Non-fungible token (NFT) sales have skyrocketed over the past year, going from $94.9 million in 2020 to $24.9 billion in 2021. The emerging technology, powered by data stored on a blockchain to identify digital assets, has drawn interest from early adopters to even traditional media, with Marvel Comics and DC Comics launching NFT versions of classic comic covers.
NFT art sales have been a big driver of that growth, with some digital pieces being sold for tens of millions of dollars.
So what’s all the hype about? We spoke with artists being featured at the new NFT Museum, a traditional brick-and-mortar museum meant to highlight the work of artists that create NFT artwork, to learn more.
The museum, which opens Friday evening, currently features work from Neon Saltwater, Charles Peterson, and Robbie Trevino. Artwork from the collection of Aaron Bird, a Seattle entrepreneur, and artist representation firm H+ Creative will also be on display. Headlining the opening is Los Angeles resident Blake Kathryn.
Unfortunately, if you’re looking to attend the museum on its opening weekend, as of this writing nearly all of the tickets (priced at $175 to $200) are sold out.
“We are overwhelmed by the outreach and support from the community and of course excited to have two sold out events to contribute to the startup costs for the museum,” said Peter Hamilton, longtime Seattle tech exec who helped launch the museum with startup leader Jennifer Wong.
Read on to hear more from Kathryn, Peterson, and Saltwater about the current and future status of NFT art; what got them interested in NFTs in the first place; and the environmental impact of the technology behind NFTs. Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
GeekWire: Why are you interested in NFTs?
Blake Kathryn: This realm first came to my attention when I saw other artists I looked up to selling works in an almost gallery-like sense. I wasn’t a stranger to commissions or merch/brand collaborations, but had gone through emotional and financial rollercoasters in past projects like these, and so many never saw the light of day. When I realized my work, especially my animated work, could be sold as an artist in a very scarce manner, I figured it didn’t hurt to try. I’ve been privileged enough to find success and develop a patron-like relationship with several collectors since. It’s also enabled me to give back both to more indie artists and an array of nonprofits, which I intend to continue doing.
Charles Peterson: Because it’s yet another medium to get my work out there and sell it. It’s also a way of having my work archived on the blockchain and available for all to view, despite one person owning the NFT. Other than museums, this is rarely the case in the traditional art realm.
Neon Saltwater: I see an opportunity for digital artists to be recognized and make a living off their practice, and keep their content in the digital realm where it was intended to exist when it was created. Digital prints are only really available for still images, and can sometimes be a departure from the original medium if the colors aren’t right, etc. Now video and moving images are able to exist and have a platform that elevates them.
GeekWire: How do NFTs help your art efforts?
Blake Kathryn: I’d love to say it enabled me total independence; alas, I am apparently a workaholic and fully booked with client related projects again (laughs).
That being said, it did afford me the power to control who I work with. When I’m in calmer waves throughout the year, I’m able to fully dedicate working hours to improving my craft both technically and conceptually. This balance has absolutely led to growing more efficiently as an artist.
In addition, I’ve been able to fund several longer-term projects and pay colleagues of different skills their fair rates, leading to healthy collaborative relationships and passing on financial security in an organic manner. On a final note, I feel very blessed to have been largely freed from the consistent reliance on social media to get my work “seen”; instead of rushing a work to completion for an algorithm, I let it marinate until pixel perfection.
Charles Peterson: Well, believe it or not, artists, just like everybody else, require money to live. Shocking, I know. It’s the ability to reach lots of collectors who are actually looking to purchase a piece. I’ve never bought anything with “likes” from Instagram, but I certainly can with NFTs. That said, my physical print sales are usually due indirectly to Instagram. It’s a different mindset and way of interacting with art. Currently I’ve only sold archival grunge era work, but looking to the future, NFTs will be a great platform to showcase new and other less well known archival work. It’s also without the hassle and expense of mounting a show and hoping somebody other than your friends show up to pay for all the expensive framing you’ve done! Sure, it costs to mint (damn gas!), but at least the piece is actually then on the marketplace versus just there for likes.
