NFT: a new art market

A growing circle of artists in Philadelphia have found a niche in a new genre of digital art that is simultaneously a craze for speculators, a boon for collectors, and a community-builder: non-fungible tokens.

A non-fungible token (NFT) is a bit like a cryptocurrency with an image attached. The image can be downloaded by anyone, but the original is a digital asset tied to a blockchain (essentially a digital ledger) that marks it as authentic. NFTs are hosted on blockchains linked to cryptocurrencies such as Ethereum. The blockchain authenticates the original image, allowing ownership to be traced and verified.

NFTs are important for digital art because they create a market that did not exist before. Artists can now sell digital images and fans can buy them to support the artist. Previously, digital artists had to sell physical prints or find some other form of creative work.

Buyers can also speculate: some try to flip NFTs on the secondary market. This practice also helps artists: secondary sales generate royalties for the original artist, so if a work increases in value, the artist receives a check.

Some collectors have flocked to NFTs, seeing them as the new frontier of art collecting. Other buyers just want to support digital artists they admire, like fans do for musicians and writers on Patreon or Substack.

Whether for prestige, patronage, or profit, the COVID-19 plague era has given NFTs a chance to take off. Many people had extra pocket money, were confined to their homes, or had time to work on new projects.

For 24-year-old Drexel University architecture graduate Chris Hytha, NFTs have become a viable source of income. Hytha’s Project “Rowholes” is a series of 100 images of Philadelphia townhouses, primarily from the West and North Philly neighborhoods. In his art, each house is isolated with a flat bottom to avoid distractions. The viewer’s attention is drawn to the architectural details, shaped by the influences of time, nature and the human hand.

“I like to think of it as a science experiment isolating variables,” Hytha said. “So I keep the composition constant, I keep the subject matter of the townhouses consistent and the general depiction of that, so the variable I let fluctuate is the character of the houses.”

“The person who built it really cared about it,” he said. As buildings changed owners, so did the houses. “It becomes this really weird time collage, you can see the change from the original to what they are now… I wanted to exaggerate the character – not exaggerate the character, but present the character of the individual houses as best as possible .

“These houses tell a story and I just let them tell their story, you know?”

So far it has created 65 images. Hytha will find houses on Google Street View, ride a bike, and create an image. “I feel like an architectural character hoarder,” he said, scouring the city for what stands out.

He found a market – a big one. “A good friend of mine bought one of the townhouses I built for about $500, $600, and he sold it for $50,000,” Hytha said.

The traded volume of its townhouse NFTs, which include secondary sales, reached 120 ethereum, or nearly $360,000.

A handful of platforms have sprung up where NFTs are auctioned. Hytha lists its own on OpenSea, and others such as Foundation, MakersPlace and SuperRare are popular.

Aaron Ricketts, a photographer and visual artist in Philadelphia, has also found some success. “I jumped into [NFTs] in March of this year,” he said. “It’s been a pretty wild ride so far, just because space itself is still fresh, and it’s still new.”

Ricketts’ work is more surreal and conceptual, with unexpected events in mundane spaces and compositions that break the laws of physics.

“Ice Block” has Ricketts holding a large block of ice, his tongue stuck to it and stretched half the length of his body. In “Hats Off”, a well-dressed headless body stands in front of a glass skyscraper, a hat fluttering overhead, hands held out in front, as if the headless figure is gazing at them in wonder. “Rough Patch” shows two arms reaching upwards, trapped in a cacti grove.

“I think I’ve gotten to a point where I have a bit of notoriety in the NFT space…it’s a continuous build and I’m just working to keep doing what I’m doing and networking, keep creating” , said Ricketts.

He sold a coin for around $5,000 and his collection of NFTs reached a trading volume of 8.7 ethereum on OpenSea, or around $26,000.

For Hytha and Ricketts, more success in the NFT world has also boosted their physical print sales.

When Ricketts sold a limited edition print that had an equivalent NFT, a buyer chose the print without the NFT for $1,500.

“This is my first time selling a physical print in the thousands,” Ricketts said. “I believe that NFT has the capabilities to provide longevity to itself and the artist. But that too, as the popularity of these things increases, it can also translate to increased sales in the field. physical too.

Young artists can build a reputation online, giving them seed money for future art projects and demand for their physical art. They also get space to work on something new. “I feel like I’m continuing my practice as an artist… by continuing your practice, you have the opportunity to experience new things,” Ricketts said.

The NFT art scene in Philadelphia is still small. Hytha said he only knew a few others. “I still don’t know how many people are actually involved in the NFT space in Philadelphia,” Ricketts said. “There might be a chance for all of us to come together and see how it develops in the city.”

The center of NFT activity is the Internet, whether the artists come from Philadelphia, Germany or Indonesia. It’s not limited to artists either. “I’ve never seen this connection between collector and artist,” said Chikai Ohazama, the creator of Superniftyfan, a website that makes it easy to find NFT projects and serves as a hub for fans and collectors. “You can have a much deeper conversation about art with the artist.”

This openness has motivated some collectors to become more involved. “Initially, it was the art that attracted me,” Ohazama said. “But then the people and the community and the artists and everyone was just – I’ve never been part of a community like this before.”

The strong ties within the NFT community have made art viable for so many artists. It expanded the market. “Your market is now the whole world,” Ohazama said, “[not] just your local gallery at your fingertips.

Ohazama declined to say how much he spent on NFTs, saying only “It’s way more than I thought I’d spend.”

It’s too early to tell if it’s money well spent. It’s unclear how much of the NFT market is driven by fans supporting serious artists and collectors, or how many buyers are speculators. NFTs could serve as a community to support independent artists, giving them financial support to develop their art and future projects. Or speculators could drive a boom and bust cycle, as cryptocurrency has sometimes done.

At the University of Pennsylvania, actions are underway to develop the business side of NFTs. The Stevens Center for Innovation in Finance has launched a Cypher Accelerator to find and grow some of the best startups in the crypto space, said Sarah Hammer, chief executive of the Center, which is also open to NFT-focused projects.

“I think we are at an interesting intersection, as we have both the artistic and digital talent, as well as the business acumen and know-how to create an NFT production powerhouse,” said Rishin Sharma, head of the accelerator in the center. Art students can create it and business students can sell it.

NFT’s unique ability to create a new market for art that did not exist before, and its ability to create an artistic community outside of any established institution, could make a difference in the long run. Who needs an art school or contracts with national brands when you have 1,000 financial backers from all over the world?

If NFTs die out, at least they burned alive for some artists. This can be enough for a solid foundation, whether artistically or literally.

“The dream would be to buy one of the townhouses in the series and repair [it] up,” Hytha said, reflecting on her “Rowhomes” series. “It would be amazing. It would be like a full circle for the project.

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