06/08/2021 Banking On Digital Art: Can NFTs Made By Kids Give A Leg Up To Colorado's Communities Of Color?


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IRL Gallery owner Robert Gray leads Art NFT's first class for children in Denver, on July 20, 2021.

Robert Gray’s art gallery is mostly empty. The room is long and narrow, with concrete floors and concrete walls. The space is artsy, but devoid of art. As if to emphasize the absence, an array of empty picture frames hangs from the ceiling.

IRL Art traffics exclusively in digital art. A brick and mortar NFT art gallery, it is the first of its kind in Colorado, according to Gray.

It might seem counterintuitive to launch a physical home for immaterial artwork.

“People think of NFTs and digital assets as something that you can only experience on your phone or digitally on a computer,” Gray said, by way of explanation. The gallery “allows us to teach them about this new way of art and this digital world.”

The technology behind the hype

NFT stands for non-fungible token. According to Dr. Merav Ozair, a FinTech faculty member at Rutgers University and a leading expert on blockchain and cryptocurrency, the tokens are digital creations — bundles of information that could take the form of image, audio, virtual reality element — pretty much anything accessible on a computer. Non-fungible means that each one is completely unique.

Ozair described blockchain technology as “a decentralized ledger.” The ledger is transparent and accessible to anyone with internet access. “Everyone can view everything. It is immutable because it cannot be altered.”

Each block can be thought of as a folder containing information about a collection of transactions, Ozair said. “Each and every block is chained to another. So if you want to change one block, you basically have to change (the) entire history.” That is nearly impossible, making the entire system incredibly secure.

Joining that chain of blocks is called going “on chain.” And doing so gives each token a digital fingerprint that can’t be faked. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are examples of fungible tokens exchanged via blockchain, since each share of a currency is more or less interchangeable with the other shares. Artwork, on the other hand, is non-fungible.

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Rae Solomon / KUNC

Blank picture frames at Colorado's first NFT art gallery.

NFTs have been in the news a lot recently for the eye-popping prices some of them have fetched from early adopter digital art collectors. But they are still relatively new, and a lot of adults still have a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea.

That’s why it may be surprising to see a group of young kids set up at a table on one end of the gallery. It looks a bit like your basic kids’ art class, with paper, crayons and markers. But the kids are here to learn how to make their own NFTs.

Gray starts the class off with some gentle encouragement for the kids to find joy in their creative work. The kids pick out their weapons of choice — a purple marker or an orange crayon. As the kids draw and chat, Gray casually starts to introduce some high-tech vocabulary and concepts.

“I'm going to teach you all a little bit about NFTs and the benefits of it,” he tells the class. “With NFTs, it's just a representation of art…”

Economic chess moves

The class started as the brainchild of Jae Gardner, a Black entrepreneur, educator and community organizer.

“I want to make sure to share (the technology) with students,” Gardner said. “Especially students of color, just because I felt that this crypto world that was being unleashed on us was growing at a rapid pace, students just were going to get left behind.”

The idea came to Gardner when he read about a company that made millions selling digital sneakers. That’s right — virtual shoes, for virtual feet.

"That's when it really started hitting me that I was behind the curve on this. Young people of color always find out too late about the game. There needs to be a way for us not to get left behind,” Gardner said.

He thought, what if you start them out early — say 6 years old, maybe even 4. “Now you're not behind the eight ball. You're the one in charge of the game,” he said.

Gardner and his team developed a curriculum for kids as young as 6 that hinges on making traditional — that is, physical — artwork. The technology piece gets sprinkled in slowly, in small, digestible portions.

“Over the course of the program, we're making sure to help them digitize and tokenize that traditional artwork so it can be sold on NFT marketplaces like Open Sea,” Gardner said. He hopes the course will give students an early understanding of how cryptocurrency works.

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Yahni Brooks, 4, uses an iPad to examine IRL Art's cryptovoxel.

Brandon Jackson is all in on that idea. He’s brought his two daughters, Jourie, 7, and Yahnie, 4, to the class. He wants them to lean into their creativity and their love of making art. But even more so, he wants them to understand the cutting-edge technology that can help them turn that creative impulse into financial empowerment.

