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In September 2022 I wrote an article about why the famed Abstract Expressionist Frank Stella was making an NFT which centred around Stella’s well-documented involvement in advocating for artists’ resale rights. Frank Stella’s Geometries grew out of his early 1990s involvement with Artists Rights Society (ARS).Founded in 1987, ARS represents artist rights through copyright, licensing, and monitoring visual artists in the United States. Its lobbying efforts centre on the ART Act, which would mandate resale royalties, and the Artist-Museum Partnership Act, which would allow for tax deductions when an artist donates to museums and other public institutions.
To Katarina Feder, the NFT and digital art was a natural growth of the society’s original mission. This led her to found Arsnl Art, the digital platform for ARS, last year—building on the society’s 35-year legacy of promoting and protecting artists’ intellectual property.
For the last five years, Feder has been director of business development at ARS. For the last three years she has maintained a monthly advice column on Artnet, “Know Your Rights”, where she answers questions on matters of intellectual property and more.
I spoke with Feder about how Frank Stella’s 2022 NFT drop was received and Arsnl’s latest project with the quilters of Gee’s Bend.
Gretchen Andrew: How did the Frank Stella drop go and how was it received by the traditional art world?
Katarina Feder: The Frank Stella drop went remarkably well. We were incredibly lucky that Frank and his studio trusted us with this project, especially considering that it was our first one. But the long-standing relationship with ARS gave them the confidence and the results were amazing. We sold out all 2,100 tokens and, importantly, brought in resale royalties for secondary sales, something that Frank has been championing for decades.
Of course, there was some anxiety, we might call it, regarding the reception that the sale would get from the traditional art world. But by and large, the reception was outstanding, with a major museum acquisition and incredible critical coverage, like the piece you wrote for The Art Newspaper. Frank really has been a pioneer of new technologies—he began working with computer-aided design (CAD) and 3D printing in the late 1980s / early 1990s. The fact that his sculptural practice always relied on these technologies was really a catalyst for the project and, I believe, one of the main reasons that it was so well received by the traditional art community.
GA: How did NFT collectors outside the traditional art world react to it?
KF: Of course, if you are selling NFTs you can’t forget about the NFT collectors! While some were familiar with [Stella’s] work, many were not. To contextualise his work, we created a process video and had an amazing curatorial statement by [the art analytics expert] Jason Bailey. These digital collectors fell in love with Frank and his work and many of them created their own derivatives, something that Frank allowed for. We showed some of these to Frank and he loved them.
GA: Your next exhibition is also unusual in the world of NFTs. Who are the quilters of Gee’s Bend?
KF: The quilters of Gee’s Bend are a quilting collective whose members hail from a tiny plot of lowland couched in a bend of the Alabama River. It was once a plantation, and today virtually all of the residents of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, are descendants of the enslaved people that worked the land. Many bear and share the slaveowner’s last name: Pettway.
For generations, the town remained remote. The only road was paved in 1967, around the same time that its ferry service, the most direct way in and out, was discontinued in an attempt to prevent its residents from crossing the river to register to vote. Although this isolation all but ensured that the quilters had little or no exposure to the “art world”, the works of the benders remarkably evolved. Lacking in other resources, the quilters created geometric patterns out of old breeches, cornmeal sacks, and whatever else happened to be around. The women would see each other’s work on clotheslines or in their neighbor houses, prompting a legacy of call and response. This sense of chance and improvisation can be felt in their quilts which pulsate with rhythm and color.
GA: How did you hear about the quilters of Gee’s Bend?
KF: Like many, I first learned about the quilters in the early 2000s, when they finally gained long overdue recognition for their remarkable contributions to art. It was around this time that Artists Rights Society (ARS) began representing the intellectual property rights of the quilters, helping to insure that the woman would have proper oversight, as well as financial compensation, for the reproduction of their works. Since then, the quilters have seen scores of successful commercial partnerships. Recent examples include a quilt line for Keeco Home exclusive to Macy’s, as well as a clothing collaboration with Greg Lauren.
Today Gee’s Bend quilts can be found in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, along with countless other institutions.
