Excitement was in the air on Thursday afternoon at London’s Newport Street Gallery. But the crowd of visitors enthusiastically chatting or taking photos of the exhibition was not the usual artistic crowd, and it was certainly not a usual artistic opening.
It was a “community event” to preview the exhibition of “The Currency”, Damien Hirst’s first NFT collection in collaboration with HENI, an international art services company, before the official opening to the public today at the artist’s gallery. Most of the members of this “community” were “currency holders”, meaning they participated in Hirst’s experimental project.
“The Currency” launched in July 2021 as a collection of 10,000 NFTs, each corresponding to one of 10,000 unique spot paintings by the UK’s richest artist. Those who acquired one of the NFTs, originally for $2,000, had the option of keeping the digital token or exchanging it for the physical artwork.
The trading period ended on July 27, with 5,149 “currency holders” choosing to trade their NFTs for the physical paints. At the gallery, the paintings that had been collected are replaced in the exhibition by translucent black and white slides of the original spot painting.
As for the remaining works on paper, representing the 4,851 works held by people who have chosen to keep the NFT, they will literally be burned by the artist himself during the week of Frieze London. They are therefore shown here for the last time before disappearing in flames.
“The whole project is a work of art, and whoever buys Currency will participate in this work, it’s not just about owning it,” Hirst said in a statement. “This is by far the most exciting project I have ever worked on.”
Judging by the preview of the show, he wasn’t exaggerating. A sense of excitement was widely shared by attendees here. Many greeted each other in person as if they were longtime friends, seeming to represent the spirit of “community” widely touted in NFT culture. They ranged from seasoned art collectors to those who had never set foot in a gallery before.
Henry Elphick, 39, a designer and seasoned art collector who said he’s owned a few Hirst prints in the past, was spotted looking for his “Mint” pieces in the gallery. Elphick was playing both sides of the project: he had traded one of his NFTs for a physical spot painting while keeping another NFT.
“I find it fascinating,” Elphick told Artnet News. “I wanted to see where it was leading. [Hirst] is obviously smart enough to try and migrate the physical collector type to the digital world, when everyone is potentially doing mostly digital right away.
Stuart Bumford, a 49-year-old paint sprayer, dressed for the occasion in a colorful polka dot shirt to match the works on display. “The Currency” was the first NFT project he had participated in, he noted, adding that he and two of his friends were delighted that their applications to buy the NFT and participate had been successful. However, ultimately he and his friends chose to keep the physical artwork.
“I knew I didn’t really want any of my people to be one of the ones that got burned,” the shy but cheery coin holder said. The project had yet to convert Bumford into an NFT fan, but it still pulled a lot from the culture around “The Currency.” He was thrilled to have “met a few people on Discord. Obviously, it’s a big community there.
There was a noticeable absence of women at the community preview, noted Naomi Ford, a therapist in her 40s who stood in line to buy a “currency”-themed tote bag (the show is accompanied by a large selection of associated merchandise). Ford was one of the few titular women seen at the gallery. Unlike the men Artnet News spoke to, she opted to keep the NFT, her first.
“I know, crazy,” Ford said, though his eyes were shining with excitement. “I didn’t know about the NFT market space because it’s new, and I kind of wanted to be part of it. I know, a lot of people are like, “Oh, I wish that was on my wall.” But also, I tell myself that something else could happen.
The shortage of women showed that the NFT field “is a very male-dominated space,” she said, while adding, “it might be a bit like the rest of the world.” She also pointed out that the crowd attending the opening was relatively mature. “Look at the age demographic here. We’re not that young. But then it’s the money, isn’t it? Maybe it has to do with where you put your funds.
Skeptics might wonder if “The Currency” was just another overrated show by the media-savvy entertainer or a cash grab. But for the enthusiastic crowd that followed this project from day one to seeing the art hanging in the gallery, “The Currency” brought a lot of joy, which is priceless.
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