NFT Revolution Picks up Steam as Digital Artists Join Forces

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Paris in the 1910s. New York in the 1950s. London in the 1990s. And now, maybe, just maybe, Foundation in the 2020s… 

(“The Year of the Machines” – Marischa Becker on Foundation)


Artists have long thrived in cultural hothouses where they can trade ideas with peers and debate revolutionary forms of expression with critics, curators, and collectors. Just because digital artists are working remotely through NFTs that doesn’t mean they have to give up the communal aspect of art. Foundation, an online NFT platform launched in February, is replicating that sense of community for the crypto era by letting artists themselves invite others to come aboard and exhibit and sell their work. It’s the online equivalent of a commune on the Left Bank or the loft spaces of Soho.

For artists, receiving a Foundation invitation is more than just being selected by a faceless curator. Rather, it means that they impressed a fellow artist enough to grant them entry to an elite platform. Moreover, community members can see who invited whom, meaning that when an artist sends an invitation, they’re professionally linking themselves to the person they invite. It’s the kind of network effect artists need. And Foundation already has scale — creators have earned more than $40M on NFT sales via the platform.

Powerful New Revenue Source

“Foundation’s invite system is focused on driving peer-to-peer, community-led curation,” Lindsay Howard, Foundation’s Head of Community, told The Defiant. “We believe this enables artists to empower and support other artists.”

While NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, drew some derision when they hit the market a few months ago, it’s clear they represent a powerful new revenue source for creative types, not to mention media companies and other, more commercially-oriented organizations. Through NFTs, Beeple went from being a relatively obscure artist to a headline-making trailblazer with the third highest-value art sale of any living artist at $69M. 

Leveraging the ubiquity of the Web, NFTs offer digital artists unprecedented global access to art buyers. Moreover, customizable, baked-in royalty models allow artists to continue profiting off after-market sales in a way that has never before been possible.

Yet with so many NFT minting platforms and marketplaces to navigate, the space can be especially confusing for newcomers.

The Freedom of Crypto

The NFT story has only just begun, and yet it’s already following the contours of the traditional art market as open online galleries jockey with more controlled, curated spaces for top works. Even as money flows and social media runs wild with NFT buzz, the fledgling industry is confronting a big question: Can it strike a balance between the freedom of crypto and the structure of a marketplace long controlled by elite curators and auction houses? Or even better: Does it have to?

Crypto culture has historically been based around permissionless networks, transparency, and open-access. Anyone from anywhere can participate in anything, just as long as they have enough currency in their digital wallet. NFTs bring that permissionless ethos to the art market, allowing any artist to mint an NFT and sell it to a global audience. Marketplaces such as Rarible and OpenSea are embracing that freedom by swinging open their doors to the general public.

Anyone with a Web3 wallet can mint and sell NFTs of practically anything they want on these platforms. Both are built on the Ethereum blockchain and take advantage of its ability to create decentralized applications. Rarible and OpenSea are similar to open art fairs, where the quality of work can vary widely from stall to stall.

(“Sweet Octo No#05” – khagdoi on OpenSea)

Technically, there is a minimum level of “curation,” as both Rarible and OpenSea evaluate especially prominent artists and projects. Verified artists on Rarible and OpenSea can gain additional visibility by being featured on the homepage, akin to the front row of stalls at an open bazaar. 

Still, plenty of the NFTs sold on Rarible and OpenSea have been created by non-verified artists. But with so many artists trying to elbow their way into the NFT space, standing out can be tough.

Curated Markets

At the other end of the spectrum lies more heavily curated NFT marketplaces such as SuperRare, Nifty Gateway, and MakersPlace. Artists must submit applications, including their portfolios, on these platforms. The staff then grants invites based on subjective criteria. Prominent artists on these sites are often promoted through “drops,” where limited collections of their artwork will go up for sale or auction at a specific time to generate hype. 

That approach is not dissimilar from the traditional art world, which has long been driven by professional taste-makers and the auction house duopoly of Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Curators there, in tandem with influential gallerists and critics, are de facto gatekeepers for high culture, keeping out the dregs and degens of society and celebrating the chosen few.

(“Identity Crisis” – Andre Oshea on Foundation)

The hierarchical nature of this model is anathema for many artists, and can breed a conformity that NFT fans must loathe. But the upside is clout —  in contrast to open NFT markets like Rarible and OpenSea, where the art quality can vary drastically, the work on offer at a curated platform will sport an expert’s seal of approval. That can imbue the work with real value. It also makes it easier for buyers to find something they like. 

Foundation, with its peer-to-peer curation model, may be the happy medium. But there are concerns that grifters could take advantage of working artists eager to quit their 9-to-5 jobs. 

It’s not uncommon to see people on Twitter and artist sites using the promise of Foundation invites to scam desperate artists out of money, according to IGAL, a film photographer and producer who incorporates his photography craft into NFT art.

Getting Blocked

“People will say, ‘I have an invite available, post your art over here or tell me why you deserve to get that invitation.’ Many people will start sending their portfolio and talking and creating a huge thread, and in the end they say, ‘Okay, I can give you the invite if you pay me half an Ether.’ That’s something that happens a lot.”

It’s unclear whether or not the people selling invites are legitimate Foundation artists trying to make some extra money on the side, or outright scammers who don’t even have invite links to sell in the first place.

According to hzwaves, a digital artist from Siberia, the sellers are “100% scammers.” Hzwaves documented his experience asking one of the sellers for proof that they were a Foundation community member or actually had a Foundation link, and subsequently getting blocked. 

‘Okay, I can give you the invite if you pay me half an Ether.’

IGAL

“He had a fresh page,” hzwaves told The Defiant. “Just a month ago he created it. A lot of retweets with poor quality art. You can see that this was done to recruit followers. He had 800+ of them, but the same number of those he follows. And based on his nickname that he is a collector, I asked him to show his collection. And he blacklisted me.”

(Picture: A Foundation invite seller in action)

Foundation founder Kayvon Tehranian said these practices violate Foundation’s rules. “I would encourage anyone listening that if anyone is buying or selling an invite, that is certainly a scam,” he said on The Defiant podcast on May 21. “And if that got reported to our community, they would be banned. So it’s not something we accept.” 

Howard added: “We have a dedicated trust and safety team, suspicious accounts are flagged by the community, and bad actors are removed immediately.”

Besides, begging for invites isn’t exactly viewed as good form by other artists. 

“You could see people begging for invites on every single platform, and for many people, it created discomfort with that model,” said IGAL. “Begging for a foundation invite is no different than begging for an invitation to a party that you weren’t invited to.”

Navigating the Space for Newbs

With so many options and pitfalls in the NFT space, artists and collectors have their work cut out for them. Luckily, there are guide posts along this arduous road. 

Most NFT marketplaces, including Rarible, Nifty Gateway, and Foundation, host their own Discord communities where artists and collectors can go to learn the ins and outs of the platform and share tips.

Myriad non-profit organizations educate and assist artists in the NFT space. Sevens Foundation, founded by illustrator Tim Kang, provides both informational resources and funding grants for emerging artists, with a focus towards “promoting and advancing the creative output of the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities.” Sevens Foundation also runs a Discord for artists.

Fostering an art movement by exploiting the unique properties of the Ethereum ecosystem might be the real game changer.

“I want people to experience what I feel when I collect another artist’s work, which is a feeling of interdependence, optimism, and hope,” said Jon Gold, an artist on Foundation. “When we participate equally in this system and use our resources to help each other out, we create a mutually beneficial society.”

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