THIS STORY WAS ASSIGNED IN AN ACROnym-ladened email exchange fitting the subject.
Editor: How about ART and NFTs? LMK. TY.
Me: WTF are NFTs? LOL.
Truth be told, I knew a little about these so-called non-fungible tokens, having read about them in the context of Christie’s fetching $69.3 million for an NFT at auction and the $2.9 million sale of Twitter’s first-ever tweet. I managed to get halfway through each article before my mind fogged over. Just like it does with cryptocurrency. And astrophysics.
As a writer and that dirty 10-letter word, journalist, I’ve focused more on the hard truths, the facts, the tangible… or so I’d like to think. I mean, when you buy something, say shoes, you have a physical product. The same goes with art, right? A beautiful painting on the wall.
I wondered: Isn’t the purpose of art to be seen, admired and enjoyed? To dive into and explore the individual brushstrokes, the mastery of light and shadow in a photo or sculpture, to experience the emotion, the artist’s intent? If art is reduced to a token (and a nonfungible one, at that) with only a digital presence, how do you display and enjoy it? Do you need dozens of TVs or monitors? Can you accidentally erase the art? Can it be hacked? And how in the world do NFTs represent a fourth dimension?
Those were my original questions as I began navigating this new-world art order, which it turns out is especially beneficial to artists — think lifelong royalties and international exposure — and the legions of newly minted art collectors making millions reselling their NFTs. As I delved deeper, I soon discovered many NFT-only studios and artists don’t list telephone numbers and rarely provide physical addresses. How apropos. Instead, they rely on social media to promote their services and new art, aka “mints.” Twitter, for now, is the preferred platform to announce new NFT releases via photos and 280 characters or less and, for some, a primary news source (no comment).
I found Fort Myers painter CR Obetz who a year into making NFTs is considered a veteran local art groups who hadn’t a clue what I was talking about and Lynn University, a small private college in Boca Raton that became a global force with its March launch of an NFT museum, including an exhibit on the legendary Boca Raton Innovation Campus, also known as BRIC. I also discovered blogs written by local financial advisors explaining NFTs, although none returned my calls.
I spoke to pioneers like Paul King, the founder of NFT Creative Group in Naples, and others who believe so profoundly in the blockchain and web3 (more on these later), they’ve quit their jobs to focus on revolutionary technology that forever changes THE WEB AS WE KNOW IT. And thanks to Mr. King and the officialnftdictionary.com, one of his many projects, I even learned some of the lingo — the metaverse (not to be mistaken for a metaverse), Richerd in honor of an investor who reportedly rejected a $9.5 million offer for an NFT, and Blue Chip which like stock and companies refers to an NFT believed to be more valuable than others. And Degen, short for degenerate, considered a compliment in the NFT universe and a word my all-knowing spellcheck insisted on capitalizing.
Incidentally, NFT became official (in my world anyhow) with its 2021 inclusion in dictionaries. Dictionaries are, to paraphrase Merriam-Webster, a print or electronic resource containing an alphabetical listing of words and their meanings.
I also learned a little more about the appeal of crypto cash as an international currency, that remains a little too esoteric for my literal outlook — almost as if creating an entirely new monetary system. Not to mention its recent volatility.
As far as NFTs’ major influence on art today, we can all credit the advent of blockchain technology, an engine purportedly developed by gamers, and smart contracts which for art purposes authenticate provenance and ownership. Blockchain creates a digital ledger or recording of transactions and is the impetus for web3, the third and most super-secure version of the internet based on crypto as its currency. Web3 has given rise to OpenSea, the largest NFT marketplace and a global gallery for artists.
Here’s a primer: web1 was the original information superhighway, the 1990 to 2004 read-only version of the internet created by Tim Berners-Lee, not former Vice President Al Gore. As Mr. King explains, web2 ushered in the era of read-write interaction via social media platforms — and ultimately datamining, geo-targeted marketing and the sale of personal information to the highest bidder.
“Web2 stored information and we no longer had control over our information,” Mr. King said. “Web3 is what web1 and web2 promised to deliver. Blockchain and web3 overturn everything in web2.”
With its emphasis on read-write- OWN, web3 produced NFTs that are minted through smart contracts and code assigning ownership and transferability. NFTs are stored on the blockchain and are automatically executed when predetermined terms and conditions are met, according to IBM, which intrinsically factors into Lynn University’s leadership role.
