«NY: Gallery Tamas Banovich about Digital Art and the NFT Boom during the pandemic»

Von Julieta Schildknecht


Postmasters Gallery was founded 36 years ago by Magda Sawon and Tamas Banovich. Since then he established their gallery in Tribeca as a space for avantgarde art becoming himself one of the first gallerists worldwide to sell Digital Art.

Our conversation starts with Tamas Banovich explaining how the building was constructed in the beginning of 1900 and how the restorations were made after a fire accident. The gallery is located above a flood zone next to Chinatown. The area belonged mainly to artists many of which became international icons. The environmental artist Denis Oppenheim used to live in the same building where Postmasters Gallery is based.


The gallerist left Hungary’s in 1971 to study sculpture, architecture and set design in Poland. Artforum, Domus were already important art and design magazines and the only window into the western world. After graduating he decides to make a short visit to his Uncle and Aunt in California who were living since 1956 in America. The amazing theatre festivals were no longer a priority when he arrived in NYC during the summer of 1979 with US$ 200 in his pocket and a suitcase. He has been since then, according to him, “staying over on a ride over the moon that never ended”.


Everything was different in the western world. So different that if he didn’t work he could starve. It was the right timing to a steep learning curve. The feeling of being totally in control of his Life required more responsibilities. Coney Island’s view became a basement store front with a bunch of friends on West 21st street.

It was a transitional time for American artists initiating the pop culture which drastically transformed the entire perspective of art understanding. Dreamers like Malcolm MacLaren or The Velvet Underground fellows were giving clear signs of their subcultural thinking through punk rock. Music clubs were democratized. There were no VIP rooms and all classes and groups were merging in a wilde way during 24 hours. Luxury was accessible to all tribes. Everything was possible.

“It was basically all wonderful until AIDS came.” says Tamas Banovich.

There were a few established downtown galleries like Leo Castelli, Paula Cooper in Soho but the 80s explosion started in East Village, a wild dangerous place. Postmasters Gallery opened its doors in late 1984 on Avenue A. Everything seemed possible at the time. He could drive giant sculptures on top of an old station wagon, nobody cared, it was the way he used to interact with the city.


His wife Magda Sawon decided to open Postmasters Gallery, an experimental gallery in 1984. The endeavour was financed by an investor from the garment business. They had no idea in the western sense what an art gallery is but they knew they wanted to create a community of enlightened people. During the 80’s, art wasn’t about money. Except for a few like his gallery’s partner who was a business person. People like him created a market.
“Sometimes it takes years until some of the artists we represent were comprehended by what is called mainstream art scene.”


The middle class was collecting inexpensive works which today are sold for outrageous prices. The collectors not only supported the artists, they were their friends.
Artists weren’t wealthy. The word business was a dirty word in communist countries , we suddenly had to run a business.

Tamas Banovich wasn’t interested in making money. He and Magda Sawon knew that if they succeeded with their program ,their way of running the gallery, art collectors would come to buy their artists’s works. A gallery for them meant a way of participating in a more proactive way with the community creating culture. That was the right attitude and it remains after 36 years.

He tells that “you know, three months later, when our first client came, we had to go next door to an other gallery to ask for help because we didn’t know how to make an invoice.” Everybody was helping each other. We weren’t born business people but we had a survival instinct. Competition between galleries first came during the 90’s. During the 90’s we became independent.

We survived all the economic crises because we had basically no choice. “Our son was born when we started our gallery space on Greene Street in Soho. Nobody had children in the art world at the time”. “We took our child everywhere we went including the parties. He eventually became an expert art installer and spends a lot of time working for Guggenheim Museum.”
From 1995 the gallery had a very significant digital art program. The gallery curated the first digital art show in NY, “Can You Digit?”
Their groundbreaking arrived when The Metropolitan Museum acquired a work by artists Jennifer and Kevin McCoy.



“At the time of the pandemic, people suddenly withdrawn and started questioning social norms and structures.
The crypto world, there is certainly a decentralisation, I am not sure about democratisation.
The social behaviour is no longer being followed like before because people have to fear for their life.
This reminds me of the time, when I used to go to London. Everything was so weird and rigidly classist, and at the same time there was a kind of self-conscious working class trend of art and everything colliding and all the social programs and this archaic political system… It was so bizarre and after all it still exists. What will happen there with the old idea of Brexit of the upper classes? I wonder if the establishment can carry on. The political gamble ……the United Kingdom might fall apart. This was happening here in America as well. Trump thought he could govern with 30% of the wealthy population by rigging the system. In America there is never really just one center of power. It’s always decentralised. That’s the beauty and the strength of it. There isn’t one interest that can prevail. There are always people with different interests. There is always the struggle for power. I see Europe as a post feudal system still, functioning through social contracts. The system only works through pacts between upper and lower classes.”