“You know what an asset is?” he asks his daughters during the class. “An asset is something that makes you money. So, what's a digital asset?”

Jackson doesn’t expect his daughters to making a killing on NFT marketplaces just yet, but he thinks it’s important to plant this seed now, while they’re young, to get them comfortable with the idea. “Because someone else will monetize (their creativity) for them if they don't do it themselves,” he said.

Jackson is also creative director of Endgame Association, a local group that encourages children of color to play chess, which he uses as a metaphor.

“The principles of chess, they definitely translate to real life,” he said. “As you move through the board in chess … you're making something very strategic happen.”

Jackson says that teaching his daughters about cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology is an economic chess move.

“Exposing our communities that have been underserved or marginalized to NFTs and to cryptocurrency empower(s) the community to thrive with entrepreneurship and to thrive with creativity,” he explained. “It's a strategic move that helps get to the end result.”

“What video games do you like to play?”

The trick in this chess move is figuring out how to get young children to understand something that seems really complex.

To break it down for them, Gray plays off the kids’ natural strengths: their digital nativity. They are into worldbuilding games like Toca Boca, where they're already used to purchasing digital assets to enhance their gaming experience.

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Rae Solomon / KUNC

Robert Gray shows off the IRL Art cryptovoxel.

“You take your parents' money and then you go buy Toca Boca bucks,” Gray says to the kids. “You spend real money on those things. Those are called digital assets. What we're creating today are also digital assets.”

Naturally, IRL Art also has a digital doppelganger in the form of a cryptovoxel — a plot of virtual real estate powered by the Ethereum blockchain. It’s essentially a 3D model of the space where its art collection is always on display. He uses his iPad to walk the children through the IRL cryptovoxel.

Seven-year-old Jourie gets it right away. “It kind of looks like a game,” she says.

“Yeah! That’s exactly what it is,” Gray responds, navigating the virtual space. “I can even have an avatar, I can dress up in different outfits and I can walk around my art galleries. And these are all Black artists in this gallery. This is a Black woman just like you. And another cool thing you can do — you can even teleport between spaces…”

The wisdom of smart contracts

Many people in digital and creative communities think NFTs have the potential to shift the paradigm of how art is bought and sold, and how artists can reap the benefits of their creations.

“That's kind of the whole purpose of NFTs … ownership belongs to the artist and not the record label,” Brandon Jackson said. “Releasing NFTs gives them 100% ownership, as well as continued royalties.”

That ability lies in two key qualities of NFTs: the blockchain technology that guarantees authenticity, and so-called smart contracts that govern how the assets are sold.

“The power of NFTs is the authentication process,” Dr. Ozair explained. “That was missing from the digital content that we had for many, many years.”

The digital fingerprint of each NFT is fraud-proof, which is central to their value. It allows any collector to distinguish, say, the original Mona Lisa from a reproduction with 100% confidence. It’s as if the provenance of a painting was stapled onto the back of a canvas. Forever.

Smart contracts govern how the asset is sold. “You're taking a contract and putting it in a code,” Dr. Ozair said. Done right, she says that smart contracts can “take into consideration the royalties, who's getting paid, how much they're getting paid for, how long and when.”

Smart contracts can be written to direct a cut of secondary sales and beyond back to the original creator, so artists can benefit from the value of their work in every exchange, in perpetuity.

Jackson says that’s what makes this a big strategic opportunity. “If we can empower our community with cryptocurrency and tie it all into art and creativity,” Jackson says, “that's a real chess move.”

Over the next few weeks, the kids will finish up their masterpieces and learn how to digitize them and turn them into tokens. This first batch of kid-powered NFTs will be available on the marketplace before summer’s end.

Jae Gardner, who created the program, doesn’t expect any of the students to become art stars just yet. “Hopefully there is a burgeoning Basquiat in the group,” he said. But the real goal “is to plant the seed that this is a possibility. Now when you hear stories about it, you don't push it away because you don't understand it.”