Editor’s Note: This article was produced in collaboration with the Arts & Culture MA concentration at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
The world is on the verge of a “new version of the Renaissance,” with crypto financiers acting as the 21st-century House of Medici to fund the making of virtual art. Or so says Todd Morley, head of the Overline, a multichain protocol platform which facilitates transactions between blockchains wirelessly. His vision of a Medician digital future is centered with no apparent irony on a literal house, a building he is developing in midtown Manhattan.
Earlier this year, in an interview with Bloomberg TV, Morley announced plans to build the world’s first non fungible token (NFT) museum. A 1,428-foot-tall skyscraper looming over Central Park at 111 West 57th Street not only adds gratuitously to the midtown skyline’s ever-rising vertical clutter, but promises (or threatens) to change the metropolitan city’s artscape. From the street, the reflective exterior of the tower gives the impression that it’s nearly finished, though the skyscraper (called the Steinway Tower, because it has been built on top of piano maker’s landmark 16-story Steinway Hall) has been under construction for at least five years.
“It’s the perfect place, as sort of a symbol of technology to announce new technology,” Morley crowed on Bloomberg. “This one building will be able to connect, sort of like a ham radio operator, connect everyone in New York City to wireless trading, wireless crypto trading, wireless communication.”
Four months later, the fog has settled in on the museum’s status. Despite Morley’s interview with Bloomberg TV and a handful of articles stemming from it, the project is wholly lacking a digital footprint. There is no mention of the museum on the websites of Overline and JDS Development. For what it’s worth, we get a hint of the project via the former’s Instagram bio, which reads “2022 NFTs museum NYC.”
One of the possible reasons for the lack of information could be that a partial stop work order exists on the skyscraper, according to documents filed with the NYC Department of Buildings. In December, 2020, a full stop work order was served for “failure to safeguard all persons and property affected by construction operations” after a glass pane fell from the 53rd floor. While that stop work order was partially rescinded on March 16, 2021, after an inspection, the builders have at least three open cases of violations which need certificates of correction. Judging by the records and penalties levied on JDS Development, the tower is a site of safety concerns more immediate than the dangers of faith in NFTs.
Representatives of both Overline and its building partner, JDS Development, declined requests for an interview with Hyperallergic. The former, instead, shared a link of a podcast published by the company in mid-October. The episode is essentially a pedestal crafted by Overline’s CEO Patrick McConlogue and COO Craig Weisman for Morley, who mainly focused on the traditional financial aspect of NFTs, never elaborating on the ostensible museum.
“NFT — what is art?” asked Morley in the podcast. “What are ideas? How do you use this ability for expression? I think it’s far more profound than simply using the NFT concept on, say CryptoPunks. No dissing the CryptoPunks but it’s like a version… It’s going to grow into many more ideas. It is sort of unlimited. That’s why I think it should be a great two-way flow. It is not up to me to populate everything. We want the ideas of the world. What do you think is NFT-able?”
In the last 20 minutes of the conversation, Morley shifted his thoughts to the power of thought itself. “If our intention is to clean things up, you can keep showing things that are cool, relevant like an NFT museum — a place to store intellectual property, art beginning with human thought,” he said. “I really think we are on the verge of a new version of the renaissance where you have a sort of financial community, the House of Medici, sponsoring art, ideas, architecture, historians, poets … to come together and have a voice to do different things.”
If there’s anything telling in the conversation, it’s the muted agreement between the three speakers that the mega project is “under a lot of wraps.”
The metaphysical nature of the museum clearly parallels the NFT world itself. “I think anybody that finds out about the space goes through a level of disbelief,” said the New York-based artist Brian Brinkman. “There’s a level of education you have to get through and then there’s a level of acceptance that digital ownership has value. And that takes a moment.”
At least a few financial executives working with cryptocurrency believe that the NFT space is still too nascent to have a museum dedicated to it. “In some essence, a museum like this is forcing the NFT-verse into a physical space and will be restrictive, which defeats part of the purpose of this art existing purely on the blockchain,” Vinay Gokaldas, founder of Pasiv Financial Ltd, said. “Tying with a physical space introduces bias in terms of placement, size and its relative showcase-ability. This contrasts with the VR galleries that are emerging which are more ‘endless.’”
According to Morley in that Bloomberg TV interview, the tower-in-progress will have the “ability to not only allow investment into those areas but to sort of capture the culture of those areas.” That hardly answers the question of “How?” Not to mention the matter of “Why?”