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This new startup aims to build the first ‘decentralized, physical museum’

Arkive will buy artworks selected by its members and lend them to existing museums around the world for display.

This new startup aims to build the first ‘decentralized, physical museum’
[Image: courtesy of Arkive]

An organization called Arkive, which launched out of stealth mode on Wednesday, aims to use the power of the internet to build what it calls the first decentralized, physical museum.

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Arkive admits people from around the world as members, with about 200 signed up so far and another 800 on a waiting list, and enables them to vote on what historical and artistic artifacts the museum will acquire. The museum intends to keep the items long-term but not to build a single site to host them. Instead, it will display them to the public through loans to other institutions. The museum currently admits about 50 new members per month, though it plans to ramp up this process in order to have about 10,000 signed up by the end of 2023.

For the museum’s first exhibit, the existing members acquired a historic bound patent filing for the ENIAC, a pioneering digital computer of the mid-20th century. “You would have none of this if you didn’t have the first computer,” says Arkive cofounder Tom McLeod, who previously headed the now-defunct storage and equipment rental platform Omni.

The second acquisition, a 1980s print titled “Seduction” by the artist Lynn Hershman Leeson, depicts a woman whose head has been replaced by a television set—itself a commentary on the relationship between art, gender, and technology.

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“Seduction” [Image: courtesy of Arkive]
Those two buys are slated to tour in an upcoming Arkive-sponsored traveling exhibition, and after that they’ll likely be housed at appropriate public museums, effectively on long-term loan from Arkive, according to the organization.

“We don’t want it on anyone’s private walls,” McLeod says. “We want everything out.”

Future acquisitions, which will occur roughly every month, will focus on a periodically changing theme—the current theme, through the next six acquisitions, is “When Technology Was a Game Changer”—and will all be selected by Arkive members.

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“ENIAC” [Image: courtesy of Arkive]
At the moment, there’s no fee for membership, with the early art acquisitions funded from the roughly $9.7 million in VC funding secured by Arkive, though the organization is likely to charge money for various levels of subscriptions and events in the future. Would-be members are asked to fill out a broadly worded application that asks about their occupations and hobbies. McLeod says early members include former gallery buyers, museum curators, and collectors of everything from rare books to trading cards.

Members communicate via Discord and cast their votes using their Ethereum wallets—McLeod says the technology could potentially be opened up to other organizations in the future—and there’s talk of launching NFTs tied to membership. But Arkive seems to have plans to avoid some of the issues that have plagued previous attempts to democratize major art and artifact purchases (see: the failed effort to buy an early copy of the U.S. Constitution, and the online consortium that paid an unexpectedly high amount for director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s pitch to adapt Dune, perhaps under the mistaken belief the document came with the actual movie rights).

[Image: courtesy of Arkive]
McLeod says Arkive will try to work through connections with sellers like galleries rather than going to public auctions, and he anticipates those connections will only increase in number as more art aficionados pursue membership. Galleries will ideally also gain from some publicity as members consider works for purchase even if they don’t make the cut, and the works they sell will potentially get more attention from the sale and subsequent publicity. Arkive hosted a public Twitter Spaces conversation with “Seduction” artist Leeson, as well as a members-only Zoom Q&A, he says.

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Arkive’s policy of lending out works to existing museums to display should also eliminate a lot of storage-related costs. Not having a single location will also give Arkive more flexibility than a traditional museum in what to acquire, McLeod suggests. And while Arkive may like any museum occasionally sell off works for various purposes, McLeod says the organization plans to hold on to ownership of the majority of its acquisitions, he says.

“We’d like to call this a permanent collection,” he says.

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About the author

Steven Melendez is an independent journalist living in New Orleans.

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