Makayla Bailey and Shivani Mitra on the future of institutions ✧
A conversation about shifting resources toward compassion and innovation.
Earlier this year, Makayla Bailey, Co-Executive Director of Rhizome, and Shivani Mitra, Researcher, Investor, and Co-Founder of the Museum of Crypto Art, sat down with Gemma to discuss the future of institutions. In the following conversation, Bailey and Mitra speak about how traditional art systems assign value to artworks, and the way they’ve observed new technologies impacting the art world by shifting its inherent power dynamics. They also offer strategies for making processes and resources more accessible to artists.
Gemma: How do you define an “institution” right now?
Makayla: To me, an institution is a collective of people working toward a shared mission. I’ve worked within institutions of varying sizes, from five people to 800+ with MoMA. What I’ve learned is that most institutions, no matter the size, are basically just three kids in a trench coat trying to convince everyone that they’re a cohesive adult. [Laughs]
Shivani: An institution is something that operates outside of the market narrative—something that propagates a mission or a shared set of values. There are small research organizations of hackers that I would consider to be legit institutions as much as I would consider something like the British Museum to be an institution. But I struggle in the web3 space when people use the word “museum” or “DAO” in ways that feel slapped on. Ultimately, institutions are defined by their intentions.
Gemma: How are new technologies reconfiguring the present-day landscape of museums and art institutions?
Makayla: In many arts institutions, there tends to be a bend towards non-commercial engagement with technology, which carries connotations for the so-called “ethical” stewardship of its usage. But people often critique language as one of the most potent technologies that we've had so far—going back to its early use as a colonial tool, or as a communicative tool. In this way, international art speak is a tool, and these tools often reflect their inputs. Traditional institutions often talk about mitigating bias when cultivating which artists their curators are aware of. So, I worry about how institutions are careful—or not careful—with this idea that left unchecked, technology—and even languages itself—will just double down on a lot of the same power structures and vacuums that tend to play out in traditional institutional spaces.
Shivani: Museum of Crypto Art was founded around the idea of an arts institution that does not respond to hierarchies. We are using smart contracts and decentralized culture to build communities globally. I think we are at the precipice of humanity moving towards individual, hyper-local communities, as opposed to being bound by geopolitical or physical locations. [In the future,] the institutions that you gravitate towards are going to be based around networks that give you life. With each new technology, whether that's VR, AR, XR, or AI—I see a big shift in how people are being given tools to create the conditions that work for them. Ideally, people will gravitate toward institutions that are using tech to make the human experience more human instead of more cyborgian.
Makayla: I see two sides of the pendulum: technology formalizes affinities, but it can also disrupt certain communities. With Web 1.0 there was this logic of the new frontier, and of claiming space, and being whoever you wanted. We have seen the promises of that rise and fall only to rise and fall again. Web 2.0 brought the internet back toward feudalism: we are being mined for data in a very non-reciprocal way. There are select people who are able to rise above and benefit from that, and they are more like our skilled merchant class. They might “own” their personal brand, which is their warped version of an asset that they can trade in. But the whole structure is still very “haves vs. have-nots.”
Rhizome was founded in 1996 as a listserv by an artist named Mark Tribe. It was a very site-specific way of communicating, where there were these pre-existing affinity groups. Then it morphed into a blog. Then it moved towards social media, and now we're pivoting back away from that, towards Discord, towards more decentralized forms of communication. With each shift, we’ve had to relearn who the community organically is, [beyond the digital spaces where we convene.]
Gemma: What happens when you shift power structures, allowing for something new to take shape? How is Rhizome doing this? How is Museum of Crypto Art working toward this?
Shivani: Power structures are unfortunately both economic and financial as much as they are based on skin color and history. With Museum of Crypto Art, we are building the economic infrastructure of a museum around a governance token.
No matter what you do with technology, human beings continue to use existing mental models to cement power. But, I believe we can shift things in a very fundamental way. Art collectives may find it useful to use smart contracts to send money to each other, so they can function outside of traditional banking systems. People might opt to use tokens because they live in countries where inflation is now 150%, or because they need to be censorship free—and there is now a foundational tool that allows them to do that. In this way, shifting power structures can be an incremental yet transformational thing. It’s hard to keep up with a narrative that is constantly changing, but I can sleep at night knowing that we’re trying to push things in a better direction.
Gemma: How would you say the narratives have changed? Or how have things shifted that have conflicted with your priorities?
