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Let’s Get Meta: An Interview with Chicago’s First NFT Gallery

A group of people talking in a darkly lit room with neon lights and digital artwork on the walls

A group of people talking in a darkly lit room with neon lights and digital artwork on the walls

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“imnotArt” is the tongue-in-cheek name for Chicago’s first (and only) physical NFT gallery. What started as a passion project between a group of late-night video gamers quickly transformed into a hub for all-things-NFT in Chicago. We sat down with co-founders Matt Schapiro and Theresa Hojnacki to learn more about the past, present and future of imnotArt.

The ABCs of NFTs

NFT (non fungible token), DAO (decentralized autonomous organization), POAP (proof of attendance protocol), WAGMI (“we’re all gonna make it”). On top of rapidly-evolving tech and concepts to wrap your head around, there’s an entirely new vocabulary required to navigate web3 — but don’t let that stop you from taking your first step into the Metaverse.

“It can be intimidating to enter a space that you know nothing about, but at imnotArt it feels so natural to have people of all ages, from all backgrounds, talking and forming connections,” says Hojnacki, the gallery’s co-founder and head of operations. “It’s a safe space to learn about web3 without judgment. Everyone is welcome.”

Hosted most Tuesday evenings, the weekly community nights at imnotArt are open to all crypto-curious Chicagoans to learn how to open a MetaMask wallet, mint their first NFT or create a smart contract. The gallery often partners with high-profile creators, such as the two-night NFT onboarding program with Chicago artist Brandon Breaux.

“Education is central to our mission and the fact that our physical space invites people in to learn is incredibly unique,” states Schapiro, imnotArt’s CEO and founder. “The most important thing we can do is responsibly onboard people into the web3 ecosystem so they can navigate the space safely and confidently and set themselves up for long-term success.”

A storefront with signage that reads imnotArt Chicago's first NFT gallery

A meta-morphosis

The initial iteration of imnotArt was a virtual gallery to help digital artists exhibit their work in the Metaverse, but their transition into the physical world was very organic — and accelerated. After creating the virtual gallery in February of 2021, the team opened the doors to their physical space at 1010 N Ashland Ave in June.

Schapiro reflects, “When our success picked up in the Metaverse, we noticed a large representation of Chicago artists and collectors in our online community, and it became clear that we needed to meet them in-person. That’s how the physical gallery started coming together — how often do you get the opportunity to shape new experiences and bring people into the web3 space in a way that hasn’t been done before?”

Communities are the crux of successful NFT projects, and imnotArt is no different. Although they knew why they wanted to open a physical gallery, they didn’t know what to expect. “It was so validating to watch the community form around imnotArt — we’ve created a web3 family here in Chicago,” says Schapiro. “We have real, authentic friendships with our community members, and we’ve seen projects launch from connections formed in the space. We never could have anticipated the electricity that happens when you bring together people who are willing to be uncomfortable and push themselves to learn new things. The energy is contagious.”

While representation remains an issue in the mainstream crypto and art worlds, imnotArt is committed to cultivating a diverse community of artists and creators. The gallery’s most recent exhibition, Paradise, brings together the work of 22 Black women artists from the African diaspora and calls attention to gender inequality in the NFT space.

“Everything we do is about supporting artists and positioning them to benefit from this new ecosystem,” says Schapiro. “There are so many amazing artists in Chicago that we can provide a platform for, which is in line with work that has been happening in the local art community for decades. With NFTs, there’s a whole new playbook to help artists find success. We’re here to help connect the dots.”

People looking at a digital illustration of a person with red hair, light brown skin wearing a yellow shirt that reads I <3 Gary

imnotStopping

After a whirlwind first year, the imnotArt team is busy laying the groundwork for a vibrant future. “We’re going to continue building experiences that we want to see in the world,” states Schapiro. “Our vision is to create a sustainable model for physical NFT spaces without sacrificing any of our core values — supporting artists, fostering community and providing education. The best brand and company that we can build is around a community that succeeds together.”

Those that have stuck with imnotArt from the beginning are in for some nice surprises, too, says Schaprio. “People are figuring out how to build communities by launching a token, but we think the secret sauce is building an engaged community first and then rewarding them with a token or utility. That approach runs counter to what we’re seeing a lot in the space right now.”

The wild web3

Are you ready to enter the world of web3? Drop into imnotArt’s Wicker Park storefront during their public hours. “Our doors are always open. We’re here to answer questions about the web3 space and make ourselves available to anyone that comes into the gallery,” says Hojnacki. “That knowledge and information spreads, which benefits the entire community.”

And if you’re not local, head over to the imnotArt Gallery on Cryptovoxels to attend their next event in the Metaverse.