For him there was never a real democratic government in its pure sense of the word. He continues: “art mirrors life. If I watch what is happening in real life I can easier understand what’s happening in the art world. . In our gallery we curate culture. The business is supporting this activity.”


Julieta Schildknecht: When you curate art, how do you translate digital art to your collectors?

Tamas Banovich: The art world… well, since our DNA is not based on exclusively servicing the collector class, our business consideration is important but is not always the decisive factor. It is of course a compromise. We work with collectors who are interested in art unknown.


JS: Isn’t there a difference between odd and weird, right?

TB: Yesterday on Clubhause, everybody was praising art fairs that it is the place to see the best new art, all in the context of NFTs, I could not stand it anymore, i intersected, It is a misconception to think that one can see the best of contemporary art there. Galleries bring art that sells , sells now, and that is not the courageous and experimental or digital art. This is an ossified system on both side of this kind of art consumption.



We speak about the actual art fair moment and the two years closure due to the pandemic. Galleries are online but haven’t paid anything to participate in the online fairs. The monetary losses must have been high because everything is for free, the organisers don’t want to loose the galleries interests in their art fairs. Many galleries that remained part of online art fairs have developed a new market niche others have lost clients. For the time being, art fairs like Art Basel Hong Kong, are opening locally to attend its chinese art market.


JS: Therefore local artists with the advance of the online demand, are becoming global and Global art fairs due to the pandemic are becoming local. Do you see a similar wave happening to the digital art meaning a demand increasing via NFTs?


TB: No! Because that market has matured now, the crypto market regardless of the pandemic already existed. People’s behaviour changed. It is a convergence of casualties, that’s all. Two days ago (14th of April), Coinbase became the first publicly traded crypto currency bank, their stock doubled the first day. That means that the crypto world has been validated. It means that all financial institutions and banks have to deal now with cryptocurrencies. The traditional art world, the auction houses, etc. don’t have enough expertise. Either they react now and learn fast or they will be left out of the new trend. On the other hand, the crypto art market is a reflexion of it because there is not much to buy with crypto money. Just like the other side of the art world we are used to, fortunes are spend on crypto art for the sake of “conversion”. Obscene amounts of money are being spent on crypto art to get rid of crypto currency. The moment you change your money, you pay taxes on it. Nobody so far has been paying taxes on crypto as far as I know. When you buy art, there is no cryptocurrency there is art. It becomes therefore much more difficult to trace through these transactions.


JS: Regular investment portfolios offer partial ownership of artworks as they would be commodities in a non transparent way. Do you see this trend happening in the digital art world?

TB: There is no difference between the mechanisms apart from transparency. If you ask about my interest on this field? In the early 90’s I realised that suddenly our world has changed with the arrival of the computers. All sort of middle men were set aside by this revolution since they weren’t necessary any more. All new jobs were for people to sit in front of a computer. This was an amazing but not a happy cultural shift doing a different kind of work. I was convinced this drastic shift would reflect on the art. Since there was now a machine language, this change had to result in a different art expression. Artists would have to speak this language while being critical of this cultural development. Many traditional artists didn’t understand the shift. Then there was this whole class of artists who grew up with video games. That was however not considered as part of the culture. They grew up with a different aesthetics as well as an entire different understanding of the world. That’s when we decided to represent new media artists. There were privileged incidental artists who early on were fascinated with and had easy access to technology and could produce good art, and there were the ones who were incredibly privileged because they were code fluent, creating the technology the tools to produce art. Those kids were the kings of the universe because they were studying computer science and having design classes. Within a year they were millionaires. They were building the first websites. This was 94/95 and I was trying to recruit them to come back and make art. They were earning monthly salaries of US$ 100’000. They are the ones who created the internet language. The first visual browser Netscape was just launched a couple years earlier. They were mostly artists doing graphic design and the first programs. Today we have applications for everything. In the 90’s it was all build it yourself, you needed to know how to code, for the internet at least html. In other words, artists enabled computers to work. Computers are propelled and only execute tasks given by users applications.


JS: Are NFTs also applications?