Cesar Santalo first learned about blockchain and smart contracts from his oldest son, a budding NFT collector. “That we can now authenticate and prove ownership of a digital file, I knew the game had changed forever,” said the artist, animator and educator with directing, marketing and journalism credentials at Telemundo/NBC Universal and Univision. “Rembrandt wanted people to see and experience art in its original size and medium. With NFTs, art can stay in its own digital format and doesn’t have to be transformed to something it never was. For collectors, there’s accessibility without the worry of storing or insuring their collection.”
Mr. Santalo joined Lynn University in March 2021 as dean of the College of Communication and Design with the challenge of living on the forefront of innovation. Lacking the infrastructure for a physical gallery on its small campus, the Lynn University NFT Museum debuted this March, exhibiting student and faculty work via on-site monitors, at the school’s sister school American University Dublin in Ireland and by high-definition projectors at a gallery in BRIC, the former research and development satellite office for IBM. The exhibit covers the digital spectrum — from “lazy minted” photography, illustrations, animation, poetry and even a TikTok video.
“We started what is likely the first NFT museum in higher education,” says Mr. Santalo. “This is a way of having a museum in many locations around the community and the world. To be at the forefront of something so unique and innovative in the same building where IBM developed the personal computer and invented Control-ALT-Delete is so special.”
The beauty of NFTs is their inclusiveness, their ability to give a voice to the disenfranchised, the disillusioned and disruptors no matter how remote their location in the world. Lynn’s exhibit was coordinated by Gladys Garrote, an art historian and professor at Havana University, who Mr. Santalo calls one of the most prominent NFT curators in the world.
“We’re trying to empower artists and give them opportunities through a decentralized museum with no board of directors,” he said. “Art helps create a visual narrative. A lot of people learn visually. People driving NFTs are the most underrepresented artists in the world, and it makes art available to the masses, spawning a younger generation of art collectors who can’t afford a Degas and probably don’t want to.”
Mr. Obetz, the Fort Myers artist known for celebrating “forgotten beauty found,” was initially an NFT skeptic, thinking the new format as a hyped-up, get-rich-quick scheme to spend crypto dollars and lose the meaning and message behind his paintings.
“How do I, at 54 and not computer literate, develop this new skill set?” he remembers pondering. “I wasn’t going to change who I was to be part of NFTs. I wanted to figure out how to take my paintings, which are original and unique, to this new format and still carry the voice of my original intentions. NFTs, based on real art, are part of my storytelling now. It expanded my personal art to another creative voice and another audience of emerging young art collectors learning how to collect and trade art.”
Mr. Obetz found a contemporary in Emillions Arts, a Naples gallery that made local headlines in fall 2021 with its first NFT exhibit.
“For me, I made the leap when I found a gallery that was trying to make a leap as well,” he said.
Today, when Mr. Obetz creates new work, he’s also thinking about its translation to a digital presence and is producing NFT companions for collectors of his original paintings. Through NFTs, static paintings like “Ben Hogan Fluid Swing Sequence of Life” freeze-framing the six most recognizable motions of a golf swing, come to life, adding movement to the swing in the digital realm.
The work is part of Mr. Obetz’s Pop Art golf series based on original blackand white scratchboard illustrations created by famed golf photographer and illustrator Anthony Ravielli for Ben Hogan’s book “Five Lessons.” He reinterprets the illustrations into colorful large-scale paintings and mixed media, including the “Ravielli Rediscovered” exhibit at the Augusta Museum of History and “Diamond Hands,” a 54-by-72- inch close-up focused on the golf grip with 10 carats of diamonds. In the NFT, the hands open and close around the golf club.
Ironically, Diamond Hands in the NFTiverse (a world I thought I’d made up until I Googled it) according to Mr. King’s dictionary, describes a person who won’t sell an NFT regardless of any offer, akin to a Richerd.
Mr. Obetz said collectors display their NFTs on smartphones and watch faces and create NFT galleries at home, some with rotating art projecting into frames.
“You can take your art collection anywhere you want,” says Mr. Obetz, who also tells me NFTs can be deleted — accidentally or maliciously. “You can lose a painting, and that’s one of the big fears in the crypto world. You have to be careful with security. Anyone who tells you it can’t be hacked is lying.”
