The Innovators: Curator Tina Rivers Ryan on Getting Over Her NFT Skepticism and What’s Next for Blockchain Art

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The Innovators: Curator Tina Rivers Ryan on Getting Over Her NFT Skepticism and What’s Next for Blockchain Art

She was an NFT hater. As a curator, art historian and critic, Tina Rivers Ryan spent much of her career waiting for the digital art she loved to receive the widespread support that museums gave over traditional mediums like painting and sculpture. A diverse network of artists has been exploring new technologies related to computers since the 1960s, but it wasn’t until outsiders crashed the conversation with speculative financial assets called non-fliptable tokens that most of the art world began to take serious notice. To counter the crypto market’s obfuscation of this history, Ryan went on the attack. “Instead of appreciating the value of digital artworks, NFTs have sold them short,” she wrote Art Forum in May 2021. “They affirm ownership and platform capitalism at precisely the moment when digital art can facilitate a conversation about alternatives.”

The curator of the Buffalo AKG Art Museum’s opinions have become more nuanced in recent months. Ryan immersed himself in the metaverse and cultivated friendships with leading digital artists working with NFTs, including Dmitri Cherniak, Sarah Zucker, and Itzel Yard (known online as IX Shells). For several months, she had weekly conversations with Erick Calderon, the founder of the Ethereum-based Art Blocks platform and creator of the Chromie Squiggles NFT collection. “This [moment] is a prelude to what comes next,” she explained to Artnet News. “And I want to make sure we [in the traditional art world] have people in the room to help shape those conversations while the future is still being set up.”

Ryan is helping to write the first draft of this history through initiatives that include “Peer,” her museum’s recent online exhibition and fundraising auction of blockchain art in partnership with the Feral File platform, and her participation in EAT_Works, a Web3 organization- matches. artists and technologists. And she’s getting recognition for her digital art advocacy: her recent promotion to a full curatorship at the Buffalo AKG Art Museum was due in part to her active involvement in the NFT community. The Andy Warhol Foundation has also awarded her a prestigious Arts Writers Grant for an upcoming series of articles on the impact of blockchain technologies on the critique and curation of contemporary art.

Artnet News recently selected Ryan as one of its 2022 Innovators, a list of 35 professionals pushing the art industry forward. The following conversation is an extension of her entry on the Innovators List and a detailed look at how a skeptical art historian became one of the NFT art community’s biggest boosters.

LaTurbo Avedon, CLUB ROTHKO—ORANGE AND YELLOW STARTER PACK (2022), part of the online exhibition “Peer to Peer” presented by the Buffalo AKG Art Museum in partnership with Feral File. Image: © LaTurbo Avedon. Courtesy Buffalo AKG Art Museum.

When the NFT bubble started about two years ago, you were one of the first museum curators to sound the alarm. There were some great zingers from your articles and interviews during that period, but one that really sticks out in my mind is from a March 2022 New York Times article where you said that NFTs “bring about an impoverishment – and not just of digital art, but of art point, because it reduces art to a frictionless commodity.” Do you still believe that position?

In retrospect, I could have been more specific because I was talking about NFTs as they are promoted by certain platforms and investors coming from outside the digital art community. But it has become increasingly clear that there are other ways to engage with NFTs in the market.

For example, there are certain platforms that prioritize rankings and thus emphasize looking at works of art as investments. Then there are other platforms like Feral File, which we [at the Buffalo AKG Art Museum] along with the “Peer to Peer” exhibition, which has space for commentary and curatorial frameworks. In that case, the NFT is not something that takes precedence over the artwork it is attached to, but something that is used as it was originally intended – as a digital receipt.

What I objected to was the kind of substitution or erasure that happened when signs were given priority. But as the space has evolved, the balance has shifted, especially thanks to the emergence of critical platforms like Outland and the writers who call for historically grounded dialogue. This makes it easier to think about digital art as art again.

Think digital art was your life’s work. But when you completed your PhD dissertation at Columbia University in the early 2010s, it wasn’t a particularly popular topic. How was your experience in academia?

I have always seen digital art as an extension of modern and contemporary art history. When I look at digital art, I see not only the technology, but a series of artists asking the same kinds of questions that others have asked for the last 150 years, such as the conceptual nature of art or the tension. between abstraction and figuration.

As my Columbia advisor Branden Joseph once remarked, I love digging around in the junk of art history. When I was there, I was particularly interested in artists who had not yet been allowed into the canon. My research continues to focus on artists whose practices have been overlooked or even irretrievably lost because the technologies they used became obsolete.

Over the past 15 years, time-based media arts such as film and performance have become increasingly important to the academic field. Now I think that digital art is becoming popular, but it will be hard to know what impact, if any, NFTs will have on the discipline until many years into the future.

Amir H. Fallah, Wheel of Life (2022), from the online exhibition "Peer".  Image: © Amir H. Fallah.  Courtesy Buffalo AKG Art Museum.

Amir H. Fallah, Wheel of Life (2022), from the online exhibition “Eweknie”. Image: © Amir H. Fallah. Courtesy Buffalo AKG Art Museum.

You’re a trained art historian, but has researching NFTs made you feel like you’ve also earned an honors degree in economics?

It’s been really challenging, honestly, because I’m trying to bring more nuance to the intersection of art and finance without reducing it to a straw man argument in which people claim that one side is more polluted or pure than the other.

We need to understand how capital functions in different market ecosystems where there are different advantages and disadvantages. NFTs have not fully solved problems in the art world, although they may represent a step in the right direction. But issues like lack of transparency, faulty provenance records, art browsing and artist royalties need more work. I hope the outcome of these conversations will be that people empowered and empowered by NFTs will realize the importance of these points.

What impact has engagement with the NFT community had on your role as a museum curator?

It is now easier for us to find larger audiences. Previously, audiences for digital art were defined by the general museum audience and our task was to make the digital art as relevant as possible. But now we can also curate for this larger community out there that is extremely interested in that digital art.

Mitchell F. Chan, Winslow Homer's Croquet Challenge (2022), from the online exhibition "Peer".  Image: © Mitchell F. Chan.  Courtesy Buffalo AKG Art Museum.

Mitchell F. Chan, Winslow Homer’s Croquet Challenge (2022), from the online exhibition “Eweknie”. Image: © Mitchell F. Chan. Courtesy Buffalo AKG Art Museum.

If NFTs served as a catalyst for all these changes—the increasing popularity of digital art, the curator’s role in exhibiting it, and the university’s interest in researching it—then what might be next for tokens? Did they play a role in the crypto crash, or is there more to see?

I think we are moving past the first phase when NFTs were fetishized. We all know the knee-jerk reactions and criticisms of the market, so those who want to engage more deeply have the opportunity to move into more interesting conversations about blockchain technology and how it can be used as an artistic medium.

Broadly, we will also see greater adoption and more use cases across NFTs. One example that comes to mind is that during our Art Basel Miami Beach celebration for “Eweknie” we offered a QR code that allowed visitors to collect a digital memento of the event in a digital wallet via ‘ an app called Autonomy, developed by Feral File. The souvenir can then be presented to the Buffalo AKG Art Museum for an adult admission ticket when we open next year after our renovation.

In recent weeks I have been asked a lot about what will happen to NFTs as a result of the FTX scandal and bankruptcy. But that brings me back to the useful distinction between the cryptocurrency market and the underlying technology. I’m not saying they’re completely sharable, but the blockchain doesn’t have to be used to make crypto. It’s worth considering how we might see the blockchain evolve through art in the coming years.

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