I’ve Seen a Lot of Money Grabs in My Career as an Art Market Reporter. NFT.NYC Topped Them All

The crypto world and the art world are both built on a desire for access. What happens when they collide?

Billboards display NFT art in Times Square during the 4th annual NFT.NYC conference on June 20, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images)

The Art Detective is a weekly column by Katya Kazakina for Artnet News Pro that lifts the curtain on what’s really going on in the art market.

The line was long.

Hundreds of people waited for an hour and a half inside the New York Marriott Marquis hotel on opening day of NFT.NYC this week. All were owners of Doodles, a collection of 10,000 rainbow characters that are among the most popular traded NFTs. They lined up to get an access code for a Doodles party at the Palladium Theater later that day. Something big was going to happen, though they didn’t know what. Someone big was going to show up, though they didn’t know who. So they waited.

It’s all about access at NFT.NYC, a sprawling convention that’s more Comic Con than Art Basel. (Doodle owners at the Palladium were first to learn about the launch of a new collection of avatars and watch a pre-recorded video of Pharrell Williams announcing his appointment as chief brand officer.)

Thousands of people, predominantly male and often costumed, turned the lower floors of the Times Square hotel into a mosh pit. Bored Ape signs and pulsating screens brightened up the dreary surroundings. Early tickets went for $749 a pop, with access to all the talks in beige ballrooms, free lunch, and booze. Last-minute VIP access cost $1,999. 

More than 250 vendors seeking to reach new clients and promote their wares paid through the nose too, from $14,000 for a dingy display on a Supreme trunk in a hallway to hundreds of thousands dollars for Tron’s takeover of part of the seventh floor. It’s enough to make a booth at Art Basel look like a steal. 

Meanwhile, cryptocurrencies continued to plunge, adding to more than $2 trillion in lost value in just a few months. Crypto investors and enthusiasts put on a brave face, stressing the importance of the community and creativity.  

“Nobody likes to lose money, but this moment and what it represents is about so much more than financial gain,” said Pablo Rodriguez-Fraile, a crypto investor and major collector of NFT art. “It’s not a wipeout. It’s part of maturity. NFTs aren’t going anywhere.” 

In the art world, access is everything, too (whether to a coveted work by an emerging art star or to a third-party deal on a blue-chip masterwork at auction). So the art market is watching the NFT space keenly, sensing an opportunity to scale up in a way that has so far eluded it. The two worlds overlap: In the past year, auction houses have sold hundreds of millions of NFTs and some art businesses have started to accept cryptocurrency as payment. 

Artist Mike Winkelmann (left), engineer Tyler Berkey (center), and crypto investor Ryan Zurrer at Christie’s on June 21. Photo: Katya Kazakina

“Right now, there are two distinct markets: art collecting market and NFT collecting market,” said Christy MacLear, founder of Artist.Ventures and former executive director of the Rauschenberg Foundation. “The overlap is small but it’s growing. More museums and galleries are getting into it.” 

This week, Christie’s held a party for its online-only NFT auction to benefit the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), with works by all the top digital artists, including Beeple, Mad Dog Jones, and IX Shells. In Chelsea, Pace had an opening reception to celebrate its collaboration with Art Blocks and showcase Jeff Koons’s moon NFT project. A few screens (including one that had been tokenized on the blockchain) infiltrated the tony Nahmad Contemporary gallery on the Upper East Side, which staged a buzzy group show, “The Painter’s New Tools,” exploring novel painting techniques. Down in Red Hook, artist Dustin Yellin opened up his sprawling studio, where NFTs are now being minted alongside his signature resin and glass sculptures. 

“Our job is to find the best artists working in this space and support their work,” said Ariel Hudes, head of Pace Verso, the mega-gallery’s NFT arm. “Traditional collectors are getting more and more excited about these works. What sets us apart is that we are not selling speculative, gamified little tokens. We are selling works of art stored on the blockchain.” 

Elle Lexxa, a TikTok personality and antique jewelry enthusiast, came to NFT.NYC in an 18th-century-style gown. She said that creating digital tokens for her jewelry designs will help her reach a larger audience. Photo: Katya Kazakina

Elle Lexxa, a TikTok personality and antique jewelry enthusiast, came to NFT.NYC in an 18th-century-style gown. She said that creating digital tokens for her jewelry designs will help her reach a larger audience. Photo: Katya Kazakina

Everyone wants a piece of the brave new world, even if that world’s financial structure is cracking. “I know the market is down right now—whatever,” said Stacy Engman, a socialite and curator, who turned her tiaras and stilettos into NFTs.  

For some, making new connections was worth the steep price of admission to NFT.NYC. A vendor of cheap-looking merch (pins, hats, and denim jackets ranging from $30 to $300), who asked not to be named, sat at a small round table in a ballroom. His company paid $20,000 for this “booth,” he said, noting that the price included another “coffee-table display” at an unspecified location. “I don’t know where,” he said. “The communication was really bad.”

When asked if that was a good deal, the person said, shaking his head, “What do you think?’’

On the other hand, there was so much demand to get a vendor spot, “everything was sold out. The traffic here is crazy. It’s business development.”

Juan Andres, left, and Rafael Acosta were promoting NFTs by artist Zevi G at NFT.NYC on June 21. Photo: Katya Kazakina

On another floor, Juan Andres and Rafael Acosta set up a display of a collection of 4,560 NFTs, dubbed the 456 Collectors Club, by the New Jersey-based artist Zevi G. Each is a version of a cartoonish alien character in a lotus pose. A newly minted NFT costs 0.33 ETH ($370.40, at today’s exchange rate) and comes with a unique print of the artist’s Namaste character and a promise of a seven-inch sculpture in two months. On the OpenSea marketplace, the floor price for the NFT is 0.425 ETH ($477).

“Imagine having this in your house!” Andres, 33, said excitedly, pointing at the posters. “C’mon!”

In addition to the “booth” at NFT.NYC, which cost $14,000, Andres hosted two dinners, for 60 people in total. He estimated his budget for the week was $40,000. 

“It costs a lot to build this and take care of the community,” said Anjali George, the crypto company Tron’s director of communications, who estimated the total cost of its NFT.NYC debut—complete with a media lounge, a ballroom for panels, and an activation display—was under $500,000. 

A representative for NFT.NYC didn’t return calls and emails seeking comment.

Artist John Gerrard (left) and Art Blocks founder Erick Calderon at the Pace Gallery opening on June 21. Photo: Jared Buckhiester. Courtesy: Pace Gallery.

While businesses worked to build awareness and loyalty at NFT.NYC, the art world continued its courtship of crypto wealth. At Pace’s opening on June 21, guests included gallery artists Leo Villareal, Tara Donovan, and Ralph Nauta of Studio Drift, as well as Art Blocks founder Eric Calderon and NFT artist Tyler Hobbs.

John Gerrard’s NFT series, “Petro National,” was released that morning. All 196 generative works of oil spills around the world sold out in 20 minutes, with prices ranging from 2 ETH to 5 ETH ($2,411 to $3,617). (Since then, the works have generated more than $330,000 in secondary market sales on OpenSea.) Pace purchased five works and displayed them at the opening. 

“It was the most amazing blend of the art world and crypto world,” said Hudes of the event. “It was packed the whole time.”

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