Why we’re betting on the future of digital art collecting

Alex Benzer
Jun 6, 2018 · 7 min read

My first exposure to programming came through the influence of visual art — a middle school silkscreening class, an audacious art teacher, and an old Silicon Graphics PC with Macromedia Director and ActionScript, a long-dead predecessor to Flash. The very first thing I programmed was an interactive CD filled with all the terrible art I’d made with “ancient” 3D programs like Bryce and Truespace. Even then, with meager processing power and limited functionality, the creative possibilities seemed boundless.

Untitled Blue/Orange by Chris Trueman — editions owned by eight collectors on Digital Objects

As my programming practice has evolved, my excitement for digital art has only grown. I’ve spent years tinkering with creative coding tools like Processing, Unity, and the Kinect, in awe of visionary works by genre-defining new media artists like Nam June Paik, Olia Lialina, and Casey Reas.

The last decade has given us an astounding variety of new creative tools, with smartphones and social media conspiring to make great art more accessible than ever before. Countless artists, some already famous and with large online followings, are making compelling digital art. Many aren’t just making it on the Internet, but for the Internet. Museums and blue-chip galleries are already embracing the potential of digitally-based artwork. I think this field will only continue to grow, in part because I see so much work being made with digital tools and shared on social media, but also because I believe the incoming generation of collectors will be comfortable with the concept of digital ownership.

Yet today, the digital art market remains small relative to the overall art market. Conventional collectors have long struggled with digital art’s intrinsic intangibility and reproducibility. How can you own something you can’t touch? If it’s easy to copy, does it really belong to you? These questions have inhibited the market for years, forcing artists to rely on alternative means to build sustainable practices.

Inspired to help solve these problems for artists and collectors alike, the Digital Objects team, of which I’m a co-founder, has developed a system that leverages blockchain technology — a system for verified consensus, like a public database of record — to help artists make their digital works verifiably scarce, thus making them more accessible to a broader range of collectors.

We’ve spent months developing this idea, and today we’re excited to introduce the public beta of Digital Objects: a new, invite-only space for buying, selling, and showcasing limited-edition digital works of art. Our mission is to empower artists and inspire the next generation of collectors.

Digital Objects aims to address several problems in today’s art market:

  • It’s hard for most artists to maintain a sustainable practice. Artists need and deserve more ways to generate revenue from their work.
  • Artists rarely benefit from their own secondary markets. They should receive guaranteed royalties when their works are sold between collectors.
  • Younger collectors are almost entirely priced out of the art market. They’re eager to collect, but the traditional market and gallery system favors ultra-wealthy, socially-connected, and geo-mobile buyers.
  • New media artists are attracting huge audiences online, but there’s no straightforward and scalable way to collect their art and support their craft.
  • Smaller galleries are struggling to survive. Due to changing market dynamics, rising costs, and an aging traditional collector base, the art market is consolidating into a small set of powerful galleries.

Limited-edition digital art explained

Shy by Molly Soda — featured this week on Digital Objects

The market value of art is influenced by the economics of scarcity: finite supply begets demand and value. Duplicating physical art is costly and inefficient, but digital artworks can be copied and distributed ad infinitum. In the past, this has hindered the formation of a robust market for digital art and has made it challenging for artists to profit from their work.

Now, we’re able to use blockchain technology to solve the lack-of-scarcity problem. Fundamentally, a blockchain is a public register where transactions are recorded in a secure, verifiable, and permanent way. It’s commonly known as the technology underlying cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and ether, but its promise extends well beyond the realm of finance — with potential applications in all kinds of other fields, including art.

How Digital Objects works

When an artwork is uploaded to Digital Objects, our system mints a unique ERC-721 token on the Ethereum blockchain. This token contains the artwork’s metadata, and its creation is publicly and irreversibly recorded on the Ethereum ledger. This makes the artwork verifiably authentic and scarce due to its immutable presence in the public record. Possession of the “original” artwork on the blockchain cannot be transferred without the permission of its owner. While a third party may copy the image/video/GIF file of the artwork, this would be tantamount to photocopying a physical painting.