TB: No, an NFT (non fungible token) is basically a form of money, but it also can act as an app in a way in the hands of creative people.


JS: A merchandise tool?

TB: Yes a trading tool, you can do anything with money, right? NFT is a kind of money, a token. It’s good for exchanging singular items, like art. It’s basically a unit of exchange. But current nft-s are very imperfect, to say mildly.


JS: Where does the art work’s jpeg gets in?

TB: (laughs) This is what I mean. In 2000 you could walk into a Bank and get funds to buy real estate. Nobody asked anything. You took the money and bought a house. Then there were the smart guys that dealt with mortgages of real estates. After 6 months you had no clue who owned the mortgage of your house. This is what is happening with NFTs. Nobody cares what it is, as long as people are making money with them. Including the artists. They want to expand the Crypto and it’s not that easy! Art is a test case to figure out the technology, the legal side. Nowadays if someone has a huge amount of cash, it is really difficult to spend it. Nobody no longer wants your cash. You can’t put it in the bank because the bank will report it to the IRS (Internal Revenue Service). Nobody wants your cash because they won’t know what to do with it either. This is Crypto at this point. The NFT is such an immature technology, nobody uses it apart from the artists or the art. Art is being used as a guinea pig.


JS: Since when are artists using NFTs to sell their art work?

TB: Apparently ever since there was crypto. There are artists who were always interested in technology as a medium. I entered the crypto field because I work with an artist since 20 years and when blockchain, bitcoin was very new, he got interested.The financial people started it with interchangeable (fungible) coins to operate volume. He was always playing with software. That’s how the art NFT was born. His name is Kevin McCoy from Jennifer and Kevin McCoy. He made the first NFT as such. It wasn’t called NFT. He started to play with this software to see whether it could be creatively used for something. He realised that NFTs are good for Intellectual property and Art Management. It could be a contemporary way to manage ownership, provenance and the transactions. NFTs are on the blockchain, it is registered, they are indelible and because there is this distributer system, they can’t be falsified. The financial people started it with interchangeable (fungible) coins to operate volume.

There are tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of computers on this chain and they all keep the same data. If you change the data in one place then all the computers checking whether the changes are proper, wil all register the changes. You can’t change it because the chain of computers are checking everything.


JS: Is the art work originality consequently being protected?

TB: Also but there are several ways to protect it. So, that’s why blockchain works and thats why it’s good: because the record is indelible and you can’t falsify it. That’s why it is a valuable thing. Obviously the top of the top of the art market wouldn’t really like it. They operate in an opaque way but NFTs make everything transparent. The owner isn’t exposed but it is very easy to deduct who is behind it because the person’s wallet is open, there is a pattern. I can go to anybody’s wallet and see what they own and figure out who is who. If you have many wallets, then this gets somehow obfuscated. The principle is important: it is transparent. McCoy thought it was a good way to manage ownership and art objects. He started a company and went playing with NFTs. What is it basically? It is a variation of fungible cryptocurrencies. Tech terminologies are used completely out of context of its real meaning, right? So, NFTs have no contract even though the word is being constantly used. It has nothing to do with a contract in its current form.


JS: What is it then an NFT contract?

TB: Contracts are a legal contract. This digital construct all it does, it makes the transaction and register the transaction.


JS: Pure logic?

TB: Pure logic. A few lines of code, nothing else. There is nothing human readable, there is no text. So, the basic idea of bitcoins is a non-trust based distributed governance and this isn’t about trusting anybody but the system creates the trust. It is totally distributed and nobody controls it. The difference with all the FIAT currencies is that governments and central banks control and manipulate it the way they want it. It isn’t democratic in any way because I don’t have control over the money but the government has it under control. Bitcoin is bitcoin, you know?


JS: If the cryptocurrency is controlled by Nasdaq doesn’t it then become part of the government? Aren’t they trying to merge it?

TB: Yes, because they tried to kill it during many years but they couldn’t. So?


JS: Aren’t they working together? What happens when we simply become a number for credit and the paper money no longer circulates? When credit liability is identified through our birthdate?

TB: It’s like in every business. There will be a big consolidation. Because there are so many cryptocurrencies. I can also start a crypto blockchain. There are manuals to create them on internet to be downloaded… as long as other people trust their own currency… Old money, the one we use, is a result of consensus. I give you a piece of paper and you trust that paper has a value and you give me something for in return.

