How to preserve digital art

Collecting digital artworks is one thing, preserving them is quite another. What happens when digital artpieces become obsolete? And how do you present digital art at home?

Sophie Campbell, guest author
10 minutes
Flower building facade

It's so simple, buying a painting. You like it, you buy it and there it sits on your wall, possibly for 500 years if you are a Renaissance prince, otherwise until you sell it. Not so the new kid on the block in terms of art investment - works in digital formats or mixed media that sit loosely under the umbrella of "time-based media" or "media art".

Technology makes art age fast

In terms of public art, digital art is nothing new. In 2018, New York's Whitney Museum of Modern Art staged a show examining coding, computers and art back to 1965. Tate Modern in London has just held the first major exhibition of Bruce Nauman's work in 20 years, including early black and white video work, and its own time-based media collection - video, 35mm slide, film, audio, computer-based, 360-degree video, real-time 3D, virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality - dates back over 60 years.

Collect digital art
If you live in a house and not an art gallery, how do you display your digital art collection? © Jennifer Steinkamp, Eye Catching 1. Courtesy of the artist and Lehman Maupin Gallery.

Artists such as Nauman, Gilbert and George, Jennifer Steinkamp, Gillian Wearing, Olaf Eliasson and Bill Viola have been busy for decades. From early works on VHS or Betamax there's now a flowering of new media used by a generation of digital natives.

Here's the problem for collectors. When technology is moving apace, how do you keep up? What happens when - not if - the platform used to create the work becomes obsolete? If you live in a house, not an art gallery, how do you display your collection?

Bringing digital art home

"Digital art became of interest to me around 10 years ago with collectors I was working with," says Patricia Shea, a Los Angeles/New York-based art advisor and appraiser whose digital platform ArtPlay launched in 2015, "We'd collected these artists' works but they had a whole history of video art that people didn't really know about back then."

Making it easier for collectors to live with and enjoy this sort of work drove Shea to adapt her business, starting with an early client and digital enthusiast, the television executive and contemporary art donor Blake Byrne, who died in 2019 aged 83.

Patricia Shea
Patricia Shea helps collectors keep up with the fast pace of technology. © Patricia Shea

"Blake had boxes of old tapes and CDs and other media art that he could no longer see because all the formats had changed," she recalls. "The first thing we did for him was digitize the whole collection so he had a single app cloud interface where he could select a work and it would come up instantly on his giant, 80-inch monitor." 

Migrating work is a key part of her business - if you don't render it future proof, there's a point at which that work will be irretrievable - and for this she works with specialist archival labs. She deals with any physical material presented as part of the work and factors in the artist's intentions if possible. These may include disintegration: remember Banksy's work Girl With A Balloon, which sold at Sotheby's for 1.4 Million USD, then shredded itself? 

Collect digital art
Jennifer Steinkamp's digital work on ArtPlay. © www.artplay.com

She also appraises work for court cases, holds estates - including Byrne's - on ArtPlay for display or secondary sale, deals with provenance and certification (digital works usually sell in editions, like physical prints) and works with architects and designers to select digital works for their clients" properties. Collections are secure at every stage, from back up on massive servers to consumption via pin-sharp, rip-proof AppleTV. 

With many wealthy collectors already in possession of huge video screens inside their houses, beside their swimming pools or in outdoor spaces, it's easy for them to access their pieces via a menu, choosing what to show when or creating playlists. Shea herself has a video wall at home that she uses to show guests how it can look. It brings to mind the Medicis and their purpose-built camerini of paintings in the Cinquecento.

Digital art is becoming more expensive

That said, the market for digital art is minute. Hiscox, the specialist art insurers, reckon no more than 5% of the 65 billion USD global art market, probably less, but digital art hogs the limelight in column inches, so its media presence is disproportionate. 

Edmond Belamy
Edmond Belamy's portrait is the first AI artwork to be offered at a major auction. © Obvious / Christie's

It's barely on the radar for auction houses. "We're a secondary market, so the piece has to have been owned before it comes to us," says a spokesperson for Christie's in London, "But with an expanding group of younger collectors, this will change." Their 2018 sale of Edmond Belamy's La Famille de Belamy, the first AI artwork to be offered at a major auction (estimate 10'000 USD), made 432'500 USD, and recent sales have included a virtual reality work by Marina Abramovic and the first sale recorded on block-chain.

Patricia Shea has noticed the change. "Clients are more interested in buying new works when they see that over the past five years the prices of works by top media artists have doubled and tripled," she says, "Once they've bought a piece for 50'000 USD and sold it for 100'000 USD they sit up and say, "this is an overlooked market."

A growing market

That secondary market will grow as digital natives, undaunted by technology, move to collect as well create. Already there is a bewildering plethora of artists, artworks and online galleries to choose from in a global art world no longer confined to a small elite in a handful of cities and untroubled by physical, cultural or geographical boundaries. 

Hence ArtPlay's curation of work by new and established artists, private previews for both tiers of collector members and a free-access area of the platform aimed at new investors, or people who want to explore the market for the first time.

After all, it's the 21st century: why wouldn't you have moving art on your walls?

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