The Art Galleries Leading the Charge Into NFTs
While many established galleries are taking a cautious approach to NFTs, Pace, KÖNIG GALERIE, and Ora-Ora side-stepped scepticism to embrace the technology. Others will step up in 2022.
Zhang Huan, Celestial Burial of an Artist #2 (2022). © Zhang Huan. Courtesy Pace Gallery.
On 11 March last year, Beeple's NFT Everydays: The First 5,000 Days sold at Christie's for US $69.3 million. A year later, galleries are still divided when it comes to NFTs.
While giants such as Gagosian, David Zwirner, and Hauser & Wirth have taken a circumspect approach, others—whose owners and artists were already familiar with the technology—found ways to successfully incorporate NFTs into their programmes.
The First Movers
Just two weeks after the Beeple auction, KÖNIG GALERIE held their own NFT auction in Decentraland. The Artist is Online: Digital Paintings and Sculptures in a Virtual World featured works by eight artists including Mario Klingemann and Kenny Schachter.
'As a gallery, we have always been exploring new developments in the art scene,' said founder Johann König, who had been following NFTs before Beeplemania.
'With the COVID pandemic, of course, the urgency for galleries to find new ways to mediate art has increased, which has strongly propelled digitalisation in general.'
König said that for established galleries selling NFTs, 'trust and reputation are the most important factors. Renowned artists are always more likely to be a good investment also when holding your NFT long-term.'
(KÖNIG GALERIE's first NFT on Ocula is a work by Austrian absurdist Erwin Wurm.)
Pace Gallery pursued a similar strategy beginning in April 2021 when they partnered with Urs Fischer, who is represented by Gagosian, on his highly successful 'CHAOS' series.
In November the gallery launched their own NFT platform, Pace Verso, where they've released NFT projects by DRIFT and Leo Villareal among others. Zhang Huan's Celestial Burial will go live on the platform on 17 March.
'We were one of the first galleries to open a space in Palo Alto and support a plethora of advanced studio practice artists, such as DRIFT and teamLab,' said Pace's Global Director of Online Sales Christiana Ine-Kimba Boyle. 'Our interest in exploring the WEB3 space, specifically with our NFT ventures, was an organic progression given that history. Our artists came to us with ideas and interest in embarking on projects within the space, and so we followed,' she said.
Ine-Kimba Boyle said that collectors could see and feel that Pace Verso projects were conceived from 'a native place'. Accepting fiat as well as crypto had been important to getting curious collectors to purchase NFTs for the first time.
In May last year, Ora-Ora became the first gallery to exhibit an NFT at an Art Basel fair when they showed works by Peng Jian and Cindy Ng in Hong Kong.
'I have been taking a close interest in blockchain since 2014, when I was in the midst of my PhD,' said the gallery's co-founder Henrietta Tsui-Leung. 'By 2018, I had moved on from exploring blockchain to investigating the utility, inventive potential and possible security benefits of NFTs.'
'Art Basel Hong Kong in 2021 proved to be the ideal forum for us to test the waters with our first NFT offerings, created by our artists Peng Jian and Cindy Ng,' she said. 'The preparation and years of research were vindicated by the enthusiastic response from so many young collectors who came to us to learn about NFTs and to initiate their collection.'
Tsui-Leung said the work of bringing collectors up to speed on NFTs was analogous to educating European collectors about Chinese artists' techniques and concepts and vice versa.
'NFTs are no different in that respect, except that the medium is a newer one,' she said.
Another early mover is Lehmann Maupin, which partnered with the Winklevoss Twins' company Gemini in July 2021 to accept cryptocurrency for artwork sales globally.
On 11 March 2022, the gallery announced CollectAR, a platform to present NFTs in Augmented Reality (AR), which will launch on 29 March in collaboration with Nifty Gateway, the NFT art platform acquired by Gemini. Three works by Ashley Bickerton will be sold in editions of six—each with a price tag of US $10,000—as part of his solo exhibition Seascapes at the End of History at Lehmann Maupin New York.
Waiters and Watchers
Hauser & Wirth has its own high-tech research division, ArtLab, which helped launch their Menorca space in VR at the height of the pandemic. They're no technophobes, but they are yet to present an NFT project.
'We show and sell art,' Zia Zareem-Slade, the gallery's Chief Creative Officer, told Ocula Magazine. 'We have always been focused on what matters to our artists and not been swayed by trends or hype.'
'Our curiosity and passion for innovation means we are actively engaged in the space but more to ensure we understand both NFT's and the wider Web 3.0 landscape and market and the impact,' she continued. 'Naturally some of our artists are exploring this area from a conceptual point of view and we're active in those explorations.'
Asked if Hauser & Wirth has plans to sell NFTs in the future, Zareem-Slade said, 'as and when our artists feel they have work of this nature or connected to the technological developments that this affords then sure.'
Gagosian hasn't sold NFTs either, but they likewise said they've been paying close attention to the space, observing what has worked well and what has underperformed.
'Our goal is first and foremost to support our artists and clients as best we can, so we felt that it was important for us to take the time to educate ourselves in this arena before diving in,' Gagosian said.
'We have found that some of the strongest projects in this space have demonstrated a long-term commitment to building vibrant collector communities and delivering ongoing value to these community members,' they continued. 'If we are to do something similar, we understand the need for a well-informed strategic plan and long-term roadmap.'
Gagosian artist Takashi Murakami launched his 'CLONE X' NFT series with RTFKT Studios in November last year, and announced his 'Murakami Flowers' will drop some time this spring. He also said a physical exhibition 'about NFT somthing [sic]' would take place at the gallery in May.
Gagosian confirmed that physical works based on Murakami's NFTs will be part of the exhibition, but they will not present any NFTs for sale as part of the show.
'We're having a number of ongoing conversations with our artists about their interest in this space, and we continue to explore the myriad ways we can participate in the crypto and NFT community,' Gagosian said.
There's something to be said for this more prudent approach. Murakami initially launched 'Murakami Flowers' on OpenSea in March last year, just weeks after Beeple's Everydays auction, but he withdrew the pixel art flowers mid-auction after learning more about the complexity of NFTs.
'I sincerely apologise to those who have already put in their bids, but I hope you will understand the logic behind this withdrawal, the aim of which is to later allow you to enjoy my NFT works more conveniently and with peace of mind,' he wrote at the time.
For most of the art world, 2021 was the year they started paying attention to NFTs. More artists and galleries will no doubt figure out how to incorporate NFTs in ways that work for them in 2022.
For some galleries, the approach is going to be more ambitious than others.
Ine-Kimba Boyle said Pace's goal is for Pace Verso 'to evolve into a metaverse hub, encompassing all things Pace. NFTs are just the beginning of what will ultimately be the next generation of the gallery's existence within the virtual realm.' —[O]