Iris Nevins has always been a lover of art. On her travels throughout the Caribbean and Africa, she would collect pieces from local merchants as souvenirs. Still, Nevins wondered how these talented craftsmen could earn more and compete with artists in the west.
The thought led her to create an e-commerce platform for artists to reach a more global audience and earn more revenue from their works.
“Our vision was really to build a community of Black people who were able to support each other, educate each other, and buy each other’s art.”
It was there she was exposed to NFTs – or non-fungible tokens – and how artists were using them to monetize their creations. The concept allowed disadvantaged artists to expand their global reach without going through a prestigious and selective dealer.
Early on, Nevins noticed the striking lack of diversity.
“It was really hard to find Black artists. They were almost non-existent…The few that were there were pretty scattered. So, we decided that we would build a community of Black people in the NFT space,” says Nevins to Insider.
The arrival of the cryptocurrency boom created a new growth sector that allowed artists to have more ownership over their works and increase their earning potential using NFTs to create original pieces.
As a result, the NFT market reported its second-highest sales revenue in 2020, with $12.9 million earned by selling the tokens as artwork, and has continued to grow exponentially.
The current market is valued at over $400 million in 2021.
According to Sotheby’s, work by African American artists was valued at $2.2 billion, by September 2018, representing just 1.2% of the total global market.
Only a few artists have managed to take a piece of those earnings. In fact, 77% of that revenue comes from works of a single Black artist – the prolific Jean-Michel Basquiat.
However, Basquiat himself died before ever seeing how to commercialize his works.
Black artists also often left out of the high-profiled museum and private galleries.
Art Agency Partners and Artnet News found that between 2008-2018, less than three percent of all works acquired or given to notable US institutions were created by African American artists.
With the rise in calls for diversity and racial justice following protests of 2020, however, conversations on Black artists navigating the art world have inspired others to invest.
A 2020 report by Hyperallergic, Swan Galleries – the only major auction house to have a dedicated department for African American art – saw more than $6.5 million in revenue from Black artists alone.
The potential earnings from a fast-growing industry is Herman Marigny, founder, and CEO of ONE/OFF gallery, created the Black Arts District – a curated space for Black collectors, artists, and enthusiasts to learn more about how to enter the niche market.
Marigny told Insider the venture was “an opportunity to leverage blockchain and NFTs to create an intentional intervention against the systemically racist practices of traditional and digital redlining.”
“The fact that there is a public record of ownership that’s easily accessible to anyone with an internet connection makes the challenge of proving authenticity almost non-existent,” he said, adding that digital currency always allows artists to protect their intellectual property while cutting down middle-man costs.
“Traditionally, galleries take as much as 30-50% of the sales proceeds from artists. However, many of these NFT platforms only take 10% or less and can allow artists to reach a much larger audience with global reach.”
For artists like Zimbabwean-born Liam Vries, who goes by Vintagemozart, entering the digital space opened them to an audience that would normally be out of his reach.
The digital artist originally began his craft using mostly oil pastel and acrylics before being exposed to other African artists. He later joined the artist development program with Umba Daima.
Vries later created the African NFT community on Clubhouse after noticing the glaring lack of diversity in rooms on the topic.
“There are no gatekeepers, but the community can gatekeep you,” he told Insider. “The foundation is built on a trust system between curators-collectors and artists.”
Vries, in contrast, traditional platforms create unique challenges for Black artists looking to take advantage of the growing trend. Experts say bias can come in the form of in-house fees to enter platforms, and highly selective foundation invites to obtain the necessary resources.
Despite the obstacles, those like Nevins say the digital assets can help change the lives of artists living in countries where they can access wealthy institutions in the West and allow them to enter the global market without sacrificing their own to generate wealth.
“If you live in Kenya or Nigeria or Zimbabwe and you sell your art for a thousand dollars, that thousand dollars are actually worth way more there than it is here,” Nevins said. “So, I think that the implications for artists in some of these other countries are really huge and really exciting.”
“If they’re buying collectible products or buying into what may be the [big thing], you are also becoming full participants in this entire market that are allowing people [from different backgrounds] to generate wealth.”