Of late, hardly a day goes by without encountering the magic acronym rousing the art market with stellar headline-making profits. Three letters insistently hitting art news, flowing through SoMe feeds, and filling the mouths of crypto enthusiasts between sips of natural wine: NFT.
Just over a month ago, in mid-December 2021, the art market website Artnet, which heavily covered crypto news last year, became yet another player eager to grab a slice of the pixel-coated cake, launching its first NFT auction. Finding one’s bearings in this whirlwind of volatility, tech jargon, and mind-boggling numbers is like catching sight of land on OpenSea, the largest NFT marketplace – for which no name could ever be more appropriate.
Yet, beyond the hype and woolliness of the matter, there is genuine excitement around the possibilities embedded in blockchain technology’s application to the field of visual arts. Beyond the obsolete question ‘what is art?’ that many crypto enthusiasts wish to ask to challenge traditional art-world values and pass the speculative greed around astronomical sales, the technology’s potential for disrupting art market structures is a compelling reality that might have long-term consequences.
Until recently, NFTs have been primarily exchanged via blockchain-based marketplaces, but established art-world organisations are quickly succumbing to the seductive charms of crypto-all. In September 2021, gallerists Christian Andersen (Christian Andersen, Copenhagen) and Esperanza Rosales (VI, VII, Oslo), founders of Basel’s independent June Art Fair, launched the NFT platform Juneart.io in collaboration with Immortal, a tech company owned by former art critic turned all-round entrepreneur, Michael Jeppesen.
Juneart.io features NFTs by the likes of Carl Mannov, Tobias Kaspar, Robot Takuji Kogo and John Miller, Nancy Lupo, Hans-Christian Lotz, and David Robbins, all artists represented by galleries participating in the June Art Fair. Kunstkritikk asked Christian Andersen some questions via Whereby about the scope and ambitions of the project, which is the first of its kind in the Nordic region.
While the financial possibilities connected to cryptocurrencies and NFTs are a reason for excitement for some in the art world, their often speculative nature is the cause of concern for others. What are the intentions and aspirations behind Juneart.io?
Juneart.io is a curated selection of contemporary art NFTs. We launched it on the occasion of the third edition of the June Art Fair in Basel to offer the exhibiting galleries and their artists a supporting sales platform. We believe that NFTs are a valuable tool for promoting artworks that are ephemeral in nature. I am thinking especially of performative works or conceptual works that can now be documented and represented in a permanent digital space. The plan is to host a series of shows throughout the year, curated by people we admire for their contributions to the (traditional) art world.
What kind of model does Juneart.io wish to propose to the crypto art market? How is it different from other existing curated NFT platforms, such as JPG, Feral File, or Folia – to name a few?
I think the real difference is that we are not addressing the ‘crypto art market’. First and foremost, we are selling contemporary art and the proof of ownership happens to be in the form of NFTs. Before starting Juneart.io, we realised how contemporary art was getting lost on existing NFT platforms such as OpenSea. These larger sites have a lot to offer, but the abundance of material ultimately leads to an alienating experience for most people. To counter this, we have picked an exclusive set of NFTs by established artists with traditional art world careers: gallery representation, institutional shows, and works in public collections. Of course, some of the platforms you mention also work with artists who are recognised names within the contemporary art world, and it is comforting to see that we are not alone in promoting this type of work.
So far, you have focused on artists who have been fostered by the traditional art world, and work in particular with galleries that participate in June Art Fair. Are you also interested in involving artists who have shaped their careers in the digital context?
As a digital counterpart to June Art Fair, the platform naturally started with artists from the galleries we invite to the fair. It was an obvious way to join the digital and physical platforms and to be consistent with our quality criteria. Moving on with our programme, we will continue to mint works by artists connected to the fair, but we are also planning exhibitions by guest curators. These will be occasions to engage with new artists and explore different practices, perhaps also shaped within the media art context. It’s a learning curve for us, and we are excited about what lies ahead.
Unlike other galleries getting busy with NFTs, you have chosen to stay away from the auction/drop model typically used for their sale. Why?
A lot of the crypto art for sale is, as you already mentioned, of a speculative nature. Crypto artists often use the strategy of putting cheap work out in the marketplace to accelerate interest. Their own profit is most often not dependent on the price on the first sale of an NFT but rather on getting a share of the profit on every resale. This is an entirely new approach that is at odds with the traditional primary art market where resales and speculation are ill-seen, and artworks are ideally placed in permanent collections or with owners that will live with their art forever. We don’t use the auction/drop model because we work with artists who already have a significant place within contemporary art, and their work is priced accordingly.
Within the decentralised framework underpinning blockchain technology, which gives media artists the possibility of reaching their public bypassing mediators, a gallery can occupy a paradoxical position. What are your thoughts on this?
We are all for disruption and challenging the status quo. If NFTs can allow certain artists to do this, then we don’t think this is, in itself, a threat to galleries.
Has Juneart.io been commercially successful so far?
Yes and no. We ran into technical problems early on, but I hear this is quite normal when moving first in an environment like this. Achieving commercial success takes time, and we are still learning how to navigate this space. One thing we are becoming aware of is that there is very little crossover between the world of crypto art and the traditional art community. What we are offering is still primarily sought after by conventional collectors, and they continue to be our core audience and who we should be in dialogue with.
Was there any resistance or criticism from the artists towards your invitation to make NFTs?
We weren’t sure what to expect, but the response has been good so far. A few artists have been sceptical, but, on the other hand, artists we didn’t anticipate would join decided to participate. I think it’s clear to most people that we are not a part of the crypto scene trying to explore the art world – we are a part of the art world exploring new technologies.
The vast environmental costs of blockchain technology are now piling onto the art world’s already giant carbon footprint. What are your thoughts on this?
It is indeed worrying. We believed that Ethereum, as promised, would go Proof of Stake in late 2021. That didn’t happen, so we are now exploring new blockchains. We will very soon open our first collection of artists on Concordium, which is an eco-friendly blockchain and will keep looking into other chains.