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‘Beautiful dust’ on the blockchain: MFA plans to sell NFTs based on flimsy French pastels – The Boston Globe

“Somebody had to move first,” said Eric Woods, chief operating officer at MFA. “What excites us is the ability to really leverage this new technology to not only expand our audience, but also expose our audience to the artworks in our collection.”

In the Paintings Conservation Workshop, MFA COO Eric Woods discusses the museum’s plans to sell NFTs. Lane Turner / Globe Staff

Even so, some critics are likely to look askance at the sale, which does not include the rights to the artworks, wondering how it aligns with the museum’s mission.

“The museum stoops to engage in the alchemy necessary to persuade us that an infinitely reproducible jpeg can somehow be worth thousands,” art historian Bendor Grosvenor wrote in The Art. Newspaper earlier this year about a similar sale by the British Museum. “Consider it the Emperor’s new code.”

NFTs have taken the art world by storm in 2021 when Mike Winkelmann, a graphic designer known as “Beeple”, sold a digital collage for $69 million. Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey quickly auctioned off an NFT of his inaugural tweet for $2.9 million, as celebrities paid top dollar for tokens tied to a series of cartoon monkeys.

But with inflation now stifling the wider economy, crypto markets have crashed. Ethereum, the cryptocurrency that underpins most NFTs, has lost around 80% of its value since November. The well-known NFT markets are rife with fraud. Phishing scams have led to high-profile thefts, and there are serious concerns about the environmental impact of this technology.

Once NFT’s frothy sales also crashed: Dorsey’s tweet brought a high bid of just $280 at a subsequent auction — well below its $48 million listing price. Japanese artist Takashi Murakami earlier this month apologized to customers for his “stagnant” prices. And NFTs from Beeple’s recent collaboration with Madonna, one of which featured the pop star giving birth to robot centipedes, have grossed in the six figures.

It is, in other words, a tough time for NFTs, said Ethan McMahon, an economist at blockchain analytics firm Chainalysis.

“Things have slowed down,” he said, noting that there was “a whole lot of fear in the wider crypto community.”

Nonetheless, the MFA plans to launch the first of two general market NFT sales on July 14 via LaCollection, a platform that caters to museums and has collaborated on similar projects with the British Museum and the Leopold Museum in Vienna.

Although details of the MFA sale are still being worked out, Woods said the museum could offer more than 2,000 NFTs, some starting at around $315, with the proceeds funding the conservation of two Degas paintings: “Edmondo and Thérèse Morbilli” (1865) and “Degas’ father listening to Lorenzo Pagans play the guitar” (1869-72).

Reproductions of the original 24 pastels are readily available on the MFA website. The actual works, however, are rarely exhibited, said curator of European paintings Katie Hanson.

“It’s beautiful dust,” said Hanson, who included most of the works in the 2018 exhibition “French Pastels: Treasures from the Vault.” “That is, inherently delicate and fragile and sensitive to things like vibrations.”

A detail of Edgar Degas’ pastel on paper “Dancers in Rose” (circa 1900), one of 24 pastels the MFA uses to create NFTs. Lane Turner / Globe Staff

Woods described the sale as “mission-aligned,” calling it “an extension of existing practice.”

“We currently have posters in our museum shop of works from our collection,” he said. “The great thing about this is that we are able to experiment and better understand whether or not we have a future in this area.”

To date, a number of museums have created NFTs based on works in their collections, including the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, and the Whitworth Gallery in England, among others.

Jean-Sébastien Beaucamps, chief executive and co-founder of LaCollection, said he was currently in talks with several US museums about similar deals.

“I think it’s only a matter of time,” Beaucamps said. He added that although British Museum sales were in the “seven figures”, it is difficult to estimate what the MFA sale might bring “given market conditions”.

“It’s a test,” he said, adding that he hopes the auction will help the museum reach new audiences. “Finances are not the only indicator we will measure to assess the success of the operation.”

Even so, the burgeoning complications of crypto pose difficult questions for any museum wishing to mint NFTs, said Elizabeth Merritt, vice president of strategic foresight at the American Alliance of Museums.

Not only must a museum determine that the sale is consistent with its mission, but it must also consider the “reputational risk” it takes in offering its audience a speculative good.

“Selling an NFT is implicitly an endorsement of the product,” said Merritt, who is also the founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums. “It remains to be seen whether this is a stable, valuable and credible product, or whether it has fundamental instabilities that could collapse, leading people, insofar as they did it as an economic investment , holding the bag.”

A detail of Edgar Degas’ oil painting ‘Edmondo and Thérèse Morbilli’ (1865), one of two works scheduled to be preserved with the NFT funds. Lane Turner / Globe Staff

Equally troubling is the significant environmental impact associated with minting and selling NFTs – a computationally intensive task that consumes vast amounts of energy. Estimates vary, but a widely referenced calculation found that a single NFT can produce emissions equivalent to a two-hour flight.

Beaucamps acknowledged the high environmental costs of the technology, saying his company was currently finalizing an audit of its energy consumption.

“It’s a very important topic,” he said, adding that LaCollection is working on a variety of fronts and hopes to significantly reduce its carbon emissions by the end of the year. “We [planted] more than 3,600 trees in Denmark.

But while NFTs and digital art can pose ethical challenges for museums, they also present a host of potential opportunities.

NFTs can not only be coded to contain “smart contracts”, which can automatically distribute a percentage of all future sales to the creator of the artwork, but they have also raised awareness of important issues in the field. Arts.

“Museums are uniquely positioned to participate in these conversations about ownership, authenticity and value,” said Tina Rivers Ryan, assistant curator at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, who focuses on digital art. . “You know, the question of who can make art and who benefits from it.”

McMahon, the economist, said the NFT market will likely remain weak until the broader crypto market begins to recover. He noted, however, that there is likely “still a lot of room for growth” for NFT sales by museums.

“It’s more about getting the plumbing right and getting the infrastructure in place,” he said, “of marketing and so on, so that these museums are really able to capture the feeling when things improve.”

To that end, Beaucamps said the upcoming MFA sale will be “gamified”, offering buyers a “secret box” that will reveal a hidden NFT, while incentivizing buyers with a series of rewards such as additional NFTs and more traditional VIP museum perks, such as access to a selection of pastels from the MFA’s collection.

For potential buyers, “this may be the best time to start a collection,” he said. “We are living a new page in the history of art.”


Malcolm Gay can be contacted at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.


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