Michail Stangl (ZORA): What are both your roles in the gallery, and can you take us through the process of how House of Fine Art-curated NFTs came to be?
Elio D'Anna (HOFA): I'm Elio D'Anna and I'm co-founder and creative director of HOFA Gallery. We're very excited about this partnership with ZORA. It helped right at the beginning when we had a vision to create a very exclusive, curated NFT space within our gallery, especially when we did our first auction with Zhuang Hong Yi's Pink Flower, which was released in March. What followed was a series of successes; we sold out auctions with several auction houses in the NFT space back in April with Matter and Form. More recently, with Portrait of an Era, we wanted to do something that was very bold and grandiose.
Jake Elias and I are working on a platform called Creation, which will be dedicated only to new blockchains, so we're doing something outside the Ethereum network. Together we curated an exhibition which embraced both the very blue-chip collectibles NFTs with traditional art forms. So canvas painting, sculptures, and all that was curated around the NFT world. It's been really exciting.
Jake Elias (HOFA): At HOFA, it was key for us to establish ourselves as we had already done in the contemporary art gallery space, in the NFT world. We represent over 50 artists, and we wanted to collaborate and help them bridge the gap into the NFT space. So, with Matter and Form, we helped create 18 pieces of work in NFT form and 18 physical pieces; the show was completely sold out.
Then we thought about the fact that ZORA was building their own auction houses, and said, 'What better way to go than to work with a team that we'd already collaborated with and got on really well with?' The code and the protocol were there, so over the last month and a half, we've had our developers work with the ZORA team to create an auction house that is for contemporary artists and for HOFA.io. Portrait of an Era was the highest-grossing NFT show of all time at just over $64 million, with some incredible works, some blue-chip art, and then obviously our contemporary artists as well. Creating and minting on the auction house has been a great experience for us and I'm sure ZORA as well.
MS: What pulled you into the world of blockchain and NFT in particular? I'm always quite curious to hear about people's path into technology, into the space, and when it all made sense.
ED: We started in early 2018. We're very proud to say we were the first gallery to embrace the cryptocurrency world. We’ve also made all of the portfolio available to be purchased via cryptocurrency, via 21 different currencies. We teamed up with Uphold, which is a big U.S. and London-based exchange, and from there, we started working. In 2020, we set up a company called ARTCELS, which fractionalizes the ownership of created portfolios of art. We started curating large portfolios of important blue-chip art with Banksy, Josh Sperling, and others. The first one was called XXI, which again, was sold out, and a big step forward. We then started developing our own VR technology and doing very intricate VR presentations of our program when the lockdowns happened. From there, we did the early XXI, the NFT release of Pink Flower, followed by Matter and Form, and the end-of-the-year exhibition, Portrait of an Era.
MS: Jake, how about you?
JE: I was into crypto from last year, and I'll be honest, it was more through lockdown. Actually, my younger brother was really into it and I'm pretty sure he and my father got into it through Elio. I really liked the concept of blockchain and crypto, but I never got into anything just to flip it, so the NFT space really touched me in that sense. It was something I could own that looked amazing, and if I wanted to, in the future, be able to make some profit. I thought the technology was mesmerizing; it was the first conversations I had with Dee that really helped knock it home for me that this was a completely new world and we were at the beginning of it. It was the start of a new internet, a new era, and to jump on the train at this point and understand it as best as possible was definitely the right way to go. What better backing to have than one of the most world-renowned galleries? It's been an exciting time and it's constantly growing. I won't tell you that I know everything about it. I'm sure no one will, but it's constantly evolving.
MS: The traditional art world has been very hesitant to embrace NFTs as a medium. Of course, provenance has been somehow more welcomed, but NFTs have been met with a certain kind of cynicism, I've felt. Why do you think that is?
ED: I think it's mainly the lack of curation in some of the platforms that exist, perhaps because they don't come with a background of being gallerists, but rather coders and people in tech that have obviously realized a way to profit from artwork sold this way. You have to filter through a lot of arguably not-incredible art to find great things. And when you find very good things, they're usually very difficult to acquire. So it's becoming kind of elitist again, and I think it's interesting to make it more accessible.
MS: That's an interesting point you're making, the important aspect of art that you refer to, which is curation, as a gallery owner. How would you define curation?
ED: It's taste, ultimately. It's knowing how bodies of work can live together in a space and knowing how to present them to the general public and important collectors to understand and portray its value more than anything.
MS: What's your approach to curation in the gallery? How do you approach an exhibition in the past or for the next one?
ED: We're very selective. We're a relatively small team, and approached by dozens of artists each day, so sometimes it can be very difficult to cope with and still be able to respond to the interests the gallery creates. Our next show, which is very exciting, is Ilhwa Kim. She's a Korean artist. We've been working with her for the last eight years, and she's incredible. She works with tens of thousands of paper rolls from Hanji paper, and they're all curated together to work as a painting, like living organisms that have to sit together. We always search for talent like hers. We're working really hard to always bring to the podium the highest standard of contemporary art.
JE: To add to that point, I'd say one of the core values that we offer and have been able to do is adapt our approach. We did a show, Mother of Mankind about a month or two ago with Adora Mba, who's from Ghana. There were 16 female Black artists in the center of Mayfair, which has never been done before. There's obviously a lot of money around this area and some pretty old-school people. But we opened the whole gallery up to new viewers, new collectors, millennial collectors, tech-savvy collectors, and that's what we always try to do. We're always trying to innovate, as well as look after the core collectors that have been with us for years.
