SuperRare is a digital art market on the Ethereum blockchain that has distinguished itself from platforms like OpenSea by offering a more curated experience.
John Crain is the co-founder and CEO. Crain was born in Manhattan but grew up surfing and skateboarding in San Diego. His accent and demeanor give away his SoCal upbringing. I had a chance to meet him in Miami during the week of Art Basel 2021.
SuperRare had a booth at an art event called SCOPE, which was held right on the beach. I met Crain in front of the booth. He was dressed in a black t-shirt and a backwards baseball cap. He could easily pass for someone who’d been surfing all day.
"I'll always remember my first kickflip,” he said not too far into the conversation.
We had originally planned on walking to a nearby hotel to conduct the interview in a quiet coffee shop, but he suggested that we go outside to the terrace of SCOPE's cafe/bar. Gulls flew everywhere while event goers around us drank and chatted. Every now and then I caught a strong whiff of marijuana.
Despite being the founder of one of the NFT space's premier platforms, Crain doesn't exude any arrogance or condescension. Throughout the entire interview, he remained calm, casual and relaxed.
Background and upbringing
I started by asking him about his upbringing and background.
While majoring in structural engineering and architecture in college, Crain studied programming and website design in his spare time.
"Around halfway through my undergrad degree, I realized that I didn't really want to be a structural engineer. My nature was too social and entrepreneurial."
"Besides," he said, "I graduated in 2010, two years after the financial crisis, and there were no structural engineering jobs anyway."
Crain entered a graduate school program in what was then called "computational science," but he had already started making money making wordpress sites. At some point, he realized that he was already employable and didn't want to keep paying money to go to school.
I asked him how he first got into crypto. Before responding, he took me on a slight detour. We travel back to 2008. Crain is sitting in a GE Econ class as an undergrad. His professor reviews and discusses Wall Street Journal headlines for every class.
One day, the professor, who's normally a nice guy, is visibly upset. He talks about how banks are stealing from people. He says they have zero accountability.
This piques Crain's interest. Crain, who had no interest in finance or economics up to that point, starts to go down his own rabbit hole. He starts reading furiously about economics, particularly Austrian economics.
Crain then asks himself a simple but profound question: If an engineer designed a bridge that collapsed, he'd go to jail. But where's the accountability in finance ?
Fast-forward to 2013. Crain is in New York. He hears about Bitcoin, but isn't necessarily enthralled. Many of the concepts surrounding Bitcoin still elude him.
"I'd read about it, but was still pretty confused at that point, but I did like the idea of a math-based money system."
He stumbled upon a Bitcoin meetup in New York, where he met people who were more fanatical in their support of Bitcoin and the idea of a decentralized ledger.
"I asked a ton of questions, and I finally got it. It was mind blowing."
After his lightbulb moment, Crain immediately logged into Coinbase, bought some Bitcoin, and started playing with it. He tinkered around with open-source wallets. Through the New York Bitcoin meetup he also learned about Ethereum.
Lifelong interest in art
Crain actually went on to work for the blockchain software firm ConsenSys for a while, but the job didn't satisfy his passion for art.
Although he's never formally studied art, Crain says he's always been a doodler. Growing up, he'd buy skateboard decks specifically for their graphics, which he'd try to mimic in his personal sketches.
When he discovered digital art, he was captivated straight away. It offered a new way to approach and think about art.
"It was like doodling on steroids. Try to draw a hundred circles in real life, it's a laborious process that’ll take forever, but with a digital tool you can do it in a second."
Crain's circle of friends has always included graphic designers and animators as well as people from more traditional disciplines. However, he found it strange that there was this invisible boundary between animators and the contemporary art world. As far as he was concerned, a lot of digital artists and animators did interesting work for art's sake, but they weren't taken seriously by the contemporary art world.
Foundational principles of SuperRare
He eventually found himself asking, "How could someone collect digital or generative art?"
When he saw Dapper Labs developing the standard for digital collectibles, he was thrilled. When the ERC-20 token standard came out, he decided to take the leap and build his own way of collecting and trading digital art.
