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Business, Art Experts Discuss Role of Blockchain in Artist Compensation at Harvard Art Museums Event

New York University professors Kevin McCoy and Amy Whitaker spoke about blockchain and art at a Harvard Art Museums event Thursday evening.
New York University professors Kevin McCoy and Amy Whitaker spoke about blockchain and art at a Harvard Art Museums event Thursday evening. By Ryan N. Gajarawala

Harvard Art Museums hosted New York University professors Kevin McCoy and Amy Whitaker for a Thursday evening discussion on the role of blockchain — a technology that allows for the secure distribution of data through a distributed ledger — in providing equality in the art market.

The discussion was moderated by Ruth C. Streeter ’76, a 2021 Advanced Leadership Initiative fellow, and focused on recent calls to create a new, fairer model for owning art and cultural property.

The problem with the current system, according to Whitaker, is artists do not earn as much profit from their work as do the middlemen selling it.

“I’ve been proposing alternatives to resale royalties that function more as property rights, specifically, routine fractional equity and art,” Whitaker said.

After the introduction of Bitcoin in 2009, McCoy said he formulated ideas on how the virtual currency platform could be used for selling digital art.

“What if Bitcoin was an artwork? What if you could take an artwork and attach it to Bitcoin? And if you did that, would it have the same properties that Bitcoin has? Would it be scarce? Would it be unique? And if so, how would you do it?” McCoy said.

McCoy also described how the Whitney Museum, in cooperation with his team, created and distributed 50 tokens for donated artwork. These tokens circulated for a period of six months, after which the museum listed the token holders “as the donors of record for this artwork.”

“We wanted to open up this institutional process — it’s usually institutional, hidden process of ownership — and essentially create a secondary market for work that is never on the market,” he said.

“This was essentially blockchain-mediated institutional critique in a way and a form of distributed social collaboration, I’d say, and I think that those two ideas — institutional critique and social collaboration — really are at the heart of blockchain technology,” McCoy added.

Rayme S. Silverberg, an attendee of the event and recent graduate of NYU, said she drove more than three hours specifically to see Whitaker, whom she described as “absolutely brilliant and very knowledgeable.”

Attendee Katie I. Lundie, an associate at venture capital firm Outlier Ventures, said the event attracted her curiosity because of her work experience.

“I think there’s all this potential for web3 and NFTs to open up the art world and create more value for the people that really matter within that ecosystem — but also with outside of that ecosystem — and I’m not sure if it's being done in exactly the right way at the moment,” Lundie said.

“And I think this talk really gives me some hope that there are people out there who are trying to understand how best to make the value flow back to artists,” she added.

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