Benefits for artists

  • Verifiable scarcity. Artists can now sell rare digital editions of their artwork, opening up a new revenue channel.
  • Access to a new, growing market. Younger collectors and art lovers increasingly discover art on the Internet and social media, not in physical galleries.
  • Royalties. Our Ethereum smart contract helps ensure that artists are compensated when their works are sold between collectors.
  • Platform independence. Once the token is minted, it permanently lives on the Ethereum blockchain and can be listed and traded in any marketplace that supports ERC-721 tokens. Rare Bits and OpenSea are two such examples, and there will likely be other exchanges for digital items.
  • Tracked provenance. Traditionally, an artwork’s value is often tied to the history of who has collected it, known as its provenance. Digital Objects automatically displays provenance, making tracking easy and provable.
  • Scalable art practice. Selling digital artworks means less work and investment put into materials, storage, and shipping.

Benefits for collectors

  • A new way to support artists. Collecting artwork from an artist you admire is the sincerest way to support their craft, but up until now, making a secure digital purchase has been difficult.
  • Visibility of ownership. Each artwork includes a collector registry which lists the owners of its editions. Collectors have the choice of using their real name or a pseudonym and linking their username to their own websites or social accounts.
  • A new opportunity for brands. Collecting digital artwork presents a unique marketing concept for brands. By collecting artists’ work and being listed in the collector registry, brands can become associated with supporting the artists and aesthetics that their customers admire.
  • A new investment asset class. The rising market capitalization of digital assets like Bitcoin and Cryptokitties reflects the increasing acceptance of digital items as valuable and possessable. Physical art has long been a widely-accepted asset class, and we believe that digitally-owned art will become an essential component of a diversified investment portfolio. All Digital Objects’ artists are curated with input from our advisory board, which includes curators from established galleries and institutions.
  • Displaying digital art in the physical world. Digital art display devices are improving rapidly, with established manufacturers like Samsung entering the market alongside smaller companies like Meural and Depict. We believe that screens will continue to proliferate and will increasingly be used to display art in new and wonderful ways. Pieces purchased via Digital Objects may be legally displayed on these devices (for non-commercial purposes).
  • “Back of the canvas” experience. Digital Objects enables artists to include special notes, inscriptions, and other personal attributes to their work that are only accessible to their collectors.
  • Exclusive access. Collectors will receive early access to new works, special invitations to our community events, and other perks.

Benefits for galleries

  • Significantly lower risk and overhead. Unlike with physical art, where shipping, storage, security, condition reports, and insurance are all conditions of ownership, digital art on Digital Objects does not require maintenance spend.
  • Increased awareness for physical sales. A gallery page on Digital Objects is like a dedicated room in a gallery, specific to showcasing and selling digital editions. Digital Objects can be used in conjunction with gallery-represented artists to issue digital editions of the artist’s physical works.
  • Access to non-local collectors. A gallery, minus time and space. A Digital Objects gallery page is an online extension of the physical gallery, making its art viewable to anyone, anytime, anywhere.
  • Visibility among new collectors. Attracting new clients is imperative for a gallery’s long-term sustainability, and Digital Objects offers galleries exposure to a digital-native group of collectors.
  • Royalties. Like artists, galleries can also earn royalties on secondary sales.

What’s next?

As Digital Objects evolves, we’ll work to offer more selling features for artists and collectors, more varied ways to display and interact with artworks, plus partnerships with galleries and institutions, live events and auctions, and most importantly, the debut of more talented artists.

If you have features that you’d like to see us develop, we’d love to hear from you: hello@digitalobjects.art.

Join us

If you’re an artist interested in issuing limited-edition digital works of art on Digital Objects, please apply here for consideration.

If you’re a gallerist interested in partnering with Digital Objects, please email us: hello@digitalobjects.art.

To stay up to date on our progress, follow us on Twitter and Instagram, and sign up for our newsletter.

About our team

Digital Objects is a Los Angeles-based team of technologists and artists who have created software used by hundreds of millions of people. We’re supported by top early-stage investors, who have previously backed companies like Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Reddit, and Google. We’re on a mission to empower artists and inspire collectors around the world, and we hope you’ll join us.

Digital Objects

Updates from the Digital Objects team

Alex Benzer

Written by

Co-founder @ Digital Objects

Digital Objects

Updates from the Digital Objects team

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade