Mighty But Muted, NFT Crowd Attempts Recovery After Crypto Crash

A reception for artist Tyler Hobbs’ exhibition at Pace Gallery brought together NFT experts who’ve been at the center of the once thriving, now hurting market.

A seated man in a patterned shirt speaks to an audience in front of contemporary artwork
Generative artist Tyler Hobbs discusses digital art at Pace Gallery. Pace Gallery

There were thousands of bullseyes on the Tyler Hobbs paintings and another hundred on the artist’s back. But if the packed celebration on Thursday night for his latest exhibition was any indication, he may outlast the flagging NFT industry and its notorious association with the many crypto hucksters now facing bankruptcies and arrest.

“It’s just wonderful to be here,” Hobbs said during a reception for his latest Pace Gallery show, which runs through April 22. He was wearing a shirt with bullseyes that mimicked the computer-generated patterns painted on nearly a dozen paneled works with a mechanical plotter tool.

The 35-year-old coder is part of a small cohort of digital artists who have broken into the mainstream art world. But while others like Justin Aversano and Mike “Beeple” Winkelmann have shown with smaller galleries, Hobbs’ decided to exhibit with one of the world’s largest dealers. Pace Gallery also represents major traditional artists like David Hockney, Jeff Koons and Maya Lin.

Among the wealthy collectors and long-time admirers who attended the reception was Ariel Hudes, the gallery’s digital stratego. She explained that Hobbs’ paintings and their accompanying NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, were selling—though she declined to provide an exact price. A gallery spokeswoman said they were priced in line with previous paintings from the artist’s Unit London exhibition earlier this year, which sold for $360,000 each.

The bull market that transformed NFTs and the sale of digital assets on the blockchain into a $40 billion industry no longer exists, and NFT sales have declined by nearly 97 percent. Some visual artists like Hobbs have survived the churn because of their connections within the traditional art market and an emerging collector base of wealthy millennials from the tech world.

Market insiders have positively spun the turmoil as a “flight to quality,” where collectors have grown more interested in long-term investments than speculative, quick trades. Kevin Rose, the tech entrepreneur and chief executive at Proof, said his NFT company’s focus is now on “elevating the art and our stories.”

Rose was in New York to see the Hobbs exhibition and participate in a larger industry conference called NFT.NYC, which has shrunk in size over the last two years since the boom days where trades compared the business confab to Woodstock.

He said that Proof has about 1,000 premium members in its collective who purchase expensive artworks and another 10,000 people in the organization’s collector community who are typically interested in lower-priced NFTs. “We have a captive audience,” Rose said during an interview. “We just have to execute and deliver.”

When he isn’t experimenting with ChatGPT or green-lighting designs for a small house in Marfa, Texas based on a generative artwork by the Art Blocks impresario Erick Calderon, the entrepreneur is looking to optimize his business after a scare. Some of Proof’s capital was held with Silicon Valley Bank when the organization collapsed earlier this year, and Rose said his company has been splitting its money between several banks ever since.

Before the meltdown, Rose shopped a partnership idea to mega-galleries like Gagosian and David Zwirner. Those conversations are continuing, the entrepreneur said, but about six months ago, a collaboration with Pace Gallery materialized with an NFT project by the artist Mike Tajima and other programming opportunities.

However, digital artists who’ve already established themselves and their sales records in the NFT market hardly need galleries to compete within the traditional art market. Hobbs, for example, already has faithful collectors who contact him through a Discord channel operated by his studio. Many of the bullseye paintings on view were sold to his patrons. Rather than staking the exhibition on a financial goal—the artist is already a multimillionaire—it was about proving a point.

“Hopefully this gives people an opportunity to see generative art through a different lens that might be more accessible,” the artist said.

Mighty But Muted, NFT Crowd Attempts Recovery After Crypto Crash