When Will Smith comes to your gallery, it may be a sign that the mainstream is catching up with what you’re doing.
So it was that the legendary actor arrived at a recent event hosted by Blackdove, a Miami-based specialist in digital art — and, increasingly, non-fungible tokens, now better known as NFTs.
NFTs are one-of-a-kind digital assets that record ownership on a blockchain. Indeed NFTs are perhaps the most mainstream use of blockchain technology in existence.
And as Miami continues to be engulfed by a tech boom — one with a heavy dose of crypto and blockchain companies arriving on the scene — the city’s arts ecosystem is starting to see early signs of NFT penetration. A handful of artists are now pivoting their efforts into digital art backed by NFTs, while arts organizations are now hosting seminars to discuss ways the city’s creative class can capitalize on the NFT trend.
“For digital art, it’s the killer app of the industry,” said Blackdove co-founder Marc Billings. “What the NFT market has done is ‘game-ified’ the market a little bit, to the point where people are realizing digital art is now a collectible that can be tracked. That’s where the acceleration is coming.”
NFTs made international headlines in March when a work by the digital artist Beeple, originally purchased by a Miami collector for $67,000, resold for $6.6 million. Yet after hitting a peak earlier this spring, NFT activity has subsided, data show — in part a function of the return to regular life after a year of living virtually amid the lockdown.
For Dennis Scholl, president and CEO of Oolite Arts, it’s still too early to say whether NFTs will go the way of the lithograph and catch on among the wider artist community — or will end up like the laserdisc, as a brief curio in the history of media.
“It’s just brand spanking new,” Scholl said. “It really is. It takes time for these new models of distribution and creation to be developed and receive mainstream exposure.”
Miami artist Kerry McLaney is more optimistic. She believes that adoption of NFTs is only a matter of time. While the arts ecosystem may be slow to fully cotton to NFTs, it’s likely to be techies who propel the art form’s evolution.
“Educating is step one; a lot of people still just don’t understand,” said McLaney, who is also developing an artist management platform to help artists organize, track and sell art by leveraging blockchain technology.
She compared NFTs to the initial reception of the internet.
“It took people awhile to understand that, too.”
When the history of NFTs does get written, Miami is likely to feature prominently. The city is seeing an unprecedented influx of technology companies and entrepreneurs, many of them specializing in the crypto technologies that underpin NFTs.
The influx is exemplified by entrepreneurs like William E. Quigley. Previously a California resident, Quigley, an early internet entrepreneur, moved to Miami last year. He is now managing director of both Magnetic, a crypto-focused investment fund, and WAX, a leading entertainment NFT network.
“In terms of NFTs, for artists, Miami is going to benefit, because of Art Basel,” Quigley said. “And there are people connected to the large auction houses who are based in Miami.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for Art Basel said attendees can likely expect NFTs at this year’s show.
“For 50 years, Art Basel has been committed to supporting artists that push boundaries, enter new arenas of creative potential, and experiment with new mediums,” the statement said. “Artists working with NFTs is a current example — and we will continue to support our galleries and their artists with such experimentation and innovation. In the end it will come down to what the artists do with NFTs.”
Scholl said Basel artists are as likely to parody the NFT craze as they are to mint and sell them.
“Either or both, because artists respond to times they’re in, and this is clearly a subject that everybody is thinking about,” Scholl said.
In addition to the Will Smith event, which came amid Miami playing host to the world’s largest cryptocurrency conference, Blackdove has embarked on numerous other NFT-related projects amid the boom. Earlier this month, the company launched Miami’s first dedicated NFT gallery in the Design District. The space features 100 moving artworks representing more than 50 international artists.
Blackdove isn’t the only local art concern making a foray into NFTs. Earlier this month, ARTECHOUSE on Miami Beach launched its inaugural “collectable experience” NFTs, created from its immersive digital art exhibition Aṣẹ: Afro Frequencies by London based Afrosurrealist artist Vince Fraser. The collection, hosted by NFT platform Nifty Gateway, featured four NFTs.
And then there’s BitBasel, an arts group with its origins in Miami’s earliest crypto communities. An NFT support organization, BitBasel co-founder Jorge Cortes says it is starting educational sessions on NFTs at The LAB Wynwood in July in order to reach more artists and allow them to leverage the technology.
“Empowering artists is at the core of our mission,” he said.
BitBasel is also helping Superare, a top global NFT company, to land a Miami gallery.
“They love Miami and want to have a big presence,” Cortes said.
