Cover A person walks past the "The Birth of Venus" painted in 1485 by Italian painter Sandro Botticelli during a press preview for the reopening the rooms dedicated to Pollaiolo and Botticelli, at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, on October 17, 2016. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli / AFP

Plenty of museums now offer virtual tours and livestreams, but some institutions are branching out into a flourishing new market: NFTs

After seeing revenue crash during the pandemic, many museums have turned to the digital world to find new ways of engaging with users. While plenty now offer virtual tours and livestreams, some institutions are branching out into a flourishing new market: NFTs.

The Uffizi Gallery knows no bounds when it comes to keeping up with the times, while also drawing new audiences for the Florence museum. After joining TikTok last year, the cultural institution is now turning some of its most prestigious artworks into NFTs. First up is Doni Tondo, a painting of the Holy Family by Renaissance master Michelangelo. According to Artnet News, the encrypted digital version of the painting was recently sold to an Italian art collector for €140,000—a handsome sum for the museum, which saw footfall drop from 4.4 million visitors in 2019 to 1.2 million last year. 

The NFT of Doni Tondo was made by the Italian startup Cinello, which specializes in creating digital reproductions of famous artworks. These digital artworks—dubbed DAWS—are produced in the original dimensions of the masterpieces they are based on. They also benefit from an authenticity and traceability that theoretically makes them unique and tamper-proof. 

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NFTs: A goldmine for museums?

As Cinello points out, half the profits from the sale of the Doni Tondo DAW go to the Uffizi Gallery, offering "a new source of revenue" to the company's partner institutions. And Eike Schmidt, the director of the Italian museum, appears to agree. "In the medium term [the NFT sales] will be able to contribute to the finances of a museum, comparable to the proceeds of the restaurant business. It is not a change of direction in terms of revenue, it is an additional revenue. But creating such a market is not a quick thing," he told the Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera

While the Uffizi Gallery envisages creating NFTs of a dozen other works in its collection, other cultural institutions could soon follow suit. And they have every interest in doing so: the market for non-fungible tokens tripled in 2020, reaching just over US$250 million, according to a report from NonFungible.com. And if museums don't seize this opportunity to generate new revenues, others will be ready and waiting to pip them to the post.

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A coveted market

The Global Art Museum (GAM) collective hit the headlines in March when it proposed, via the OpenSea platform, NFT versions of artworks from Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Cleveland Museum of Art. The group stated that a portion of the profits generated by the sale of these artworks would be given to the museums that house the originals of the "NFT-ized" artworks, although that didn't stop GAM from coming under fire on social media. 

As the backlash escalated, Global Art Museum defended itself by announcing that this initiative was, in fact, an "NFT social experiment."

"We believe an international conversation about the blurred line between physical art and virtual #NFTs is essential now. We have received many tweets from everyone. Some reacted with anger, some with distaste. We are sorry for this," wrote GAM on Twitter. While these explanations failed to convince certain professionals in the art world, they serve as proof that "NFT mania" is still far from over.