NFT for $69 million at a Christie’s auction in March 2021, and Pak, who is currently the world’s highest-selling NFT artist, according to cryptoart.io. Other high-profile artists included in the collection are Dmitri Cherniak, whose average NFT sales clock in at almost $100,000, and xcopy, whose earliest NFTs have sold for as much as $6 million apiece.
Bell says his role is to “give everybody their place in history and prove that they were here before the gold rush, and really helped push the snowball down the hill to become the avalanche.”
The Community collection is made up of NFTs donated by artists. These help to “speak more to what is happening in the moment and what people care about,” according to Bell.
Artists become members of the community by giving the museum their art in exchange for the museum’s own cryptocurrency, known as MOCA Coin. Sales of the MOCA Coin are how the museum makes its money. Holders of MOCA Coin can actively vote on the curatorship of the museum. The museum has a fixed supply of 10 million tokens, which currently trade at around $3.
Both collections are displayed on the virtual platform Somnium Space. To access Somnium and enter the museum, visitors need to download software through Somnium’s website, ensuring that their device meets the requirements, before creating an avatar and accessing the virtual galleries.
Bell is also building the museum’s real-life home in a 19th-century church he purchased in Kingston, N.Y. He envisions the museum as a virtual-physical hybrid space. In-person events will be held at the Kingston location, but Bell also plans on launching a virtual “rooms” feature in Somnium Space and eventually other metaverse platforms that will give artists and members the tools to curate and exhibit their own work in open-access digital worlds.
Where does NFT art go from here?
Despite his passion for the NFT art world and his ambitions for the museum, Bell is skeptical about the prospects of the NFT art space in its current form, criticizing the sky-high prices and growing exclusivity of the field.
“The barrier to entry for artists is much lower than it is for collectors,” Bell said, adding that the number of new artists looking for someone to buy their work is far outpacing the number of collectors willing to invest.
“In my mind, that formula does not work,” he said.
He believes the field is quickly becoming oversaturated because of how versatile and accessible NFTs are, and it makes him doubtful that the space will survive very long in its current form.
“There is this idea of making everything an NFT, and just because it’s become an NFT, it’s now valuable,” he explains.
“For me, this is when it gets very dangerous and is akin to a financial bubble,” he said.
Bell’s decision to never sell even the museum’s most valuable pieces is what he believes is needed to bring the movement back down to earth and reprioritize the art that he believes can tell a story. He hopes his Genesis collection in particular, which spotlights the earliest NFT artists, can help bring the NFT art movement back to its roots.
“Crypto art was always countercultural, and it is a museum’s job to hold a place as the counternarrative to the rampant commercialization that is happening here,” he said.
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