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Can NFTs Help Us Better Understand Fine Art?

April 21, 2023 | Updated on June 9, 2023

Can NFTs Help Us Better Understand Fine Art_.png

"When you take technology and mix it with art, you always come up with something innovative." — Robert Rodriguez

In a recent Baer Faxt art market report, TRLab chairwoman and co-founder Xin Li-Cohen shared her observation of a paradigm shift in art collecting. "The next generations of art collectors already have different expectations of how they will access, learn about, experience, and collect art," she noted. "For young collectors, there is an expectation that some portion of a fine art experience should be digital-native and open to all geographies – either for learning, transactions, or follow-on engagement. This more fluid way of thinking about physical and digital experiences of art, combined with this generational shift, is one of the most exciting things about working in the art world right now."

Her observations struck a chord with art world colleagues eager to understand and anticipate this paradigm shift. In this issue of The TRLab Edit we examine this forecast further, share observations from our own community of collectors, and pose the question: could blockchain-based experiences and NFTs help us better understand fine art in the future?

Fine art goes digital, and a new generation of collectors emerges

In recent years, the integration of fine art and technology has opened up new ways for us to appreciate, understand, and collect art. Where fine art was once primarily experienced in physical settings, next-generation display technologies have extended the art viewing experience to virtual audiences and across geographies. Many of us now engage with fine art fluidly across the digital/physical divide, liking Instagram views of artworks or browsing the Google Arts & Culture app as readily as we visit museum exhibitions and gallery shows in person. While the physical, sensory experience of standing in front of a painting or sculpture will never be replaced, our collective acceptance of viewing, learning about, and even buying art through digital mediums is already the norm.

At the same time, the arrival of NFTs in the art world created a new and broadly-available mechanism for collecting art in digital form. In just the last few years, a new generation of art enthusiasts eager to participate in the art market has begun to discover established global artists like Cai Guo-Qiang, who embraced the possibilities of NFTs early on, and began to integrate them into his traditional fine art practice. For the first time, a crypto wallet and an internet connection was all that was needed to build an art collection. And because NFTs make it easy to verify ownership, artists like Cai found they could establish on-going relationships with virtual communities of collectors. TRLab's dedicated community of close to 2,000 Cai Guo-Qiang NFT holders has participated in virtual and in-person events with the artist, and even had the opportunity to visit his studio spaces.

Contemporary artist Cai Guo-Qiang welcomes TRLab community members to his studio in New Jersey, as an exclusive reward for participants in "Your Daytime Fireworks", his 3rd NFT project co-produced with TRLab

At the confluence of these exciting developments in art access and digital-native collecting, TRLab posed a bold question: if contemporary artists could integrate blockchain technology and NFTs into their practice, could the same technologies connect digital-centric art enthusiasts with the 'traditional' art world, and bring the past forward into the future?

Season One of The Calder Question - an education-driven collecting experience co-produced by TRLab with the Calder Foundation - introduced virtual participants from over 60 countries to the genius of 20th-century artist Alexander Calder. By integrating elements of arts education, gaming, and NFT collecting, participants around the world took part in an intensive online orientation to Calder's art, practice and lasting influence. Many had never encountered a Calder in person and welcomed the chance to expand their knowledge of fine art. Others had encountered Calder works in museums and public exhibitions and wanted to delve deeper into his radical approach to 3-D sculpture, especially his mobiles.

"[TRLab] is pushing the envelope of the entire sector...and has found a way to teach totally digital native people in a very compelling way about a very important artist that otherwise they may have never thought about because that artist is a completely analog artist."

— Sach, TRLab supporter/collector and CEO of Emotionalism

"The Calder Question website, from an informational perspective, is just top notch...This [The Calder Question] is a museum outside of museum walls...Even museums sometimes fail to provide for somebody who wants more information."

— Marc, TRLab supporter and collector

To commemorate the experience for collectors, TRLab and Calder Foundation worked with Raoul Marks, the two-time Emmy® Award-winning motion designer and artist, to create 5 limited-edition NFTs that elucidate a core lesson of Season One: the roles of motion and negative space in Calder's art. At the close of Season One, more than 1,200 participants had advanced through the full educational experience online, earning achievement tokens that signified their status as Calder Scholars. The upcoming 2nd season of The Calder Question will bring participants even deeper into Calder's artistic realm, and incorporate new applications of blockchain-based technologies.

Moody still from Raoul Marks' Vertical Foliage, commissioned by Calder Foundation.
Developed by the Calder Foundation with Raoul Marks
49 second video
Edition of 32

The Paradigm Shift is Here

As TRLab community members have already eloquently expressed, art collectors are increasingly interested in more immersive art world experiences that move beyond the purely transactional elements of the NFT ecosystem to include education, community, and ongoing access. The Calder Question and TRLab's Lumen Prize-nominated "Your Daytime Fireworks" NFT project with Cai Guo-Qiang are two pioneering examples of how Web3 technologies can already be deployed to support these goals. Art world observers like The Baer Faxt have taken note:

And everyone who knows me knows that I do not grade on a curve.It [The Calder Question] is the single-best, most-pure, well-conceived NFT/digital-art project that has come out in the 25, i mean, .5 years that we have been hearing about this medium. In terms of learning, art, transformation to a new format, market wisdom, they [TRLab] have nailed it: 100/100.

— Josh Baer, The Baer Faxt

As the ecosystem for blockchain-based art experiences continues to evolve, the inherent capabilities of Web3 technology will create even more exciting opportunities to on-board current generations of fine art collectors into the often-exclusive world of fine art. Integration of digital-native experiences with traditional fine art institutions and galleries is on the horizon, as major museums like LACMA (which now has Cai Guo-Qiang's Exploding the Self in its permanent collection), Centre Pompidou, and MoMA add NFTs to their permanent collections and public exhibitions for the first time. In the meantime, keep watching this space for more exciting developments in the realm of fine art education and NFTs.

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