LACMA and Paris Hilton lend NFTs the museum stamp of approval

LACMA's acquisition of Krista Kim's "Continuum: Los Angeles" marks a new era in the relationship between NFTs and Museums.

Jul 25, 2022 Art

2 months ago

The largest art museum in the western United States just took a huge leap towards legitimizing NFTs in the art historical canon. 

On June 9, LACMA launched their new acquisition fund for digital art with a little help from Paris Hilton. The heiress, superstar, and recent crypto queen jumpstarted LACMA’s latest endeavor by facilitating the addition of two new funds to the permanent collection at the museum–where her husband, venture capitalist Carter Reum, sits on the board. Dhyandra Lawson, the assistant curator in LACMA’s photography department, oversaw the process.

“Building on the museum’s collection and programmatic strengths, this new acquisition fund intends to support diverse artist practices, including work with artificial intelligence, augmented reality, animation, graphics, multi-media installation, photography, non-fungible tokens (NFTs), performance, software, sound, and video art,” Lawson told SuperRare Magazine, emphasizing that this is not exclusively an NFT fund.

However–and this is always critical to note–literally anything can be an NFT, even the famed IRL prints by Goya that LACMA’s got hanging on their walls. 

The inaugural creations in question are both video artworks recorded on blockchain ledgers–officially bestowing them with the title of NFT. They include the donation of “Continuum: Los Angeles” by Canadian-Korean artist Krista Kim and the commission of an original artwork titled “The Question” (2022) by British artist Shantell Martin. 

Mars House (Krista Kim, 2021) on SuperRare

Kim’s 40-minute looping video simulates the splendor of LA’s famed sunsets through a shifting color gradation scored by composer Ligovskoi. “Other editions of Continuum feature music composed by Smashing Pumpkins guitarist Jeff Schoreder,” a press release explains. Martin’s contribution translates the tangible practice of drawing through digital means, animating boats, birds, and bouldering stick figures in a manner that evokes the gesture of putting pencil to paper.

“Both works explore digital technology’s effects on human perception and interaction, and will be included in a forthcoming exhibition examining digital innovation by women artists from LACMA’s collection, co-presented by LACMA and Arizona State University in the fall of 2022 at the ASU Media and Immersive eXperience (MIX) Center and the ASU Art Museum,” the release adds.

Since NFTs arrived on the mainstream and plunged the art world into a self-consuming existential crisis, stakeholders have watched museum adaptation with rapt eyes. It’s been an  uphill battle for blockchain tech to be taken seriously in the fine art world–colorful PFP collections have provided easy fodder for jokes, compounded by unrelenting faith in cryptocurrency from citizens of Web3. 

Web3 moves much faster than the sphere it’s trying to court, and that disconnect has proven a source of strife as digital artists, eager for intellectual acceptance, equate caution with reticence.

Over the past year, institutional experimentation with NFTs has mainly centered around commerce, as museums timidly test out blockchain as a tool to mitigate lingering financial losses caused by the pandemic. The British Museum led the way, dropping digital editions of works from their collection to help raise money for their own operations. 

The Art Newspaper covered the British Museum’s release of twenty digitized watercolors by J.M.W. Turner, which followed their sale of 200 digitized Hokusai works in 2021. Their article, titled, “The British Museum demeans itself by selling its works as NFTs,” asks how digital reproductions of classic art, already available for free online, could possibly have cultural value, and asserts that the British Museum and institutions making similar moves can hurt the value of an artwork by reproducing and minting it.  

Continuum (Krista Kim, 2020)

LACMA has in fact already lent NFTs a measure of intellectual credibility with their 2021 essay series entitled “NFTs and the Museum,” centered around conversations between various industry experts and the museum’s own Art + Technology Lab. There, they explored real issues that still pose barriers to entry for museums approaching NFTs as actual cultural artifacts, including questions about legality, preservation, and environmentalism. Since NFTs are new, these points will need to be worked out in real time, through community effort, action, and conversation. 

That takes patience, which Web3 proponents are notoriously averse to. 

However, LACMA’s interest in experimental media isn’t anything new. In fact, their Art + Technology lab marks the reanimation of a groundbreaking initiative similarly titled the Art and Technology Program. From 1967 to 1971, it paired 70 creative legends like Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenberg, and Nam June Paik  with major corporations “to facilitate interdisciplinary education.” Even though it was a landmark moment for practically-minded creative exploration, the program’s inaugural cohort was notably all male. Enter Paris Hilton, circa 2022.

Her endeavor isn’t perfect either–Hilton is a notable cornerstone in the celebrity NFT complex. In this sense, it’s an ironic fit that this NFT up-leveling would take place in LA. Entertainment companies like UTA hold an incredible stake in blockchain’s success, and there’s a well documented web of performers and agencies that both invest in platforms and own their own NFTs blurring the line between enthusiastic support and insider trading, undermining the decentralized power dynamics NFTs allegedly aim for. 

Alas, it’s telling that long before the digital revolution, LACMA partnered the 20th century’s most famous artists with multinational conglomerates to facilitate new developments. Money is power, and power literally means the ability to affect change. There’s a sizable contingent of well-intentioned professionals out there who believe reappropriating resources offers the most practical way to a brighter future. 

That means take the money and run–do good with it, no matter where it comes from. As such, LACMA will take Hilton’s donation and transform it into the real-time learning required to advance digital art as a whole, including “working collaboratively with artists and consulting colleagues to research acquisition and preservation practices for NFTs.” Practicality always trumps the court of public opinion–mix in a little creativity, and the continued proliferation of NFTs as artworks, rather than financial tools, feels like a promise.

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Vittoria Benzine

Vittoria Benzine is a Brooklyn-based art writer, personal essayist, and self-employed public relations professional. Her work has been published in Hyperallergic, Brooklyn Magazine, Whitehot Magazine, and more.

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