NFT Collectors and Museums Have a Novel Problem: How Do You Deal With Art That an Artist Can Change at Will?

The allure of Beeple's latest work is that he can makes alterations to it whenever he likes. That can be a problem for some.

Beeple, HUMAN ONE(2021), sold for $29 million (est. $15 million) at Christie's November 2021 "21st century art" evening sale in New York. Courtesy Christie's.

Last week, a motley group of collectors, crypto investors, blue-chip dealers, and curators assembled at the Bass Museum in South Beach to listen to a conversation between artists Peter Saul and Mike Winkelmann, moderated by dealer and collector Adam Lindemann.

Over the next hour, the event became a microcosm not only of Art Basel Miami Beach, but also of the current art market writ large: traditional collectors and crypto-native artists sought—and sometimes failed—to develop a common language.

Saul, 87, has been playing the role of a “bad Pop artist” for decades, much of the time far from the art market’s epicenter. Winkelmann, better known as Beeple, became an international sensation overnight in March after his NFT work, Everydays: The First 5000 Days, sold for $69.3 million at Christie’s. 

Two monitors next to the stage showed works by both artists, and the similarities between their violent, irreverent, cartoonish vocabulary was striking. Both men “hold the mirror to the mayhem and the mania, our stupidity and greed, our lust and lying, but also our fun, awe, and love,” Tom Healy, the Bass’s curator of public programs, said by way of introduction.

An artist talk between Peter Saul (left) and Mike Winkelmann (right), moderated by Adam Lindemann (center). Photo: Katya Kazakina

An artist talk between Peter Saul (left) and Mike Winkelmann (right), moderated by Adam Lindemann (center). Photo: Katya Kazakina

In the back of the room, I spotted Loïc Gouzer, the former Christie’s rainmaker who informally advises Winkelmann and has just launched a new company that brings together NFTs and fractional ownership in art. 

Next to me was Max Hollein, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who gave Saul a retrospective at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt in 2017 when he was the director there. In September, Hollein told me that NFTs weren’t on the horizon for the Met. 

But since our interview, he had become intrigued by Winkelmann’s first NFT with a physical component: a kinetic video sculpture, titled HUMAN ONE, that sold for $28.9 million at Christie’s. The piece is a rotating cube with four video screens, showing a man in a silver spacesuit and helmet marching through a post-apocalyptic landscape. 

The smart contract for the work allows Winkelmann to change the content whenever he wants. Effectively, HUMAN ONE is not a finished artwork—and may never be. A collector may “wake up one morning and it could be nothing,” Noah Davis, Christie’s head of digital sales, told me before the November auction.

It’s that premise—the unfinishedness of the work—that intrigued Hollein, in part because it radically changes the relationship between an artist and a collector. That concept of an unfinished work, as well as the safeguards it would require, has become one of the most controversial elements of this new art form.

“I could change it into something that the collector doesn’t like,” Winkelmann said at the Bass. “To be quite honest, I don’t know how I am going to change it. I know I am going to keep changing it, but it’s not one of those things where I have the next 30 years planned out. And for me, being along for that journey, just the same as the collector, is really, really exciting.”

Some more traditional artworks are ever-changing, especially those involving nature, like the work of Andy Goldsworthy or Robert Smithson. But most collectors, galleries, and auction houses are used to certainty. When Banksy’s Love Is in the Bin famously self-destructed at Sotheby’s in 2018, the auction house offered the buyer the option to rescind her bid (she didn’t—and resold the work this year for $25.4 million, 18 times its unshredded price). 

“People don’t buy an Avedon photo to take it home and see it transformed into something else,” said Megan Noh, co-chair of Pryor Cashman’s art law group.

For the new class of crypto collectors, however, an artwork’s ability to evolve is a big part of its appeal. 

Beeple, HUMAN ONE (2021). Courtesy of Christie's.

Beeple, HUMAN ONE (2021). Courtesy of Christie’s.

Ryan Zurrer, the Zurich-based venture capitalist and crypto billionaire who bought HUMAN ONE, called the work “probably the most important piece of art in any category that’s been created this century thus far.” He was particularly drawn to the idea that “for the next 30-plus years, Mike and I will have now this relationship where the piece will change and evolve and maybe become something completely different than what we talk about today.”

Winkelmann didn’t make any promises about when, how, or how often he would change HUMAN ONE, Zurrer said. And the collector is happy to give him all the breathing room he needs.

“It’s not going to be me calling him up and be like, ‘Hey, can you put a birthday hat on the Explorer, ‘cuz it’s my birthday,’” Zurrer said. 

That open-endedness remains too much for traditional collectors like Ronnie Heyman, president of the board of the Museum of Modern Art. “I don’t know how I would deal with it, how I’d live with it,” she said after the Bass talk. “If I don’t like how he changed it, I’d just pull the plug.”

Zurrer said that HUMAN ONE isn’t meant for a domestic setting anyway. Since Christie’s sale, the work has been in storage in New York while the investor figures out which great art institution to which to lend it. 

“I have a deep sense of responsibility to help tell this story of mankind’s first steps into the metaverse properly,” Zurrer said. “And so this will not go into a personal collection. This will go on display for as many people around the world to enjoy as possible.”

Meanwhile, most museums are still wrapping their heads around questions of logistics, conservation, insurance, copyright, and even the display of NFT art.

Metropolitan Museum of Art director Max Hollein (right) arrives at the Bass Museum talk between artists Peter Saul and Mike Winkelmann. Photo: Katya Kazakina

Metropolitan Museum of Art director Max Hollein (right) arrives at the Bass Museum talk between artists Peter Saul and Mike Winkelmann. Photo: Katya Kazakina

“I am not surprised museums are taking it slow because they don’t know what exactly to do with this stuff,” said Brian Frye, professor of law at the J. David Rosenberg College of Law in Lexington, Kentucky. “And frankly, a lot of museums have yet to catch up with even collecting digital art in a non-cryptographic context.”  

Those out in front include the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, which just acquired two NFT works by Chinese artist Zhang Huan, according to Christiana Ine-Kimba Boyle, director of online sales at Pace gallery. They were part of the museum’s first virtual exhibition, which also included Larva Labs’s Crypto Punk #5652.

Back in July, the ICA Miami announced that its trustee, Eduardo Burillo, gifted a work by Larva Labs, Crypto Punk #5293, to the institution, which plans to display it over summer. But things have stalled, and artistic director Alex Gartenfeld doesn’t have an ETA for when the work will go on view beyond sometime in the next 12 months. 

“An NFT lives in a wallet, so you have to make sure you have a very secure wallet, that the vendor we use for security will exist in perpetuity,” he explained. “Because all of these vendors are so new, you want to be crossing your t’s and dotting your i’s.” Plus, even opening a wallet in the first place requires a board resolution, which requires a meeting of many very busy stakeholders. 

For now, Gartenfeld is in talks with Larva Labs founders Matt Hall and John Watkinson about how the duo wants to display the work—or if they want it displayed at all. The current idea: showing it on a laptop, on which Crypto Punks were created.

“It’s a whole new question for them,” Gartenfeld said.

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