Sunday, January 30, 2022

NFTs Are Here to Stay?

In March of last year I wrote a Missive on NFTs which was the first I had heard of them  The question my editor (my wife) asked me, wasn’t it too soon to do it again. A good question.

In my last Missive, however, I questioned whether the NFT would stand the test of time. My tone was rather doubtful but such a short time later, I am not so sure. Maybe it was only an old man not keeping up with the times. I just saw an article in Artnet News with the lines “After Deciding that Technology Does not corrupt artists, Pace Gallery will Launch its New NFT Platform.” Pace Gallery!? The latter has been at the forefront of the established contemporary art scene. For two generations of its existence, it has represented the best-known artists of the period. Marc Glimcher son of the founder announced the platform last July but then became concerned. “Is this continuing to turn our artists into the creators of financial instruments?” Within a couple of months, he decided that “technology does not corrupt artists” and he opened the platform called Pace Verso at the end of November 2021.

Arne Glimcher founder and his son,
Marc, President of Pace Gallery

I had not thought of it in this way before, but it came to Marc that there have been previous new tools which caused the same concern, such as the camera. It started out just as a way to record a person or an event such as a wedding and from there artists found new ways to express themselves. My wife and I were collecting photographs before it became fashionable and if one is keeping score by price, the photos we purchased in the mid 70’s and early 80’s cost hundreds of dollars but when we sold them in recent years, to some, we could add 1,2, or even 3 zeros. Here is Raphael’s Madonna of the Chair (ca. 1513-1514) in the Pitti Palace, together with a 1904 photograph in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago of Lewis Hine’s Madonna of the Tenements, an updated image with a message.

Since no actual piece of paper, canvas, or 3-dimensional work of art actually changes hands for an NFT, but just a block chain digital document showing ownership of an image, some investors are just treating NFTs as a commodity. It is also an item you can buy and sell with cryptocurrencies which is still not possible in your local grocery store. Of course, when the credit card came along it took a while to be accepted as well.

Again, NFT stands for “Non-Fungible Token”. In other words, it is unique while every Bitcoin, or dollar for that matter, is worth the same as every other one. For an NFT, however, it is the original. If you buy a print of a painting that you just saw in a museum or a gallery no matter how good it is, it is not the original which in our minds is far more desirable. Not so different than if you buy a ticket to a play, it is for a specific seat in the theater which no one else has. I for instance always want an aisle seat since I am claustrophobic, others may want it as well but it is mine for the evening, still others prefer dead center.

Illustration by Ariel Davis

I read that a month is an age in internet time. Emphasizing, that is the fact that there is now an NFT and Block Chain Week. If you are curious about the reports and events you can delve into this in the online magazine

It is certainly difficult for those over 40 to get their head around, NFTs but is it any easier to imagine “Flying Taxis” which I recently read about in Business Week magazine? The world is racing ahead while most of us are trying to catch up.


Postscript: As soon as I finished writing this Missive it was announced that the heirs of Pablo Picasso are producing their own NFTs using his ceramic work … One step closer to bringing this new art form main stream.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Who is Essential to a Museum?

Arguably, the most important people in a public museum are not the Director nor the Curators. It is the security guards who keep the collections safe. They make sure that the art isn’t stolen. While this is a relatively rare occurrence, that I have written about recently, it is just as important in that the art is not harmed. When there is a shortage of guards, as with the Covid crisis, galleries have to be closed and the public does not have access to what they came to see.

Fred Wilson “Guarded View

We took our son when he was about 3 years old to a museum where their most recent acquisition was a sculpture by Bernini. To impress their public even more they put it on a stone plinth about 4 or 5 feet high. Hunter went up to the plinth and as soon as he touched it the guard came rushing over to chastise us saying “Do you know how much that sculpture cost, --one million dollars!” Yes, that was a lot of money for the time. It was somewhat amusing since we knew full well, our child wasn’t doing any harm, but the guard was right and that was his job.

