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In Venice, Beeple Patron 1OF1 Collection Introduces Web3 Phenom Sam Spratt to the Art World



In Venice, Beeple Patron 1OF1 Collection Introduces Web3 Phenom Sam Spratt to the Art World

Digital artist Sam Spratt is living the artist’s dream. This week, he celebrated the opening of “The Monument Game,” his first-ever art show. But it wasn’t a group show in some DIY space in New York, where he is based, like so many artists typically start out, but a solo exhibition in Venice, during the art world’s biggest event of the year—the Venice Biennale. How did Spratt–a virtually unknown name in the art world–make such a tremendous leap? With a little help from his friends, of course, including Ryan Zurrer, the venture capitalist turned digital art champion.

“Something the capital ‘A’ art world doesn’t recognize is the power of the collective, it sometimes leans into the cult of the individual,” Ryan Zurrer told ARTnews during a preview of the opening. “But this show is supported by the entire community around Sam.” 

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Spratt’s Venice exhibition was put on by 1OF1 Collection, Zurrer’s collecting fund set up to nurture digital artists working in the NFT space. Since its launch in 2021, 1OF1 has been uniquely successful in bridging the gap between the art world and the Web3 community. Last year, 1OF1 and the RFC Art Collection gifted Anadol’s Unsupervised – Machine Hallucinations – MoMA to the museum, after nearly a year on view in the Gund Lobby. Zurrer also arranged the first museum presentations of Beeple’s HUMAN ONE, a seven-foot-tall kinetic sculpture based on video works, showing it first at Castello di Rivoli in Italy and the M+ Museum in Hong Kong, before sending it to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas. 

With “The Monument Game,” Zurrer is once again placing digitally native art at the center of the art world. While Anadol and Beeple had large cultural footprints prior to Zurrer’s patronage, Spratt is far earlier in his career. But, what attracted Zurrer, he said, was the artist’s shrewd approach to building a dedicated, participatory audience for his work. He did so by making his art a game. 

“When I first started looking at NFTs, I spent a long time just figuring out who the players were,” Spratt told ARTnews. “The auctions were like stories in themselves, I could see people’s friends bidding, almost ceremonially, to give the auction some energy, and then other people would come in, and it would get competitive, emotional.”

Spratt released his first three NFTs on the platform Nifty Gateway in October 2021. The sale of those works, the first from his series LUCI, was accompanied by a giveaway of a free NFT to every person who put in a bid. Zurrer had been one of those underbidders (for the work Birth of Luci). While Spratt said the derivative NFTs were basically worthless, he wanted to give something back to each bidder. Zurrer, and others it seems, appreciated the gesture and Spratt quickly gained a following in the Web3 space. The offerings he gave, called Skulls of Luci, became Sam’s dedicated collectors that now go by The Council of Luci. 47 editions were given out and Spratt held back three.

All the works from LUCI are on view at the Docks Cantiere Cucchini, a short walk from the Arsenale, past a rocking boat that doubles as a fruit and vegetable market and over a wooden bridge. Though NFTs typically bring to mind glitching screens and monkey cartoons (ala Bored Ape Yacht Club), the ten works on view depict apes in a detailed, painterly style and emit a soft glow. Taking cues from photography installations, 1OF1 ditched screens in favor of prints mounted on lightboxes. 

 “We don’t want it to look like a Best Buy in here,” said Zurrer.

Several works on view at “Sam Spratt: The Monument Game” at the Docks Cantiere Pietro Cucchini in Venice.

Image courtesy 1OF1. Photography by Anna Blubanana studio.

Each work represents a chapter in a fantasy world that Spratt dreamed up. Though there’s no book of lore to refer to, there seems to be some Planet of the Apes story at play in which an intelligent ape lives alongside humans, babies, and ape-human hybrids. Spratt received an education in oil painting at Savannah College of Art and Design and he credits that technical training with his ability to bring warmth and detail to the digital works. He and the team often say that his art historical references harken to Renaissance and Baroque art, though the aesthetics—to my eye—seem to pull from commercial illustration and concept art. That isn’t too surprising given that this was the environment that Spratt started off in after graduating SCAD in 2010. 

“After school I was confronted with the reality that for a digital artist the only path was commercial,” Spratt said. 

He did quite well on that path, producing album covers for Childish Gambino, Janelle Monae, and Kid Cudi and bagging clients like Marvel, StreetEasy, and Netflix. Spratt also enjoys a huge audience of fans who have followed him as he’s migrated from Facebook to Tumblr to Twitter and Instagram, posting his hyper-realistic fan-art on each platform. Despite the apparent success, Spratt spoke of the work with bitterness. 

“I was a gun for hire. A mimic, hired to be 30% me and 70% someone else,” he said.

Spratt’s personal life blew up when he turned 30 and he traced some of the mistakes he made in his relationships with the fact that he had spent so much of his career “telling other people’s stories.” NFTs seemed like a way out of commercial illustration and a way into an original art practice. 

For his latest piece in the LUCI series, Spratt digitally painted a massive landscape set in this ape-human world titled The Monument Game. For the piece, Spratt initially sold NFTs that would turn 209 collectors into “players” (since another edition of 256 NFTs was given to the Council to “curate” new champions”). Each player would then be allowed to make an observation about the painting. The Council of Luci would vote on which three observations were best, and those three Players would receive one of the Skulls of Luci NFTs that Spratt held back. By creating these tiers of engagement, with his Council and player structure, Spratt pushes digital collectors to give the kind of care to his work that more traditional collectors do.

A work at “Sam Spratt: The Monument Game” at the Docks Cantiere Pietro Cucchini in Venice.

Image courtesy 1OF1. Photography by Anna Blubanana studio.

“Jeff Koons said that the average person looks at a work of art for twenty seconds,” Lukas Amacher, 1OF1’s Artistic Director and the curator of the show, told ARTnews. “Sam has found a way to get people to engage in his work for much longer.” 

The game Spratt has designed for the Venice exhibition might seem too gamified to fit the art world’s notion of art, but as Amacher and Zurrer suggest, in the Web3 environment, value is built by finding alternative ways to create investment and attention in what are typically immaterial digital artifacts. And it’s working. Thus far, the LUCI series has generated $1.4 million in primary sales and about $690,000 in additional secondary volume. The challenge now, as it has been for the past three years, is to see if art’s gatekeepers will take this work seriously. 

At the presentation of The Monument Game in Venice, a screen sits in front of the mounted work. Participants can click on the painting on the screen and write down their observations of the work in front of them, no NFT required. The first observation came from star curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the director of Castello di Rivoli and curator of Documenta 15: a tribute to late art dealer Marian Goodman. The second was from Zurrer. Who’s next?

“Sam Spratt: The Monument Game” is on view until June 21 at the Docks Cantiere Pietro Cucchini in Venice.

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