ED: Sometimes it's a tricky balance. Like Jake says, we are dealing with really blue-chip collectors in traditional art and we're always pushing the boundaries. The difficult part of curating our gallery is to keep both the experience and innovative angle combined with a meaningful collection.
MS: As you said Jake, the gallery positions a platform for artists and voices that traditionally do not have access to these kinds of collectors and these kinds of spaces. But nonetheless, very often, the gallery is regarded as a gatekeeper of sorts. In the advent of NFTs, a lot has been said about galleries, ultimately that they are seen as an institutional gatekeeper that prevents many artists from accessing the art market. So on one hand you have a gallery providing a platform, and on the other, you have dismissal of the gallery's role saying that they are unnecessary middlemen, and now digital art doesn't need the logistics of bringing an art piece into a space or shipping it. There's not that much to be had from that.
JE: It's funny because we receive constant requests from collectors that own important NFTs and want them represented in galleries, they want it in shows. I'm sure you've seen the number of important auctions, including this morning's auction in Hong Kong with Christie's, where CryptoPunks were sold in excess of $4.5 million, Apes being sold at $600-700,000, and Meebits the same. In order to establish the value of NFTs and the collectable aspect, you're always going to need the validation of an institution or an important entity that is reputable in the art world. Because ultimately, it is art. If it wasn’t art, then it wouldn't need to be displayed into galleries and promoted by art institutions to art collectors. I think the point is you need galleries because you need collectors, and collectors don't just buy. They buy from entities that they've been working with and building their collection for years. They trust the taste and the opinion of galleries and institutions alike.
MS: Yet the promise of a lot of blockchain technology is exactly that, something that is trustless. Will the role of the gallery change with the advent of NFTs being that they are heavy on curation and heavy on maintaining and signaling towards the user base?
ED: We definitely adjust our price point and our margins on NFT sales, that's for sure. We have a very different margin that we would have from traditional gallery exhibitions, where we have logistic costs, shipping, and other kinds of operational costs. But also, being that this is the NFT world, we’ve recently been getting huge LED panels set up to display NFTs in a way that's impactful. Otherwise, if you just see them on your phone, it's not the same and they need to be celebrated.
JE: Exactly. I also think the role that we play is in bridging the gap for the artists that not only we represent, but other artists that are represented by galleries in the traditional world, in the real world. For instance, if Banksy were to come into the NFT space, I guarantee he'd come through a gallery. He wouldn't just do it himself, because the gatekeepers are the SuperRares and the Nifty Gateways. So he'd probably collaborate with a Sotheby's or a gallery to create an NFT. So we're only helping bring those more traditional artists into the space, and there should be enough space for them.
MS: Speaking of space, you just mentioned LED displays. What's your opinion about the materiality of art if it gets confined to a display? Do you have a strategy and an idea how you can bridge those two things, on one hand, something that is very universal because it's a data point, but on the other hand, also fairly limited because too often people just project it onto an LED display?
ED: I think the way you choose to experience the art that you collect is totally personal. In terms of technology with the gallery, we're always looking at the latest tech and trying to be as innovative as possible.
MS: Is there anything that you currently find particularly exciting?
ED: Yes, we're working on some really nice LED frames and on the concept of connecting those directly with your wallet so that your collection is always secure and it's only ever with you. There are some interesting aspects, but this is more going into home design and tech. In terms of gallery exhibitions, I think there's only so far you can go. But yes, we're using some of the most innovative and advanced tech that we can find.
MS: Where do you see the next 12 months for both the physical space and also HOFA.io, your own NFT platform?
ED: I think it's an exciting few months coming along. In terms of the markets, they are slowly building again and it's a moment where people are accumulating wealth in terms of gold in Ethereum and Bitcoin. I think there's going to be a surge before Christmas. I can see some exciting NFT platforms are out; competition from good galleries always gives us a push. To be alone and to try to make a market on your own is great, but at the same time, we didn't want to release huge amounts of NFTs because the market is still relatively small. But we can now see that it's really growing with more entities, and yes, through competitors, but in a good way.
MS: Because both of you are fairly experienced in this space, a lot of young artists enter the art world through NFTs without ever having hoped to be able to sell. Even if they sell by the more traditional platforms, they would never dream of gallery representation. Is there a rule book or a recommendation that you could give to young emerging artists that want to enter galleries or improve their interaction with a more traditional art market? For the young artists that don’t have these insights or connections.
ED: To never give up. Most of the artists that we work with have worked in excess of 10, 15, 20 years before working with galleries. And for us as well, it's a long journey to establish galleries of this caliber. So for both us, and artists, we are in a constant direction to improve and to keep the level. We just encourage you to never stop.
JE: Always look to innovate as an artist. These artists that you speak of have been given an opportunity to go out there, to post their work, and to find new collectors—collectors that are probably in more similar age groups to them and that they can grow with. And that's important. And obviously, it's easy to say that when they sell a lot, the galleries are going to sit up and take notice. But it's important that when they do go and they do talk to these galleries, they're adapting their approach, and they're going to the right galleries. It's doing your homework, it's understanding what that gallery showcases, how they curate their shows, and then working around that. I think that's probably the most important bit of advice you could give.