Intention, he says, remains fundamental no matter the format. When Mr. Obetz posts an NFT, he also includes the story behind the artwork.
“I think that separates me,” he said. “Art has to have a purpose and NFTs need a message. They have to have authenticity and be more than just a digital creation made to help fund a crypto market. My advice to artists is to have a vision of what you want your art to say and how you tell your story through your NFT collection. It really comes down to how you want to differentiate yourself. Everything is changing so fast. You have to believe in NFTs or you don’t want to be part of it.”
Palm Tree NFT, which touts itself as Palm Beach’s first NFT studio with a mission of bringing “your vision to the blockchain,” partnered with the Surovek
Gallery on prestigious Worth Avenue to exhibit digital art alongside the gallery’s important and significant 19th and 20th century American paintings, drawings, watercolors and prints.
“We explained our mission to Clay Surovek, the owner of the gallery, and he was game for it,” said Palm Tree cofounder Jack Warman. “He was really interested in NFTs and the physical pairing of two traditionally split worlds.”
The Palm Tree team has been involved in cryptocurrencies since 2010 and NFTs since 2020. It was co-founded last summer by Mr. Warman and high school friend Brandon Ginsberg, both 26.
“We were both getting into NFTs and Brandon made a passing remark that it would be cool to have a physical NFT gallery,” says Mr. Warman. “Brandon was an early Bitcoin investor and in high school he suggested I should look into this thing called Bitcoin.”
Although seemingly counterintuitive to the all-digital intention of NFTs, Mr. Warman says Palm Tree’s physical presence at Surovek introduces traditional art collectors to the emerging artistic expression. Gallery and online sales, he says, have represented a broad demographic — from 18 to 50 and 70 year olds. “NFTs are so innately international.”
Palm Tree represents eight artists and provides guidance on minting, listing and marketing NFTs on OpenSea. It also showcased NFTs during Art Miami in November.
For Mr. Warman and Mr. Ginsberg, the internet, cryptocurrency and 4D were part of growing up in the aughts — like cursive, music videos and MTV were to previous generations.
“We’ve been immersed in this so long, it’s more native to us,” he explained. “We don’t have to reeducate ourselves from a past paradigm. It’s becoming an increasingly remote world, and our peers and contemporaries only interact digitally. It becomes like a shared intelligence to help each other further along collectorship.”
Palm Tree has also launched an NFT collective, South Florida’s first virtual club, to provide a diverse, inclusive community for NFT enthusiasts, hosting private networking and education opportunities. Membership is verified through NFTs. There’s even a decentralized effort to buy the Denver Broncos (a story for another time).
As for my questions about losing NFTs and how to display them, Mr. Warman advises they can be erased only by the NFT creator or compromised by user error. While Palm Tree displays NFTs in Samsung frames at physical exhibits, he notes, “For some people it’s weird to display art on a screen.”
Now, back to NFT Creative Group and Mr. King, a songwriter, podcaster and former 96K-ROCK radio personality with stints in marketing for Rusty’s Raw Bar & Grill and the Redneck Mud Park. A fan of Charles Schulz and “Peanuts,” he produces the “PFP Daily” comic (in NFT lingo, proof for picture) viewed by a growing global audience of 11,500; offers career and job-posting sites for web3 businesses and providers; and runs a web3 question and-answer forum (think Quora but more complicated).
Mr. King tested the NFT market in March 2021, releasing original artwork for 50 consecutive days on OpenSea under the Ethaday nom de plume, a play on Ether, the second-most popular digital token and the cryptocurrency of the Ethereum network.
He was, apparently, before the times.
“It failed spectacularly,” said Mr. King who’s planning a follow-up NFT collection, “Paul King’s Pocket Lint,” this year. “It seems like a million days ago, but it’s only been a year. One experiment leads to another and another — especially in the early days.”
He defines himself as an educator and plans to host an NFT conference in Naples in 2023 for NFT Degens. Motto: no panels, no speakers, no speeches, no topics, no entertainment and no reason.
“I think we’re definitely on the cusp of bigness here,” Mr. King says of NFTs. “Artists get paid perpetually for life. If Picasso was alive today, he’d get paid every time a painting sells. This changes everything for artists, songwriters and writers.” ¦