Congrats! You Won! Now What?

An inside look at the 2021 Miami Art Basil Awards Ceremony

On Saturday, December 4th, 2021, The Locker Room, a Brooklyn-based art collective and gallery, held the Official Art Basil 2021 Award Ceremony, hosted by interdisciplinary artist Amanda Mehl.

The awards were given to artist Rachel Van Der Nacht for “Most Outstanding Artist”, Gagosian Gallery owner Larry Gagosian for “Excellence in Philanthropy”, and creative consultant and NFT (non-fungible token) evangelist Shannon O’Donnell for “Least Fungible”. A lifetime achievement award was also given to artist Steelo Black. The members of the collective wore clothing from Amanda Mehl’s fashion line Amehl and sipped from bottles of the same label. While the ceremony took place with speeches, the national anthem, an invocation, and interviews, a plane flew overhead towing a banner that read “Congrats! You won! Now what?” In addition to a trophy, each honoree is awarded a unique NFT.

Photo by Mara Catalan

While prancing around Miami preparing for our award ceremony, we set out to explore the themes of validation and valuation in the converging spheres of the art market and crypto. The yearly event in Miami has become the Superbowl of the art world, with galleries competing for the biggest booth, brands competing for the biggest splash, buyers–the costliest collection, dealers–the most potent network, and of course scenesters for the hottest outfit at the most exclusive mansion party. It is a “beautiful dysfunctional pecking order”, as Jerry Saltz calls it. However, this year the normal flurry of brutish fervor fueled by Brut Champagne and off-shore accounts had a new flavor as the arena was stormed by the crypto crowd.

In the world of NFTs, the issues of validation and valuation have the frenetic energy of a bad trip. Why did I just spend that on a jpeg? How did we get here? As the craze continues, the bulging bubble is fed by haphazardly-minting artists being prodded by overpromising platforms and uninformed investors with a flux of underutilized Ethereum.

We’ve heard some say that the issue is the quality of the art: “If only there were some real masterpieces that make me feel things then this whole NFT bit might have some legs!” they stomp and cry. But the decentralized art critic hast spoken! And let there be no confusion about the verdict thus far–the more juvenile and pixelated, the better. Uniqueness and craftsmanship do not guarantee value here (not that it has in the black box of the art world for some time); in fact, instead of complete non-fungibility, what’s been successful so far has been a sort of semi-fungibility where minute differences in a whole series denote the preciousness. If you are looking to feel moved by a single masterpiece, put down your phone and go to the Met. If you are looking for pieces of a masterful puzzle that make you chuckle at the chaotic absurdity of it all, NFTs may just be for you. The metaverse is meant for people who can take a joke.

While we do believe anyone scrambling to mint or invest right now inevitably will get a big bubble burst in their face, we are bullish on the technology of NFTs. Our hunch is that their lasting value (beyond their utility for royalties, copyright and asset management) lies in harnessing cultures that exist in the actual universe, not just the metaverse. When an entire community awards value to game pieces, it creates the game.

When we first landed in Miami, we got word that some of our own game pieces had been lost in the ether. If you were at Soho House the Wednesday of Art Week, we were the ones pacing up and down the beach crying into the phone about precious metals and a package from Latvia that had arrived with a hole in the side (universe: -1 metaverse: 0). Within 24 hours of being in Miami, our team had collectively lost 150 engraved medals, a computer, a wallet, a phone, and a pair of shoes right off the feet of our sound engineer. We were a ragtag team of pirates aboard our barely seaworthy Airbnb.

Despite the jabs at our validation and valuation, we persisted with our troublemaking. We dropped anchor at the Miami Beach Convention Center with two missions: (1) hand out a stack of invitations to our award ceremony on Saturday, and (2) find three people willing to accept our awards. The first mission was a home run; Basel attendees love receiving special invitations. We then happened upon an empty booth with two lone hooks on the wall. Yes, our invitations had their own booth at Art Basel. Definite home run.

The second mission was proving more difficult. After a rallying pep talk, we mustered up the courage to tell a booth attendant from a big name gallery that they had won an award for biggest booth. We didn’t stick around to see the reaction. See email below for another interaction with someone who was, at first, very interested in talking with us.

What are pranksters to do when no one wants to play? We ran into a friend who runs another gallery in Brooklyn and meandered around together. He had VIP tickets, so we took our invitations and existential quandaries to the Collector’s Lounge. While he ordered a glass of over-priced champagne for us to share, we scanned the room for potential awardees. Finding nothing promising, our founder Samara scanned her inbox and we were thrilled to see an email that looked like someone was going to accept one of our awards. Upon closer examination, we realized that the email was actually an award being given to us. Time Out Magazine had just dubbed The Locker Room the “Best Gallery in New York City”. The champagne arrived just in time.

Some ensconced in the mainstream art world would likely look down their noses and over their preferred art magazines to scoff at our newly-minted award. However, we never cared to be a white box gallery nor to play that game nor to impress those institutions. We’ve always put the culture of the city first and foremost and the art world culture somewhere else. We are honored to be on Time Out’s list next to other New Yorkers who serve New York, whether it be in nightlife, food and beverage, or entertainment. Again, our hunch is that the new post-isolation era will be about cultivating collective effervescence in the actual universe and that the pillars holding up culture down here on earth will be found behind the bar, in the back of kitchens, and checking your wristband at the door.

— The Locker Room