Jay Ortiz (left) and Darnell Schoolfield (right) outside Art From the Heart in Brewerytown

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A space billed as Philly’s first NFT art gallery held its soft opening last week on a gentrifying block in Brewerytown. Prospective buyers were welcomed to a space where they could view artworks no one will ever take home — but can still pay to “own.”

The cryptocurrency venture, called Art From The Heart, is a partnership between high school friends Jay Ortiz, 29, and Darnell Schoolfield, 30.

Like the rise of NFTs, which have taken the art world by storm, the gallery’s launch at 2623 W. Girard Ave. moved fast. The duo entered into an agreement to set up in a former yoga studio in mid-May, had a few talks with sculptor Zevi G, and turned around an exhibit in less than three weeks.

On Wednesday, the 1,200-square-foot space held several large Zevi G sculptures as well as  six screens to display digital art. Guests could also play a Pokemon Go-style augmented reality art scavenger hunt as they looked around.

“This is like we in Silicon Valley,” gushed Schoolfield, who said he turned down a corporate job to join Ortiz’s venture as operations manager. “As I say all the time, we’re living in the future.”

Artwork by artist Zevi G for sale as NFT Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

The acronym stands for non-fungible token. They’re kind of like Bitcoin — most NFTs live on the Ethereum blockchain — but instead of being traded like currency, each NFT is one of a kind. That means they can be bought and sold, like art.

NFTs can represent anything, from physical works to digital creations, even things that aren’t typically thought of as art, including memes or tweets. While the buyer of an NFT is awarded a form of ownership, they allow creators to retain rights, and potentially get paid over and over with each sale.

When Schoolfield first tried to invest in NFTs, he ran into gatekeepers he referred to as the usual suspects.

“I started looking into platforms and realized it was like a fucking club of people that wouldn’t really let you in unless they knew you,” The Jack Dorseys of the world, he said, referring to the founder of Twitter and Square.

Schoolfield, who is Black, and Ortiz, who is Black and Latino, aim to make the scene more accessible.

Their Black and brown Philadelphia upbringings influenced their choice for Art From The Heart’s location, Ortiz said. They want to open up NFT wealth-building in an area whose residents they said may otherwise be left behind.

“A lot of this is a gentrified neighborhood, but at the end of the day, it’s still what Philly will consider the hood,” Ortiz said. “And I want to give people in this community an opportunity to do things or to even see things that would have never been here.”

During the soft opening, they hosted financial literacy scholar Dr. Boyce Watkins for a talk about NFT with artists Raf and Zevi G.

Four of Zevi G’s works were spread throughout the space, including a 4-foot sculpture called “The Messenger” whose physical price tag is $35,000.

Other Philly artists, including photographer Aaron Rickets and painter-designer Gianni Lee, have sold NFTs for thousands of dollars.

Crypto-art has become a nearly inescapable phenomenon. Chicago’s imnotArt NFT gallery opened in early June. Superchief unveiled an NYC NFT gallery space in March. Several other cities have at least seen pop-up NFT exhibitions. Famed auction house Christie’s sold its first NFT in March — for $69 million — and now has a whole division dedicated to it.

Darnell Schoolfield holds one of the cards visitors receive to begin playing the gallery’s augmented reality scavenger hunt Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

In its original incarnation, Art From The Heart was already pretty unorthodox.

After launching in Philly in 2017, Ortiz hosted interactive events at clubs and bars in Tokyo, London, and around the world. Guests would drink and mingle as body painters brushed colors on live models, fashion designers sewed creations onto runway strutters, and musicians played as illustrators sketched. At the end of the night, all the artwork was for sale.

The Brewerytown storefront will continue the multimedia theme. “This is not just an art gallery, this is a creative space,” Ortiz said.

In addition to more NFT events, the partners have lined up everything from a 30-person wedding to a paint-and-sip to a 3-hour pop-up chiropractic session. Said Schoolfield: “The possibilities are really endless.”

Sculptures of Batman, Spiderman, and the Black Panther by artist Zevi G in the window of Art From The Heart Gallery Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
Art From The Heart Gallery is located at 2623 W. Girard Ave. Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
Inside the gallery Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
Artist Zevi G with his sculpture ‘Messenger’ Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
Some Art From the Heart shows include a Pokemon Go–style scavenger hunt Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
Art for sale as NFT by artist Zevi G Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...