"This is, like, the Matisse of NFTs."
Will, a tech worker and NFT collector, motioned toward a high-res screen. I took a good hard squint. He was talking about Larva Lab's "CryptoPunk #553," depicting a pixelated brown-skinned, fro'd figure wearing 3D glasses floating against an opaque background. This "CryptoPunk" is one of 10,000 CryptoPunk characters, which make up an apparently legendary NFT (non-fungible token) collection. It's currently on view at the new Seattle NFT Museum.
Some believers hail these CryptoPunks as being among the original NFTs, which allow people to buy or sell digital files on a blockchain. And these punks are hot commodities. "CryptoPunk #7523"—also known as "Covid Alien"—recently sold at Sotheby's for over $11 million.
Lacking any real resemblance to the florid and painterly compositions of Henri Matisse, I assumed Will was referencing the intrinsic value of CryptoPunk as being like the famed French artist. I could almost hear Matisse's old bones rattling around his grave.
I met Will and his friends at the opening of the Seattle NFT Museum last Friday while I loitered near the all-gender bathroom, in need of a break from the party's aggressively optimistic techy vibes. Located in Belltown, the 3,000 square-foot museum is on 2125 First Avenue and split into two and a half levels. Its concrete flooring, bright fluorescent lighting, and 30 custom-designed screens—Samsung is a partner—collectively made me feel like I was inside a posh airport terminal.
The preview party's attendees were a rich mix of tech and finance bros and gals, as well as rebellious digital artist types, dressed in a melange of just-got-off-the-mountain gorpcore. Around eighty or so people came together to celebrate the museum's opening, which local, national, and international outlets have covered. Appropriately, I overhead people exchanging LinkedIn profiles while also discussing Mamoru Oshii's influential anime Ghost in the Shell.
Seattle NFT Museum co-founders, co-curators, and newlyweds Jennifer Wong and Peter Hamilton (the head of sustainability at Convoy and the head of TV commerce at Roku, respectively) say they got into NFTs in the last year after touring the Superchief Gallery NFT in New York City with a friend. The experience "made us realize how much more can be done to support the artist and collector community. We decided to jump in with both feet," wrote Hamilton in a recent email.
Part of that "both feet" approach is education around these non-fungible tokens—which are, yes, confusing as fuck. But the NFT Museum tries to get a step ahead of you.
When entering the space, visitors are greeted first by a gift shop. (Did no one see Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop?) There are water bottles and neon green tees for sale. Then, a GIANT wall of text on the right. The wall of text is massive. It encompasses not one, but two walls. My eyes bounced around, never sure where to land—forget about understanding. For once, I wished someone would mansplain this concept to me.
Wong told me that with the inaugural exhibition, they wanted to "show the different types of NFT art, from generative art to 1:1 to 3D rendering to AI to hand-drawn." The exhibition pulls together local artists like Neon Saltwater and grunge photographer Charles Peterson alongside marquee NFT types, like those CryptoPunks and headliner Blake Kathryn. (She's worked with Lil Nas X!) Many of the NFTs on display come from the collection of the founders' friend, Aaron Bird.
The Seattle NFT Museum is a museum in the sense that its main objective is to “further the education and further the community" of NFTs, with no concrete plans to have a permanent collection yet. But what distinguishes the space from, say, the Seattle Art Museum is that many of the pieces can be sold while on display. Each work I saw had an accompanying QR code connected to OpenSea, the main NFT marketplace platform.
If available for purchase, any Tom, Dick, or Harry with a crypto wallet could swoop in and snag one of the works on the wall. Though Wong and Hamilton wouldn't get a cut of the sale like a gallery might, since they do not represent the artists, they would have to get permission from the new owner to continue to display the artwork. It leaves the space uniquely susceptible to the whims of people who pass through it. In a speech on Friday, Hamilton assured the audience it was "very important that the museum has a direct, real connection with the artist and collector."