"Basically, I wanted to build something that I personally wanted to use. I wanted to collect digital art and trade it with my friends."
The origins of SuperRare sprouted from this simple idea.
When he first launched his platform, however, Crain found the content on other platforms too indiscriminate.
"You could see people just drawing obscenities and tokenizing them. The idea of SuperRare was that it had to be about digital art. We didn't just want people taking pictures of their breakfast and tokenizing it."
He envisioned a more curated and thoughtful experience. If you're a collector and there are a trillion NFTs out there, you need a curator. You need a layer of trust and verification.
"Collectors want to know that their NFT is from a real artist and a real collection, that it's not just some person that grabbed a bunch of images from Google who's now claiming it as their art."
Lately, Crain has been emphasizing the need for more decentralization. But how does a platform that's branded itself as offering a more curated, exclusive experience become more decentralized? Isn't curation essentially an act of centralization?
Crain looks at decentralization as a way to scale up and expand SuperRare's ecosystem.
"Our curation team can only look at so many art works."
This is the idea behind SuperRare's Spaces, which are essentially independent galleries within SuperRare that are run by curators that have been vetted by both SuperRare's governance council and its community of token holders.
Spaces allow for new voices and art that would never make it in if a single team at SuperRare handled all the curation.
"Spaces is a way to empower other curators who have different backgrounds and tastes than I have.”
2021: the year of NFTs
The discussion shifted to the explosion in the NFT market throughout the past year. 2021 was the year for NFTs breaking into the mainstream? So why 2021?
Crain talks about how nobody really took VR seriously, even though the technology has been around for a while. COVID, however, changed everything. All of a sudden, major brands were clamoring to build a VR gallery or some sort of virtual experience for consumers.
Online experiences went from being optional to necessary.
"Before COVID, people questioned whether online auctions would even work. I don't think anybody doubts them now."
2021 also offered some major PR moments, such as Christie's Beeple sale, which got attention from even the most ardent skeptics. All of a sudden, every major media outlet was writing about NFTs. What are they? Why should you care? How can they be worth so much?
Response to NFT skeptics
Mainstream or not, however, there are still many skeptics. Why would I pay for an image that anybody can see? Digital rarity is an oxymoron. It's all just a fad, a bubble celebs are getting into for a quick buck. What's Crain's response to such reactions?
"I think a lot of the NFT skeptics haven't thought too deeply about the experience of collecting anything."
For instance, he collects a bunch of skateboard decks because he likes their graphics. He doesn't ever plan on riding them. To him, it's about being part of a larger community and supporting skateboarding itself. He shows his decks to friends with shared interests. You feel like you're a part of something.
Crain brings up CryptoPunk trolls who will right-click and save images of CryptoPunks and upload them to their Twitter feeds, saying things like "Ha! Now I own it too!"
"Everybody in the CryptoPunk community just looks at that behavior and says, 'Why would you want to post a CryptoPunk that you don't own?' They clearly haven't thought about the community-building aspect of NFTs and the psychology behind collecting something."
Okay, NFTs are more than just JPEGs, and they definitely tap into the ancient psychology of ownership. But there's still a long way to go in terms of overall adoption. What needs to happen for more mainstream adoption? How do you recruit the analog folks who like their material, physical experiences?
"Honestly, people who are really stubbornly analog might never show up to the community. But one barrier is providing a more seamless user experience. A good display solution is still an unsolved problem."
Crain thinks that once people who effortlessly show off their NFTs and digital art, more people will come onboard.
In terms of lowering the price point for people who can't afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars on art, he points to fractionalization as a potential solution.
"I think we need to provide people with the option of purchasing and owning part of an artwork. Art doesn't necessarily have to be owned by one person or entity. It can be like a company, where several people own shares in it, and vote on how to store it, where it's stored, when and how people can view it."
In the end, Crain says, regardless of what people think, every piece of content and IP is going to be recorded on some type of distributed ledger. Maybe they'll be called NFTs, or maybe they'll be called something different. Either way, NFTs have revolutionized how artists view and manage their creations, and how fans can collect and trade them.
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