(image by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

In May, painters Valentin Ruhry and Andy Boot launched Cointemporary, an online art gallery exhibiting artworks that can only be bought using the popular crypto-currency Bitcoin. The website displays only one work per week; once it’s gone, it can never again be purchased through them. When a work is sold, participating artists can choose to be paid in regular currency or Bitcoin, though they get a larger cut with the latter. The work is then shipped to collectors by the Viennese company Kunsttrans, which also accepts Bitcoins.

It’s an interesting idea, considering it seems that in Bitcoin’s short history more art has been created about it than has actually been sold using it. The San Francisco-based artist Tom Loughlin’s work often features Bitcoins, as has that of New York painter Jenna Lash. In July, French artist Youl sold his painting “The Last Bitcoin Supper” on eBay for $2,900.

“Painter 1” by Zuriel Waters is for sale on Cointemporary (image courtesy of Cointemporary)

Cointemporary isn’t the only venture seeking to change that, as a recent handful of companies have also begun experimenting with Bitcoin as payment for art — most notably Art4Bit and BitPremier, a luxury goods resale shop. In April, Silicon Valley Contemporary also allowed Bitcoin as a payment method, and rumor has it Paddle8 may begin accepting the currency.

So far, Cointemporary has featured art by the likes of photographer Beat Streuli, painter Larissa Lockshin, and installation artists Anetta Mona Chişa and Lucia Tkáčová. The website states it wants the works it promotes to be viewed within a “broader global visual context free from the hegemonic monetary system in which contemporary art is embedded.” By pricing them in Bitcoin, it says, it becomes more difficult to ascribe them traditional value. Its decentralized online payment network also offers a “new form of autonomy in the global monetary system,” which Cointemporary claims does not yet exist in the art world.

Co-founder Valentin Ruhry responded to a few questions about the website via email. 

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Laura C. Mallonee: Why Bitcoin? 

Valentin Ruhry: Andy Boot and I were interested in Bitcoin for a long time and discovered many parallels to the art market. Both are unregulated and it is unclear how prices are assessed. This tempted us to finally take on the idea of an online exhibition space and combine it with Bitcoin. We wanted to create a parallel market, in which “next-to-impossible-to-valuate works of art can be bought for a next-to-impossible-to-valuate currency” (phrased by a user at hackernews). It may sound cynical but is in fact less cynical then what happens at the art market right now. On Cointemporary, the quality of an artist or artwork can not be measured by the price of the work. Simply because Bitcoin is so incredible volatile.

LCM: How successful has the project been?

VR: Considering that we are operating a niche in a niche, we were very impressed by the great response [from artists]. Many artists like the idea of denominating their works in Bitcoin and it was easy for us to get noticed as a first mover. But Bitcoin is still very young and no one can predict where it is headed. The success of Cointemporary is inevitably linked to that.

LCM: Exactly how many works have been sold?

VR: So far we have only shown ten works and sold one.  

LCM: What are the challenges?

VR: There are many. Showing art online and engaging in a discourse is difficult. There are also no comparable projects, so we spent a lot of time on solving legal issues before we launched Cointemporary. Challenging, but in a good way, is that every exhibition precedes an examination of the work and a conversation with the artist we show. Eventually we sign a consignment agreement with the artist/gallery — bureaucratic paperwork I could also do without. Most of the core Bitcoin users are unfamiliar with contemporary art and we see a great responsibility in selecting and communicating works for Cointemporary.

LCM: Any thoughts on the enormous topic of how Bitcoin could impact the art world?

VR: I am very cautious when it comes to future predictions. But if the Bitcoin network or a similar project will take off, it will also impact the art world. There already are specific use cases like creating a non-dublicable digital file or proof of authorship through the blockchain. The payment function is just one more application on such a network and it’s likely that we will see more to come. But again, it is impossible to predict the future of Bitcoin. Personally I am a big fan of the concept behind the network but opposed to the libertarian and crypto-anarchistic appropriation. I hope that this political over-ideologization will fade soon and not become a hindrance for future adoption. 

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Laura C. Mallonee

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...

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