Old masters in a digital guise
© iStock
January 2023

Old masters in a digital guise

By Björn Carstens
New technologies are sweeping through the often dusty museums and making the art world fit for the future. By merging oil and canvas with bits and bytes, old masters are conquering young markets along the way.

When Michelangelo Buonarroti painted his masterpiece “The Holy Family” (Tondo Doni) on a round wooden panel at the beginning of the 16th century, he used a brush and oil paint. As was the case for almost all of his peers at that time. More than 500 years later, Italian pixel artists, in cooperation with the world-famous Florentine art collection Uffizi, recreated Michelangelo’s painting as an ultra-high-resolution image file encoded with a specially-developed process. A special decoder and an app are needed to make the avatar of the masterpiece visible on a monitor that is also in ultra-high resolution. In addition to an analogue certificate signed by the German museum director Eike Schmidt, this elaborate encryption guarantees the authenticity and provenance of the digital copy on the one hand and also protects it from being manipulated. Because there are a total of nine digital copies of the “Holy Family”, one cannot talk about them as unique specimens, but one can speak of them being very rare collector’s items – and on top of that, they are officially approved by the Uffizi. Art lovers are prepared to dig deep into their pockets. A Tondo Doni avatar changed hands for 140,000 euros. The Uffizi and Cinello, the company responsible for the digitization, split the price. For museums in particular, this is an interesting source of income on the side, especially taking into account the lack of primary income in many places due to the Corona restrictions. Apart from the rights of the digitization, the art houses don’t have to contribute anything else – they only collect. It’s no wonder that Cinello also works with other world-class museums.

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Schmidt, the director of the Uffizi Gallery, who is considered an “enfant terrible” in the art scene, likes to develop new models for thinking about how to monetize digital possibilities in museums. Not only for his own museum, but also in general. First and foremost, of course, in the market of the so-called non-fungible tokens, or NFTs for short. These forgery-proof digital certificates stored in a blockchain are currently giving wings to the art scene.

Schmidt can also imagine selling blockchain-based minority shares in physical works of art with participatory arangements. Shareholders can, for example, secure the right to host a dinner in an exclusive area under the Tondo Doni. Also conceivable are revenue shares in special exhibitions or even the sale of licenses. Schmidt: “I think this is an interesting possibility. Even if the participatory rights would still have to be precisely defined.” The new digital way of thinking is not only about tapping into fresh sources of income, it’s above all about the visibility of art and the vast world of the internet with all of its associated technologies for networking and interaction.

Because there are hardly any areas left that do not have a part to play in the story of digitalization in order to keep up in a world in which everything is networked with everything else and everyone with everyone else. Museums have long since ceased to be merely archiving and exhibition institutions that exclusively collect and preserve. They also have to face the innovation-oriented challenges of digital cultural management.

Medici treasury goes digital

The Uffizi is one of the pioneers in this field. Not only as an NFT seller, but also to the social media world. The Medici Treasury is opening its doors without reservations. On the galleries’ Tiktok page, one can see videos in which the painting of the young Pope Leo X performs the “Happy Song” with animated faces. What some art lovers would turn up their noses at, seems to appeal to the target group. Over 140,000 followers and 1.6 million likes don’t lie. “If we want to get in touch with the younger generation, we have to speak their language,” explains Schmidt. The Uffizi has been active on Instagram for years. The museum regularly invites visitors to online events where philosophical discussions take place. Keyword interaction – many of the more than 700,000 followers now actively participate in intellectual debates. The simple equation behind it: Every user equals a potential visitor to the museum.

Old masters in a digital guise
Uffizi Museum director Eike Schmidt in front of Michelangelo’s masterpiece (pictured left) “The Holy Family” (Tondo Doni)© Getty

“The more present a artwork is in the digital world, the stronger the demand for the physical original.”

Eike Schmidt, museum director of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence

Schmidt is not afraid that the art that is displayed digitally could cost them in terms of “analogue” visitors in person: “It is already foreseeable that the metaverse will significantly increase the longing to see the original artwork. The more present a piece is in the digital world, the stronger the demand for the physical original. The aura of a digitally reproduced work of art is growing due to digitalization,” Schmidt is quoted as saying in an interview with Handelsblatt. Just because museums can also be visited online, doesn’t mean that they do not fall away as physical attractions where one can experience art first hand.

Making art accessible worldwide

All over the world, museums and exhibition halls have long since ceased to perceive digital formats as a threat, but instead they are using them as opportunities. If you click on the art platform Google Arts & Culture, wherein more than 2,000 museums worldwide are already participating, you will experience virtual tours in the manner of “Street view”. For some exhibits, you can view high-resolution photographs and detailed information. At the same time, Google Arts & Culture is also a form of archiving and it is making art accessible – after all, who can visit thousands of museums around the globe in a lifetime?

The graphic collection of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, which has digitized 50,000 works of art and made them freely accessible, takes a similar approach. “We make works by artists accessible that might otherwise remain undiscovered and put art into context. In this way, visitors automatically receive even more information and establish new connections between the works of art,” says Director Linda Schädler on the ETH homepage. In addition, digitalization brings further advantages: “In our case, the medium of the artwork is almost always paper, which means the pieces are sensitive. We have to keep them well protected from light by placing them in boxes. Digitization allows these artworks to be visible, even when they are not on display.”

There are many interactive exhibits to marvel at the Museum of Digital Art in Tokyo

If, on the other hand, someone was to pull the plug on the Museum of Digital Art in Tokyo, the art would no longer exist, because the paintings, sculptures or other exhibits that you can touch would no longer exist. Everything there is animated. 500 computers and just as many projectors ensure that the curators’ ideas come to life. Videos, light sculptures and mirror tricks are used. The visitors can lose themselves in the labyrinthine exhibition.

Museums still need paying visitors

Back to the Uffizi and the NFT as a source of income. The fact is: museums still need paying visitors: “With NFTs, we are dealing with a source of income that supplies an additional niche. Just as it was never possible for a museum to finance itself from the sale of postcards or plaster casts, it is equally impossible to imagine digital reproductions as one of the main sources of income today,” Schmidt explains.

He sees the greater potential in art created exclusively for the digital realm: “When we think of artworks that are created specifically for the digital world, the limitation and authentication through the blockchain naturally offer opportunities to finally make them collectible, tradable and also lendable. Sustainable business models have already emerged from this as far as individual artists and galleries are concerned,” Schmidt knows.

Art connoisseurs are anyway aware that the entry of bits and bytes into museums need not unsettle them. After all, it’s art’s very own task is change with the times.

Virtual concerts

Streamed concerts were nothing unusual in the past years of live deprivation, but now the stars of the international music scene are going one step further and playing digital shows as avatars in colorful gaming worlds. Like US superstar Ariana Grande or rap icon Travis Scott, whose digital appearances were performed in the popular video game “Fortnite”, backed by real live recordings. The audience, of course, also consisted of avatars. For old-fashioned socialized concertgoers, who have no desire for game consoles, the virtual reunion of ABBA would be more to their liking. Their band members, who are getting on in years in real life, have been on stage since the summer of 2022 as younger holograms of their own selves. On a gigantic screen with 65 million pixels, it looks as if the 1970s are saying hello again. The company Industrial Light & Magic has done a great job. Thousands of old 35 mm negatives of the band and countless hours of concert footage and TV appearances were scanned, analyzed and digitized. Hair, fingernails, make-up – every detail had to be right.

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