Other key figures in the local NFT movement predate the current tech influx. Blackdove’s Billings, whose background is in tech, partnered with Dan Mikesell, co-creator of Miami’s Fountainhead Residency and an art collector with his wife, Kathryn, to create Blackdove as a digital art company. When it launched in 2015, Blackdove sought to offer an online marketplace for works of digital art, with an accompanying app that would allow users to buy, sell and collect pieces.
“We saw digital art as a market that needed to have a platform to enjoy, because traditional art galleries are not tech companies — they’d be selling it to you and then giving you a USB key,” Billings said. “So Blackdove is the offspring of Spotify and Peloton: It’s got the ease of use and broad catalog of Spotify, and then we make it really easy to install by having a dedicated screen or by downloading an app for your TV (like Peloton).”
Billings admits NFTs have accelerated his business in a way no one could have predicted.
“The NFT was a technology that when introduced into the existing digital art market helped create a new class of art collector,” Billings said. “They could now say, ‘Hey, this is the art of our generation.’ They’d been looking for a way to own, and now NFTs gives them that sense.”
Like Billings, Pablo Rodriguez-Fraile, a Key Biscayne resident, saw the potential in digital art early. He became so interested in cryptocurrency that he quit his job in traditional finance. Today, he claims to be the world’s biggest private collector of works by Beeple and Pak, another top NFT digital artist.
In March, Rodriguez-Fraile, 32, found himself at the center of the NFT story when a Beeple work Rodriguez-Fraile had bought for $67,000 sold for $6.6 million. (Soon afterward, Beeple sold a different work for $69 million.)
Now, three months later, Rodriguez-Fraile acknowledges there has been a pull-back in the market. That was likely necessary, he said, given some of the sky-high valuations. It also allows more players to come into the market.
“We’re seeing all the traditional creators, collectors, institutions, everyone involved in the art world trying to figure out how to come into space,” he said.
Among those institutions is The Adrienne Arsht Center, which is partnering with three recent graduates of New World School of the Arts’ BFA program to create NFTs of unique digital collectibles. The NFT is associated with “Lasting Impressions,” a world premiere 3D visual art experience that ended its run at the Arsht Center earlier this month. It may well be the first performing arts venue to deliver NFTs as a collectible.
And when the SCOPE art fair returns to Miami in December, VIP tickets will be NFTs commemorating the fair’s 20th anniversary, thanks to a partnership with NFT ticketing marketplace Yellowheart. “As NFTs continue to make waves across the larger creative ecosystem, NFT tickets to in-person events represent a new channel for art fans to access the work they love in person, rather than on a computer screen,” said Josh Katz, founder and CEO of YellowHeart, via a statement.
NFT activity reached its peak between March and May, when total weekly sales hovered between about $200 and $300 million. Besides the Beeple sale, the market for NFTs among traders of NBA TopShots, a new kind of highlight reel that’s traded like a sports card, also hit records.
Weekly sales have now fallen back to between $70 and $90 million — a significant decline. But markets remain higher than levels seen in January and February.
And recent auctions are still setting records: The listing of a CryptoPunk, a unique set of pixelated avatars, sold for more than $11.7 million to the largest shareholder of sports betting site DraftKings, Shalom Meckenzie.
Some Miami artists are now seeing the potential of NFTs. Dave Anasagasti, who works under the name Ahol Sniffs Glue, is known for producing works in a variety of media. But for the past six months, he has been producing one digital work a month and minting it as an NFT.
He’s already sold the works for a total of about $50,000 to date.
“Whether it’s sought after today or in the future, I believe in my work — some of it now just happens to be in NFT world.”
But Anasagasti said simply eliminating the middle man does not mean eliminating the effort one needs to get the word out about your art.
“Just because it’s on the internet, doesn’t mean people are going to know about it or want to spend money,” he said. “You have to make it special and push it out.”
Another local artist, Gabriel “GG” Gimenez, is working on a documentary about crypto and NFTs. For all its crypto status, Miami remains behind L.A. and New York when it comes to widespread acceptance, adoption, and use in its arts community of NFTs.
“There are still not that many curators or galleries that understand [NFTs] and want to take that challenge,” Gimenez said.
Even if many NFTs become virtually worthless, there is broad agreement that some artists will find a way to make careers out of them.
“It’s like waves,” said Gauthier Zuppinger, co-founder and COO of NFT website NonFungible.com. Even if the most recent wave has subsided, NFTs — like Bitcoin itself — are not going anywhere. “There is definitely hype, and it’s totally possible we see some bear market, where people in the media, at least, lose interest in NFTs. And that’s fine.”