NFT was a construct with the idea of having the virtual currency extended to singular things. So virtual products were created to cover the demand of a bitcoin…. The intention was to have products mainly virtual or with a material aspect. Digital art was a perfect construct because it is virtual meaning a virtual coin represents a virtual object. I think the entire art thing is just a proof of concept. NFTs functions well with art. You can create unique non fungible units of value, which is the NFT, and you can attach something virtual to it. That’s the NFT in its original form… connected to art works. Digital art is non physical art: anything from an image (a jpeg of a visually created image) and then there are 3 D objects, games and music; there is a whole concept for virtual art. All we have in the internet has been created by artists.


JS: How would you envision art fairs for Digital art outside the internet?

TB: Everything that has been created by Art Basel online became somehow a digital art fair. It is a pity that it will be used as a cruch only until Art Basel’s fair organisation can reopen to the public and to the collectors. Why aren’t they advertising it as a digital art fair? Is it because they might look obsolet on their set-up, in that context?


JS: Collectors like to see the art work and they like to have contact with the art work.

TB: Digital art can be seen on the screen of your computer, on the side of a building or anywhere. Not necessarily in a fair. This is totally disconnected. We are living with digital art since 30 years. There is no way back.


JS: Where comes Tamas Banovich with a space that is curating, exhibiting and representing digital art?

TB: There is a serious group, a whole generation of young curators, serious people like me, curating digital art. We have been breathing this genre for the last 25 years. We have done amazing and interesting exhibitions of digital art. There was digital art in a very visible way in several Whitney Biennales in the early 2000s, there is ZKM in Karlsruhe, there is a festival of electronic art for 35 years in Graz. There is the Centre of Pompidou, there is Palace de Tokyo, many museums in Korea, Japan the Whitney and Guggenheim Museums still have specialists in digital art and for many years. In the last 10+years, with. The extreme commodification of art 99% of art is painting, galleries, investors are only exchanging paintings because this is the easiest thing to handle

My impression is that art dealers, advisers, auction houses, art fairs and galleries are part of an ossified environment which trapped investors. It is more convenient to play with values being shipped around the world. This has nothing to do with art. The interests are supporting commodities. The system they created was working and nobody wanted to spoil it or change it because it was working for everybody. Now, the pandemic and the crypto phenomena is shaking the entire scene. Many are questioning why they made it and who they serve . The crypto money are paying five times above the price formerly offered. There is China and there is a young collectors base investing in digital art.


JS: Are you envisioning an art fair mainly towards a younger generation? How not use the last generation of display technology for the art fair?

TB: I agree. Because the technology is never settled, things gets obsolet by the time they are out of the store. For example demand for virtual visors plunged because nobody wants to touch anything.


JS: They can be sold with the art work, right?

TB: Yes, but it will take sometime until people understand those concepts. There is no market for it yet.


JS: How can you have just one unique digital art work for the collectors?

TB: There is one other concept which the old fashioned art people, can’t get in their head around. Its the concept of virtual . There is no singular work in the digital art because each copy is perfect copy. There is no difference between them. Digital wants to be free. The meaning of ownership has to be reviewed and reconstructed. What a collector owns is the NFT’s long string of letters and numbers related to the art work stating ownership over a determined art work. You have no control over how many copies will be or were made. The point is the more the image is reproduced the better. The link to the art work is in the NFT. If the link is broken then the art work is lost. The artists are profiting from NFTs because they are selling (minting) their art work. In the NFT there is next to nothing about rights and contract. All the rules exist on the platform level. When the art work is put in a platform, the art work has been transferred to the platform. The platforms are receiving the money and pays off the artists. Their profit is around 15 to 18%. In the technology there is nothing that carries a contract or agreement about the art sale. There is a ledger, which says that this piece of code – which is the NFT – and identifies the art work passed to another person. There are different files in the link like a small image of the art work, description, etc. If the link is broken, or the platform disappears the artist looses the work and the collector as well. it is a work in progress.

We are a gallery representing artists since many years. We are working on new ideas to sell artists works. For me this makes the difference. I am creating a website with NFTs which includes human language legal contract, artist’s rights and conditions of sale for work by artists I am representing – with their profile, early works and their current ones. I want to give them the chance to show online. This has nothing to do with the platforms, the hype . This has to do with safe NFTs for the artists. The auction will flow on my own website. All decentralised.

This is our fourth space in Tribeca, we started in 1984 – 89 in East Village; 1989 – 99 in Soho; 1999 – 2014 in Chelsea; since 2014 in our current space in Tribeca.


(photos Shamus Clisset)