A panel at the 2023 edition of SXSW titled “The Decentralization of Art As We Know It” began with a scene that bordered on self-parody. Alex Scull, the moderator and the executive director for arts and collections at the University of Texas at Austin, asked 2023’s favorite interlocutor ChatGPT the question of the day: What is the decentralization of art?
“The decentralization of art refers to the movement away from traditional centers of power and authority in the art world,” the world’s favorite AI said, in an answer only mildly edited for brevity. “However, with the advent of digital technology and the internet, there’s been a shift towards decentralization, which has also led to the democratization of art, allowing for a wider range of voices and perspectives to be heard. This challenges the traditional power structures and hierarchies of the art world as artists no longer are reliant on a few gatekeepers to reach a wider audience.”
While the talk was ostensibly about this decentralization, the discourse mostly revolved around the Arkive, a Web3 startup that raised $9.7 million last year around this idea. That may have been due to the fact that the panel was comprised of the company’s executive director Tom McLeod, chief curator and former Gagosian director Kelly Huang, and Gabby Goldberg of TCG Crypto, an investment company that funds the startup. All were, perhaps unsurprisingly, impressed by ChatGPT’s answer.
Arkive has said it wants to “decentralize” the museum through a member-based organization similar to the decentralized autonomous organization (DAO) that tried, and failed, to buy a copy of the United States Constitution last year. Arkive allows the members to propose works to the community, vote on what should be acquired, and build a museum collection from the bottom-up,” according to its website. In other words, it replaces a museum’s curatorial board with “the collective voice.”
Early in the panel, McLeod neatly summed up what he believed ChatGPT’s answer was missing —and, what just so happened to be Arkive’s raison d’etre— “broad-based provenance.” McLeod said the value and cultural significance of a piece of art is often judged by parameters like who has acquired it, what curators vouch for it, and what institution puts it on display.
“And if you start to look at the masses getting to be a part of that, [something] that hundreds of thousands of people think is important, as opposed to just ten key people at specific museums or institutions, that actually carries weight,” McLeod went on. “It may not still have the overwhelming weight of academic research or historical significance. But it matters.”
Arkive, he said, is taking the same “academic-first research perspective” as a traditional institution with the added input of their community. The goal is to support existing museums by lending their acquisitions and essentially becoming “a really attractive private collector that works to support the overall network of public art and the public good generally.”
In one of his more inspired analogies, McLeod compared Arkive to the Spotify Top 100: the more traction a song gets on Twitter and TikTok, the higher it is on the list.
That choice of comparison was interesting given that, minutes later, McLeod said, looking back, “social media might be a net negative.”
“I think in a long view we are starting to reassess. Things that we thought might be great might not all be there,” he said.
Given the growing skepticism around Web3, it is perhaps unsurprising that some attendees were unconvinced. Sarah Wambold, an executive producer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, told the panel that she couldn’t help but interpret Arkive’s mission as the further commodification of art.
“Museums are non-profits, they are mission-based organizations set up for the public good, which is why they have tax-exempt status. So, aside from exposure, what are you doing to directly support artists?” Wambold asked the panel.
McLeod responded that Arkive has started a 501(c)(3) organization that would put funds toward artists-in-residency programs that focus on underrepresented artists, and then there is an editorial team, and an independent magazine, as well as videos and text that would contextualize why they chose to acquire a given artist. And, of course, they also support artists through sheer exposure.
“Do those efforts ultimately support your financial gain?” Wambold asked.
“I don’t think the value of the portfolio is how we’ll make money,” McLeod said, adding that the business model relies more on institutions using Arkive’s protocol to “verify items, but if the question is does that make the artists more well known, which then increases the value of the art? Maybe, actually I don’t know if that’s a one-to-one correlation, but probably.”
The session was nearly over at this point, but Huang had time to chime in. “Our goal is to create space in the same way that The Met creates space for audiences to engage…[I]t’s through our public programs. We use the term museum … to signify the fact that we are actually trying to be as artist-centric and as research-based as possible, that it is just about creating a platform for people to engage. And our focus is really there. It’s really not like, ‘how do we make money,’ you know, especially off of the artist’s back.”
After the panel, another audience member who works closely with art institutions and is knowledgeable about Web3 was skeptical spoke with ARTnews about being skeptical about not only the panel’s purpose, but about Arkive as a whole.
“They’re a non-museum who says they are a museum. At the same time, they’re a DAO that claims not to be a DAO,” said the person, who preferred to remain anonymous. “Ultimately, I think Arkive suffers from what so many of these crypto-communities suffer from—opacity. It seems they are essentially trying to replace one elite with another elite while not being completely transparent about how their community functions.”
Listen to the full panel here.