Pierre-Auguste Renoir's "Les Fraises" (ca. 1905) is one of 29 paintings and sculptures on long-term loan to the Museum of Modern Art that will head to Sotheby's this fall. (all images courtesy Sotheby's)

A store of 29 paintings and sculptures on long-term loan to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York from a foundation established for William Paley, founder of multinational media conglomerate CBS, will go on auction at Sotheby’s this fall. The works carry a combined estimated value of at least $70 million, and the Paley Foundation will dedicate part of the proceeds of the auction to fund a new endowment supporting “MoMA’s ambitious goals in digital media and technology,” according to the museum’s press release.

Without providing any concrete details on the specific digital ventures it hopes to embark on, MoMA tossed out a dizzying array of possibilities — from launching a streaming channel and partnering with a university to offer art-related degrees to acquiring non-fungible tokens (NFTs). Its preliminary strategy for expanding its digital presence, if one exists, appears to be two-pronged: elaborating on existing virtual access points and educational materials while exploring new kinds of digital holdings for its permanent collection. “The new endowment will be used to fund digital initiatives as well as new acquisitions to MoMA’s collection — the endowment is flexible and no concrete plans have been made yet,” a museum spokesperson told Hyperallergic.

Francis Bacon’s triptych “Three Studies for Portrait of Henrietta Moraes” (1963) carries an estimate of over £30 million (~$34.6 million).

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, MoMA director Glenn Lowry indicated that the museum’s digital pivot is a response to drops in museum attendance that have been logged since the beginning of the pandemic. Over the last fiscal year, 1.65 million visitors walked through MoMA’s doors — a 45% decline in attendance from a prior annual average of 3 million visitors per year. Since then, MoMA has ramped up its production of virtual walkthroughs and video series of interviews with curators, and Lowry said that the museum hopes to continue developing in this direction. Although he was optimistic that attendance would return to pre-pandemic levels by 2024, he signaled that the prospect of raising online traffic is better.

Lowry added that he believed MoMA could enroll more students in its online course offerings. Currently, it offers ten classes through Coursera on topics including modern art, abstract painting, and “Blackness and Architecture.”

Most anticipated by some is Lowry’s suggestion that MoMA might acquire digital art associated with NFTs. Currently, MoMA does not hold any NFTs in its collection — even though the museum contributed data to a project by digital artist Refik Anadol late last year. Crypto enthusiasts online expressed excitement at the possibility that a museum might enter the NFT space, in what would be a major stamp of approval for the fledgling art format. In recent months, as the so-called “crypto winter” persists, major NFT marketplaces such as OpenSea have seen their trading volume tank, while popular collections have also seen all-time lows.

But to crypto evangelists — or anyone else hoping to cash in on the industry — MoMA’s announcement is a seal of approval. “Digital art being taken seriously by traditional art culture is crucial to the success of NFTs,” opined one Twitter user whose profile picture is a Bored Ape Yacht Club avatar with what appears to be a melting face. “This is how mass adoption happens,” another said. Several tweeters even called the news that MoMA was selling $70 million in physical art to potentially secure digital assets “bullish.”

For some who have followed the museum’s recent developments closely, MoMA’s move to trade physical artworks for the possibility of acquiring NFTs comes as no surprise. Back in March, MoMA posted a one-year position for a “Web3 Associate” to work on cultivating NFT projects.

The 29 paintings and sculptures going on auction, just a fraction of the 81 pieces that Paley has loaned to MoMA, include works by Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Auguste Rodin, and Francis Bacon. None of those works are currently on view. The terms of the loan arrangement were designed to be open-ended from the inception, so the museum could later decide how the works could best serve its changing needs and goals. Some of the proceeds from the auction will also go towards supporting the Paley Center for Media and the Greenpark Foundation.

“We’re just beginning to dream,” Lowry said to the Wall Street Journal. But so far, the museum has remained vague on the subject of what, exactly, those dreams will entail.

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Jasmine Liu

Jasmine Liu is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University. Find her on 

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