With the onset of the pandemic, museum and gallery spaces have been forced to find new ways of engaging with the community. Unable to host events or put their vibrant collections on display, the galleries moved in the same direction as classes did — online. This is not new information, but what you may not have known was that this shift was almost a total failure. Unlike college classes, where our attendance on zoom is required, galleries have always been an extracurricular experience. And unfortunately, google slides or powerpoint do not have the same effect as a physical art installation. In fact, even the newest 3D rendering technology could not create venues that held visitors’ attention for long — that is, until recently.
You see, part of the reason why digital art spaces don’t feel as extraordinary as physical spaces is because virtual art is just that- virtual. An Adobe illustration has the capacity to be just as evocative as a 16th century renaissance painting, but you can’t touch it or exert ownership over it. In fact, if you want the piece, why not just take a screenshot of it and save it to your desktop? That’s probably better than paying and possibly getting a low-res file via email from the gallery. As a result of this ability to reproduce digital art indefinitely, virtual galleries struggled to advertise the value of their 3D rendered photocopies.
However, all of this changed with the popularization of the NFT, or Non-Fungible Token). While the NFT was developed in 2015, it only gained traction at the end of last year. As a result, the value of the crypto Ethereum, the biggest generator for these unique tokens, skyrocketed. Unlike fungible tokens, or cryptocurrencies, every NFT is globally unique and represents a single digital asset. You might see where I’m going with this. The ERC-721 NFTs have allowed digital artists to ensure the validity of an original piece and sell that item to a buyer, who then owns the one and only NFT of the original.
The online art community quickly realized, and some scoffed at, the value of NFTs as the auction of the digital artwork Everyday: The First 5000 Days by Beeple sold on Christie’s for $69.3 million in March. Since then, there has been a massive resurgence and reevaluation of digital spaces that can showcase digital art. One such platform, Cryptovoxels, has generated over $800,000 in the past week in virtual land sales alone. With the virtual plots, people can build galleries to showcase their art NFTs, hold auctions, or sponsor community events. What began at a price of $50 for a plot in Cryptovoxels, or around 0.2 Ether (ETH) over a year ago, has soared to an average of 2.2 ETH for a small floor plot on OpenSea, which now costs over $5,000.
Cryptovoxels uses a block-asset architecture type similar to Minecraft, and allows users to build unique museum spaces, event or social spaces, and even experimental spaces. One of the currently most popular gallery spaces, the B.20 Monument, fits into all of the above categories and showcases dozens of art NFTs made by Beeple, the artist mentioned above. Another notable location is the Pallette Gallery, and even more notable is the imnotArt Gallery, which features different artists every week. But Cryptovoxels isn’t the only platform that has gained recent traction.
Numerous other virtual worlds have sparked attention, including Decentreland, Somnium Space and The Sandbox. And Decentreland, which uses its own cryptocurrency MANA, has already raked in over $50 million in virtual land sales.
What began as a mid-pandemic shift to virtual art galleries once suffocated by the age of digital reproduction has evolved into an emerging contemporary art scene, now nourished by a new age of digital ownership. And this movement has only just begun.
Matthew Kassorla is a rising sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].