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Public Key / Private Key

Jennifer and Kevin McCoy's Public Key / Private Key explores museums' ownership of art and the role of donors in building museum collections.

NFT and Film


For this project, the artists donated an original artwork, a 16mm film starring actor Gillian Chadsey, to the Whitney Museum's Special Collection on behalf of members of the public. Visitors to the project page could register their names and explain why they would be interested in becoming a donor. Fifty of them were chosen by the artists on the basis of the originality of their submission. The acquisition of an artwork for a museum collection typically ends the work's market life, permanently associating the donor with the gift. With Public Key / Private Key, the artists extend that market life: each donor receives a digital certificate, which they are free to transfer, gift, or sell at will. The digital certificates are based on a blockchain, a technology also used in cryptocurrencies to ensure the uniqueness of a transaction. The blockchain becomes a method of recording the work's provenance as the list of fifty donors evolves through the transfer of the digital certificates over time.

The changing list of donors will be tracked for six months on The Public Key / Private Key film also has a blockchain key embedded in it and, should it be shown as part of an exhibition at the Whitney Museum, the first audience member to take note of and submit the key to the artists will become the fifty-first donor of record. Public Key / Private Key complicates the traditional relationship between museum, benefactor, and audience, turning the public into donors as well as viewers, able to trade and transfer their title. (text from the Whitney Museum's online exhibition "Public Key / Private Key" 2019)

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