Shivani: [Web3 is] an aesthetic innovation as much as it is a technological one. Well before Beeple, [there were] brilliant crypto artists and developers making interesting digital and VR-based art, and inventing inspiring new mediums and aesthetics. Our Genesis collection at MoCA includes 270 artists who minted before December 2020. Unfortunately, a lot of them have now left the space because they don’t know what's left for them here anymore. Many of the original crypto art collectors who put millions of dollars into the ecosystem were completely anonymous, and have now left. Despite this, I’m excited for this period of time where a lot is collapsing, because it will allow for new narratives to emerge.
Makayla: At Rhizome’s 7x7 in 2014, Rhizome paired technologist Anil Dash and artist Kevin McCoy with the prompt to create something new. What they created was recently recognized in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first NFT. Artists push the boundaries of how we see things, and how we engage with larger, more societal, or hegemonic, power structures.
Along these lines, leading the narrative [means we must be] honest about bias and limitations. I’m the first Black director at Rhizome. As part of coming on board, I instituted a new co-leadership model with my colleague Michael Connor, who had been there for 10 years. In terms of operating non-hierarchically, co-leadership is a more sustainable way of moving through the world. It is more overtly collaborative, which is very important to me. It is important for people to see that we are forwarding equitable historical accountings of the past, present, and future.
Gemma: Have artists’ needs changed within the last few years? How are organizations evolving to meet those needs?
Makayla: Artists’ needs have changed in the same way that people’s needs have changed. One big shift that we’ve seen is how people think about structural inequality within these spaces. The real things that people need actually shift their material reality. People need more money, fewer restrictions, and more insight into how things actually happen behind closed doors—including how class, race, and sexuality play into everything.
Shivani: Right now, the number one goal for kids under 16 or so is to become a YouTuber, influencer, or “artist.” Unfortunately we are conflating the words creator and artist now, especially with AI tools. I think a lot of artists are grappling with the question of: what is the role of the artist in society? And what differentiates an “artist” from a “content creator?” Maybe an artist is someone who is a researcher, or who is pushing out documentation on things. I’m trying to let go of my idea of the artist as someone who paints on a canvas, because that is leading to a whole suite of questions for artists, like, “Do I apply to these residency programs even though my practice is not purely visual anymore?” How do you label yourself and then navigate all the ways that the art world and institutions label you?
Gemma: How do your respective institutions, Rhizome and Museum of Crypto Art, make your processes and resources legible and accessible for artists?
Makayla: We recently relaunched our microgrants program, which is designed to have a low barrier to entry. The application is very easy, and the program is very open-ended. We offer small grants ranging from $500 to $1,500 with few to no restrictions. Because we have a global network, that can be really meaningful to people in different parts of the world.
Shivani: At MoCA, I try to use all the tools we can to invite people in. We have a wiki page on Notion, and a forum. We run Twitter spaces and host discussions to explain our concepts and opportunities. Through our incubator, we have pieces of [virtual] land that we give out for free. With our token, we’re able to offer small grants. We also use an app called Dework to advertise the different opportunities we have. Then artists can say, “That's a really interesting exhibition you're doing this month, I want to contribute in this way.” So for artists in particular, we have tried to have a footprint across all virtual worlds.
Gemma: How do traditional art systems create value for artwork? Are there differences you’ve observed coming from the web3 ecosystem?
Makayla: Art is one of the few remaining unregulated financial markets. So value comes through effect, where people are buying art. Galleries are even implementing buy-one-get-one free deals, so that you can [keep one work for yourself, and] donate one work to an institution—which then increases your work’s value. It’s insider trading all day. Value also often depends on [the work’s] relationship to the canon, and the skills for maintaining and creating value in art have historically depended on an artist’s ability to be contextualized within an existing canon.
Shivani: “Value” is such a tricky word for me. At this point in time, has capital eaten all value? I don't think so, because I continue to meet incredible human beings, artists, scientists, and technologists who are doing long-term, innovative work in the interest of unbridled success, happiness, and joy for them and their communities. That is the value I still see, no matter what happens to the systems that we live in. Traditional art’s value tends to be defined based on who’s talking and why: which institution an artwork is in, or which artist’s work speaks to the most on-the-button narrative of a certain time period. But there are whole studies of art history dedicated to important non-canon artwork.
Web3 is moving the needle towards a canon informed by public consensus, which is trackable and verifiable online. However, it’s gone wrong in many ways so far—to the extent that I wonder if it’s actually just replicating the traits of existing systems. Even Beeple’s historic sale is likely based on a high token flip that crossed into NFTs to avoid taxes.
So, if the origin story itself exposes an issue with the word “value,” where do you find the humanistic side of the story? To me, the intention behind tokenizing something is more important than the thing itself. I’m interested in intention, rebellion, and people who are trying to shift this idea of value. Mostly, I’m really interested in money moving towards things with compassion and innovation at their forefront.
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