There can be the malevolent visitor who wants to mar or destroy a work of art but most of these issues occur out of ignorance or by accident. Even just touching some objects gently can cause damage from the oil on our hands.

What started me on this tack was a recent headline in the New York Times article by Colin Moynihan, “The Met Increases Its Pay to Guards to Address Covid-Related Shortages”. As we all have read this is an issue in many fields, worst of all, in the case of nurses.

Duane Hanson, “Museum Guard

In the article it stated that Met guards starting salary had been $15.51 an hour and was being raised to $16.50 per hour. (A spokesperson for the Museum said that the average salary was now $20/hour.) Surprising to me was that at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the starting salary was $21.65. This is a lot better, but still, what does that amount to in a year? Assuming a 40 hour week, 52 weeks a year a MOMA guard annual salary would be $45,032 a year, and at the Met’s $16.50/hour, $34,320. Renting a decent 2-bedroom apartment in or near New York City can cost $2500 a month which adds up to $30,000 a year. In Manhattan the average is over $4,000 a month. So how many additional jobs does a guard need to take.

According to an article by Aaron Short in Hyperallergic written 3 years ago, in New York museum security guards not only have to be on their feet for 4 to 8 hours a day, but also carry 25 pounds trudging up and down stairs, bend, jump and run into action if a situation occurs. They are also required to inspect bags and packages at the entrance to the museum and collect coats etc. in the coat rooms.

My wife, the curator, always stressed the importance of guards as the main interface of the public with the museum. A guard is the first, and possibly only, staff person visitors will engage with, and it helps if they can answer their basic questions, at least direct them to the gallery that they are looking for. Something I had not automatically thought of was the child wandering off while their parents are studying a work of art and the guard needs to reunite them!

At the Metropolitan Museum

These days with more and more digital technology guards may be asked to take shifts in a security control room watching monitors to be able to see various locations in case they need another guard to find out what is going on in a given gallery. Guards carry radios on which to communicate. This maybe easier now that we are familiar with cell phones, but do you never have a problem with your cell phone? For those who have advanced training they will get additional pay, but they have to cover the expenses of the training.

After a long day with a guard’s duties, I doubt I would be able to take a second job to fill the gap between living expenses and current museum pay.

Russian Guard
Photo by Andy Freedberg

Sunday, January 16, 2022

January 6, 2021 & The Arts

This Missive was co-authored by Penelope Hunter-Stiebel.

With this Missive I am a couple of weeks late for the anniversary of the rightly called January 6 insurrection, but I do not believe the date should ever be forgotten, so it is always the right time to think about it.

Throughout history artists have taken on controversial subjects. In the present day they have strongly reacted to the important “Black Lives Matter” movement. Last year’s insurrection, however, has gathered far fewer artistic results than I would have expected. Maybe, it needs more time until we can fully digest it. The art I did find on-line, however, was poignant. 

I am going to start with a Digital Image printed in an edition of 12 by the Swedish experimental art photographer, Jan Oberg, creator of the on-line site Oberg PhotoGraphics. Inspired by the insurrection, his “Capitol Hill, January 6, 2021” is a collage of images based on Japer John’s “Flag” (1958). In the center is a screenshot of President Trump when he spoke during the storming of Capitol overlaid with the image from inside with armed guards ready to shoot. The artist notes “Colours have been carefully calibrated to make Trump the darkest and distorting the flag’s brightness.”

One image from my “collection” follows the event quite literally. It is a gauche by California artist and educator, Kevin Trivedi, titled “Courage.” It depicts Capitol Police Officer, Eugene Goodman who has been declared a hero for encouraging a mob in the Capitol to chase him in the wrong direction, away from the Senate chamber.