Neon Saltwater: Neon Saltwater is about a world that I have created of over 400 rooms so far; other than my physical work, it’s experienced digitally on Instagram most of the time. NFTs allow me to keep my little imagined world of Neon Saltwater in the digital realm, but now with room to grow to offer greater access to it, with more awareness about digital art.
GeekWire: How do you feel about the long-term future of NFTs?
Blake Kathryn: It’s so early and still has much to grow, mature, and improve upon. First off, there is an onboarding process to merely get into the space that is driven with, quite often, exclusionary tech/finance language. This feels like unnecessary gatekeeping I hope to see eradicated.
In addition, the main blockchain, Ethereum, needs to fully shift to a more energy efficient proof of stake (PoS) process. There are alternative green chains today however, such as Polygon, Solana and Tezos; for artists curious on how to enter the space in a carbon conscious and environmentally friendly manner, I highly recommend reading about them.
Outside of these critiques, and viewing through an optimistic futurist lens, I truly hope it continues to empower creatives of all backgrounds to build their own craft and security. From writers to musicians to fashion designers, the list goes on with what’s possible each day. From an artist’s perspective, the technology is truly inspiring, and will only continue to fascinate as well; being able to transform artworks over time through coding, creating interactive works that respond to gestures, etc. There’s so much that’s barely been explored, or is yet to be uncovered. The partnership of artists and developers to make these experimental works happen has fostered such a fun digital playground. I can’t wait to continue to be surprised.
Charles Peterson: I think they are here to stay. It’s really a medium that appeals to a younger generation, and they’ll be the ones to carry it forward. Last year’s insanity will settle down as people realize that the sprinting is exciting, but marathon runners will win the race. I’m actually one of the earlier “old school” photographers to enter the space in a biggish way, but soon we’ll see a lot more traditional fine art and documentary photographers, and other artists onboarding. It’ll be sink or swim time, as the quality of work on offer will be going way up.
Neon Saltwater: I think as with anything else it will change and morph, and it will be interesting to see what that means for NFTs.
GeekWire: Among the criticisms of NFTs include the environmental impact of the technology behind them, plus concerns about some artists’ work being pirated to create NFTs. Have any of these concerns influenced your decision to pursue creating NFT art?
Blake Kathryn: Absolutely valid concerns. For myself I offset for each Ethereum mint, in addition to donating to various global and local nonprofits to aid my immediate and greater community the best I can. Even when it shifts to PoS, I will continue these contributions; if I’m able to work, eat and sleep comfortably, it’s only right I donate excess to secure a better future. I also enjoy collecting on green chains (as well as minting occasional work) such as Tezos, and do hope to see these areas thrive and grow to further force the carbon footprint priority across all avenues. I have been meaning to look into Solana as well, but I’m currently in client mode, so have not done the proper research to comment yet.
As for art theft, I like to think there’s a special place in Hell for anyone who takes others’ hard work for a quick dollar. …Pirates get shut down extremely swiftly in my experience, and it’s unfortunately just a continued problematic realm so many of us have to keep an eye on, since we first began sharing work online. Perhaps with all this shiny, fancy tech this space is building, we can create proper IP security blankets, as it is entirely unjust to the artists who have to navigate these offenses.
Charles Peterson: Yes, the environmental concern is a big one, and one reason I went with Phosphene initially to represent me in the NFT space. They are committed to giving back to the environment with a portion of their fee. Now that I will start minting myself, I’m thinking of setting up a carbon offset initiative as well. I think it’s something that every successful NFT artist should be doing, or at least considering. As far as piracy goes, that’s a real problem, but one that’s hitting the [picture for proof] space more than 1:1 photography, so it’s really on the periphery for me at the moment.
Neon Saltwater: Absolutely. I’ve been slower at diving in head first, but I am hopeful and optimistic that processes will continue to change, develop, improve, and address these issues. It is still really new.