GA: How did the Gee Bend quilters come to get an NFT-based digital art show? Tell us about who Anna Lucia is and why she is involved with the quilters
KF: Anna Lucia is a pioneering generative artist who weaves traditional textile techniques with modern technology, creating a space where “logic and creativity collide.” Finding connections with female textile artists who have been overlooked throughout history, her 2021 ArtBlocks project Loom drew inspiration from the female artists of the Bauhaus movement who were often relegated to weaving as other disciplines were deemed “inappropriate”.
GA: And together with the Gee Bend quilters she created Generations. What is Generations?
KF: Generations focuses on the works of four of the most prolific quilters- Louisiana Bendolph, Loretta Pettway Bennett, Essie Bendolph Pettway, and Lucy Pettway, represented by her daughter and fellow quilter, Mary Margarett Pettway.
The show embraces the polyrhythmic call-and-response style of the Gee’s Bend: the quilters shared their process with Anna Lucia, who in turn created an algorithm to generate digital quilts that share key elements with the source, yet are unique and surprising in their own way.
Greg Liburd, the activist and co-founder of Refraction DAO, who wrote the curatorial statement for the show, explains: “Generations fosters a dialog between handcrafted and digital art through the blockchain, immutably and universally conveying an essential history transcending bloodlines. The aim is to disrupt the centuries-old cycle of Black culture appropriation by enabling enduring attribution and equitable exposure to the value created by the works.”
GA: How did Arsnl get involved with the show?
KF: Arsnl actually received a request, vis-à-vis ARS, to license the works of several of the members of Gee’s Bend for a digital art collaboration. The more we spoke to the original organisers of the show—who helped us see it to fruition—the more we all realised that Arsnl was really the correct home for this project. The decades-long relationship that ARS has fostered between the quilters and the Souls Grown Deep Foundation started us off with a certain level of trust that was probably impossible for someone else to duplicate. And it just took off from there.
GA: What were the challenges in bringing a collaboration between digital and traditional artists to fruition?
KF: We wanted to create interesting and nuanced, worthy of collaboration, while maintaining the integrity of the source material. That’s no easy task. But Anna Lucia understood this right away and used it to develop her technique. As she puts it, “it was clear to me that transferring the quilts’ depth and warmth to the digital realm would be impossible. Something would always get lost. Therefore, I honed in on the patterns and colours. At first glance, the quilts may seem simple. But I found great complexity in the patterns when describing them in logic and code and researching the shared language among all of them. It brings me great joy that the quiltmakers selected the final outputs.”
GA: Quilting is often a communal activity, with many quilters gathering together to work on a project. How important was the social aspect of quilting to this work with Anna Lucia and Gee’s Bend?
KF: Capturing the communal aspect of quilting was essential to this show. The collaborative process between Anna Lucia and the quilters took place over the better part of a year. Watching this dialogue was fascinating.
As artworks that live on the blockchain, the collection also fosters a direct dialogue between the artists and a wider audience of digital collectors. The geometric patterns of the quilts are, for the purpose of this show, the analogue version of Anna Lucia’s code, and we felt it important to include physical works to contextualise this interplay.
Ultimately, the sale includes digital quilts based on physical threads as well as the physical quilts by Essie Bendolphy Pettway, Loretta Pettway, and Mary Margaret Pettway.
Additionally, Mary Margaret created a physical quilt as a response to one of Anna Lucia’s outputs. This digital/ physical is also offered in the sale. This quilt served as inspiration for an additional “utility,” as collectors of the digital works will have the opportunity to get their NFTs made into miniature physical quilts by the quilters. This will be done on approval and at cost, with 100% of the proceeds going to the quilters.
GA: When and where does this show go live?
KF: The pre-sale goes live on Wednesday, 17 May, at 12pm EST. The public sale begins 24 hours later, on Thursday 18 May at 12pm EST. It is exclusively on Arsnl.art. All works can be purchased with Ethereum or with a credit card.
In celebration, we will be hosting a live event at LUME studios in NYC on opening day, Wednesday 17 May, at 6pm. This live event will feature the new digital quilts by Anna Lucia, as well as physical quilts by Loretta Pettway, Essie Bendolph Pettway, and Mary Margaret Pettway.