“Two Americas”, the title of a painting by D.C. muralist, Shawn Perkins, derives from a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called “The Other America” describing how differently racial groups in this country live. The painting is divided in half: on the left is the face of Black man with a gun to his head, his mouth gagged by the American flag, and a town in flames bursting out of his head which was painted the year before regarding Black Lives Mattter; on the right is a scene of the White insurrectionists lording it over the police in front of the Capitol. He combined the two images to put an exclamation point on the Two Americas!

A surrealistic painting by Celeste Dupuy-Spencer shows a clashing crowd of combatants, outside the Capitol. Trump’s face is painted in red white and blue on the back of a figure in the foreground. There is a fellow wearing a mask to be safe from Covid but carrying a machine gun at the same time! The tattooed Moses-type character in the lower left has a satchel with the date 8-12-17. That was the day in Charlottesville, Virginia when a protest turned violent after white supremacists clashed with counterdemonstrators, and a car ploughed into the crowd of anti-racist and anti-fascist protesters. Afterwards the former president said, “You also had some very fine people on both sides”. Explaining the title of the painting “Don’t You See That I am Burning”, a quotation from Sigmund Freud’s Dream Book, we see flames emanating from the Capitol, but we know it was only figuratively set on fire. Hailed in Artnet as “epic” and compared in Forbes with Last Judgement paintings from the Renaissance the seven-foot work is a perfect commentary on January 6.

We have all heard the adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words”. Thousands of words have already been written about January 6, 2021 with thousands more to come. They can all be summed up by the few images that I have shown.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Time Capsules

The term “Time Capsule” was coined for the publicity of the 1939 New York World’s Fair capsule that followed a long tradition of containers holding collections of memorabilia intended to inform future generations and made as air and watertight as current technology allowed.

I was surprised to learn that there is a register kept by the International Time Capsule Society at Oglethorpe University that estimates there are between 10,000 to 15,000 Time Capsules worldwide, with most of them lost. In 2020 Ogelthorpe University turned over all their records to the “Notforgotten Digital Preservation Library” which is now digitizing that catalog.

Locations of Time Capsules

The library also offers to preserve personal time capsules they will help you record. For an organization that deals in the past it is fascinating that they have linked up with the Ethereum Blockchain which only went online in 2015 and, according to what I have read, gives total security to the maintenance of the information. I can hear my wife, now, saying “until the next technology comes along.” The blockchain I is what keeps Crypto Currencies and NFT’s secure enough to invest in.

At present the official definition for a Blockchain “is a system of recording information in a way that makes it difficult or impossible to change, hack, or cheat the system. A blockchain is essentially a digital ledger of transactions that is duplicated and distributed across the entire network of computer systems on the blockchain.” Do note the words, “difficult or impossible” … well which is it?

Recent headlines announced the discovery of a second Time Capsule in the pedestal under the 1887 Statue of General Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia, now headed to its new home at the Black History Museum. What I did not understand was what was the first?

Dale M. Brumfield, a journalist and author had written an article 4 years ago saying that he found documents suggesting that there was a Time Capsule under the Lee monument containing Confederate artifacts, weapons used in the Civil War and a piece of wood cut from a tree near the grave of General Stonewall Jackson. Therefore, the first discovery made a week before was not what they expected. It was a led box that contained an 1875 Almanac, a waterlogged book of fiction, a British coin, a catalog, one letter and a photograph of James Netherwood, a master stonemason who worked on the pedestal and clearly wanted to commemorate himself.

Devon Henry, who oversees the company that was assigned to remove the statue was, however, determined to find the one they were looking for. Even though they had already dug 15 feet down below the pedestal, he had his team dig further and at 20 feet below the surface they found a granite capstone protecting the sought-after Time Capsule. Katherine Ridgway, the state archeological conservator at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources cut into the 36-pound copper box measuring 13.5 x 13.5 x 7.5 inches. Before she started, however, because there was the possibility of explosives inside, they first x-rayed it and had the bomb squad examine it. I presume that fear came from the fact that they hoped to find Confederate munitions. Here Katherine Ridgeway, excited to see the box gets on her knees to wrap it as well as her showing fellow historians and the press the contents of the Time Capsule (photos for the AP by Eva Russo Sarah Rankin).

