Jennifer McCoy, a professor in the Brooklyn College Art Department, and her husband, Kevin McCoy, an associate professor in the Department of Art and Art Professions at New York University, have been creating celebrated works that marry film, installations, new media, and technology for more than two decades. Recently, they were approached by the Whitney Museum of American Art about a project.
“At the time, we had also been thinking about how art moves in the art world and who controls it,” says Jennifer, explaining how much influence museum board members and moneyed arts enthusiasts often have in deciding what a museum will collect. “It’s wonderful that museums have their doors open and we can buy more and more expensive tickets to see the art on display, but it’s the same circle of interest that defines what you see there.”
The McCoys found that system problematic. So they decided to donate a piece of their work, a three-minute 16mm film called Public Key/Private Key, to the Whitney and open its ownership up to 50 people who filled out a ledger on the museum’s website with essays on why they were interested in being a donor of record. Those chosen received digital certificates based on a blockchain—the technology used in cryptocurrencies—to ensure the uniqueness of the transaction. They were also given a print that is a collage of different still frames from the film.
Public Key/Private Key is a relatively simple short with a 1960s experimental feel that features a woman walking up a set of stairs with numbers embedded in them while a voiceover riffs on labor, Bitcoin, and numbers.
Those who applied for ownership ranged from blockchain buffs to academic theorists to “I just want to donate something to the Whitney, and this is the only way I will ever be able to say that I did,” as Jennifer describes them. (The final donors of record include two Brooklyn College professors—David Grubbs of the Performance and Interactive Media Arts program and Jennifer L. Ball of the Art Department.)
Jennifer, who has taught at Brooklyn College for more than 20 years, says that it was exciting to bring a more diverse group into the process; she also noted that the art world has a long way to go before museum collections truly reflect a more varied perspective.
“This is not a huge step in that direction, but there have been very few efforts to do anything like this,” she says. “It’s a little foot in the door, maybe.”