If NFTs represent the art world's future, why present these digital works in an old-ass space like a museum? Especially since the "magic" of blockchain technology lives in cables and metal machines instead of paint tubes or stacks of clay? "As powerful as online communities have become, there is little substitute for looking at art, standing next to another person," Wong told me. "We need both worlds, and we know there will be so many opportunities to bridge the metaverse with physical experiences in the future."
At the opening, the conversations buzzing around me seemed infinitely more appealing than the IRL NFTs, if not a little self-serious. During speeches and side conversations, artists, founders, and attendees spoke of NFTs and the community with a sense of divine awe.
"It's bigger than just art," Will's friend Patrick—who also works in the tech industry—told me, commenting on how "the power of the blockchain" has so much potential to bring us all together. He liked the transparency around each NFT's provenance and recommended I stream the documentary The Lost Leonardo to get a sense of how difficult it is to track ownership, price history, and authenticity of physical works. He also flashed me his Fly Flog NFT on his phone. Thanks, Patrick.
I tried to get comments from women at the party but was mostly unsuccessful. Two women told me NFTs were "more of [their] husbands’ thing."
An artist-cum-collector named Drew, who has "hundreds" of NFTs in his collection, told me he viewed NFTs as a "new kind of liberation for artists," an opportunity "to find a place to express yourself widely" and "monetize yourself in a way you couldn’t before."
Earlier that Friday, I swung through Belltown to catch a protest against the museum, calling attention to the devastating ecological impact of NFTs, which generate substantial greenhouse emissions. When I showed up, only one protester was present. They said they didn't have anything against the artists but argued NFTs are an unsustainable way to support the arts. "I don't think we as a city need to have [Seattle NFT Museum] promoting this ecological negligence," they said.
Most people I spoke to at the party later that night brushed off the criticisms, calling them overblown.
"Any new technology or media comes with fear," said one. "All the lights on in empty office buildings around here emit and waste more energy than an NFT," scoffed another. Francis Kräbbe, an IP lawyer, pointed out that some "proof-of-work" blockchains are being replaced by greener "proof-of-stake" ones, a step on the path to making the tech more sustainable.
Regardless, the demand for NFTs fucking exploded in 2021, with sales hitting $25 billion compared to $94.9 million the year previous. This all happened during a time when the pandemic made artists' income even more precarious—museums closed for months at a time; artists and producers called off shows; there was little help from the government. For digital artists, who already have few inroads to the traditional gallery-museum system, NFTs can be an appealing way to capture an audience and financial base.
“I used to truly feel like I was indebted or enslaved to an algorithm,” said artist Blake Kathryn, addressing how NFTs changed the way she thought about art in a mid-party interview with Wong. “Now, what’s amazing is I have time to be like, I don't have to rely on that. I am able to spend time and work on collections, and be secretive and precious with my process.”
There's still a lot about the Seattle NFT Museum that's undefined. The co-founders told me they are working on their curation calendar and plan to rotate shows every six weeks. They want the community to guide their long-term vision and direction. "We are taking on feedback and hundreds of ideas, and we can’t wait to see how that develops the museum's mission and direction over time," said Wong. "These are very early days!"
When I first entered the party last week, there were whispers that Kevin McCoy—the guy who minted the first NFT back in 2014—was in attendance. And he was. The born-and-raised Seattleite popped up during the ceremony, saying, "I thought it was a big idea but nooobody else did." The crowd laughed. "Starting last year, many many more people did. And now the idea belongs to everybody."
Later, my IP lawyer acquaintance whisked me over to meet McCoy. In our brief interview, he told me he was "most proud that [NFTs are] an idea that came from the art world. It's not a tech idea." But as I glanced around at the company surrounding me, I wasn't sure how much that distinction mattered.
The Seattle NFT Museum opens on January 27. Hours are from 12 pm - 5 pm, Thursday through Sunday. Tickets are $15.