The copper box contained Confederate money, 12 copper coins, an edition of Harper's Weekly from 1865, military memorabilia, multiple books including directories and a Holy Bible, a wood flag and a Masonic symbol allegedly carved from the tree that grew above Gen. Stonewall Jackson's original grave.

The contents were in better shape than they expected even though some items were wet, but the box also held some disappointment. An issue of the Richmond Dispatch from October 1887 gave clues as to what they could expect to find, the most exciting of which was a photo of President Abraham Lincoln in his casket. Alas, it turned out to be a mass-produced printed engraving from a newspaper of 1865 or a reprint and it had already been mended a number of times. The dreams of discovery are often tempered by reality.

What would you put in your time capsule?

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Why Does the Public Trust Curators?

I saw this headline in recently, “Brits Rank Museum Curators Among Top 5 Most Trusted Professions”! That was something to chew on particularly since my wife is a curator. Of course, there are also, in order Nurses, Librarians, Doctors and Teachers just ahead of the museum curators in this British poll called the Ipsos MORI Veracity Index. In many other professions one reads about scandals and misbehavior while rarely for these five. What do they all have in common? I believe they are all in a world where we feel we have little expertise and we depend on their knowledge, in some cases even for survival.

In all five professions you do not have a great deal of choice but to trust them to one extent or another. As for curators you need to be seduced by their museum, collection or exhibitions. Once you are, you probably begin to trust them even without meeting them.

I wonder how many people actually know what a Museum Curator does unless they start to collect or go regularly to museums and exhibitions and begin to wonder how did all this art get here and why. Like General Practitioners who must have a wide range of knowledge to make a diagnosis, the curator must have a broad knowledge of art history to understand the area that they wish to work in and how it interacts with its historical context. Like the librarian the curator must be good at research and organization in order to catalog collections or put together an exhibition.

While nurses and doctors are concerned with the well-being of their patients, curators care about the works of art in their collection. There is no other reason to go into their line of work. … it is not the pay. The most important part of their work is to create the understanding necessary for art to be preserved. They do research to gather information about the objects in their collections and work with conservators on their physical preservation. But also, just like the librarian leads you in the right direction to the section or book you are looking for, they make the art understandable giving it context for the public through their installations and publications.

Part of a curator’s job is to teach, so they will explain to an individual or a group why the art is situated where it is. Art seeks context, but put a Houdon of Benjamin Franklin in the Metropolitan Museum, next to a Jeff Koons of a Rabbit that brought 91.1 million at auction and an abstract sculpture by Cecil Cartensen in the Kansas City Public Library and without explanation you would probably feel it is a chaotic mess and never visit that exhibition gallery or museum again.

If, however, the curator wanted to do an exhibition of the ideal male figure and placed a Giacometti of “Walking Man (1960) in the Fondation Giacometti, next to a marble Roman copy (1st century AD) of the bronze Discus-thrower of Myron Sculpture (460-450 BC) in the Palazzo Lancellotti in Rome, next to Michelangelo’s David (1501-1504) in the Gallerian dell’Academia in Florence it might be a show that will intrigue you by the comparison without any explanation. If this were to be put into further context by the curator explaining her choices, you would enjoy the exhibition all the more. You might even wish to look deeper into other sculpture of these periods. (Images Walking Man, Discus-thrower, Michelangelo’s David)

Personally, I want an exhibition to speak to me without explanation first, but like all the arts the more you know and understand the more you can enjoy and get out of the presentation. Curators explain works in labels, didactic panels, audio guides and interactive videos, but if you have the chance of a visit with the curator as guide that makes it all the more enlightening.

It is an interesting subject to mull over and think why we might trust people that we may have never met before.