FAQ on Digital Video Art

Anne Morgan Spalter | Latest revision June 11, 2013

This FAQ is based on my experiences as an artist (and collector) dealing with work in private collections in the US, Europe and the Middle East as well as museums such as the Albright-Knox (Buffalo, NY), the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum (Providence, RI), and the Victoria & Albert Museum (London, UK).

Digital video is a great art form that is enduring and increases in value with basic care. Artists should not shy away from working in this medium, nor should collectors hesitate to buy. Knowledge is power… In many cases digital work is a safer investment than traditional media. Unlike paintings and drawings, it does not need to kept in a dark vault to keep it from deteriorating. And If you lose a painting to fire or theft, that’s it, whereas digital files can be replaced. Read on for more info…

SUMMARY of Questions Collectors Should Ask: 

  • What exactly will I receive? (At a minimum this should be the file and certificate.)
  • Can I have your contact info and reach out in case of problems?
  • What format is the file in?
  • Can you supply an uncompressed or losslessly compressed version?
  • Do you, the artist, or gallery, keep backups?
  • How will the work be installed (if installation is required)? and who will do the work?
  • Who can I call if the work stops running?
  • What steps are you taking to ensure the integrity of limited editions?
  • What options do I have for future display of the artwork? Can I change display devices? Will you re-render for different platforms (e.g., iPad, phone, something new in the future).
  • What is your policy if I lose the files or certificate?

SUMMARY of Considerations for Artists

  • Do I have a good model for digital video certificates?
  • Have I created a robust backup system with both on-site and off-site backup?
  • Am I taking all possible steps to ensure that no unauthorized copies of my files are made?
  • Have I thought through and communicated my intentions for the future display of the work?
  • How much responsibility am I willing to take on for support of the work once purchased?
  • Do I have a tacking system for editions of works, certificates, and collector contact info?
  • Have I or my gallery communicated the collector’s responsibilities clearly so that there are no misunderstandings in the future?
  • Have I or my gallery sufficiently communicated the enduring properties of this work and how it is just as safe an investment as other forms of fine art?
  • Would I replace files or certificates if a collector calls with a loss?
  • How will collectors keep track of my work if it is not up and running? (I supply a box with the USB sticks, certificate, instructions etc. so everything can be kept together. I have seen multi-thousand dollar works sold in zip-lock bags. Don’t be that person.)

SUMMARY of Policy Decisions for Galleries

  • Will we support the work post-purchase and to what extent?
  • Will we keep back-ups even if the artist is providing this service for the time being?
  • Is my artist using equipment that has a warranty? If so how long does it last and can extended warranties be purchased by the gallery or client?
  • Who will handle calls for technical questions? The gallery? The artist?
  • Together with the artist—decide what is being purchased—is it just the file or is certain equipment included? Is installation included? Is support included?
  • Has the artist thought through future usage issues and communicated them to the gallery so that they can be communicated to clients? Is there a written document of intent?
  • Is the artist’s certificate signed and does it contain all the necessary information for resale?



What exactly is a digital video?

A digital video is a computer file you can see and open just like, say, a Word document. There is no videotape involved.

What do I get when I buy a digital video?

You get a digital file and a certificate of authenticity. Because digital files can be copied or changed (more on this later), the certificate is VERY important. Do not lose the certificate or you will not be able to resell the work.

What information is on the certificate? Certificates of authenticity are standard for many types of art, including prints and photography. They include the artist’s name, title of work, edition number—e.g., Edition 2/3 + AP, date of creation of artwork, and the artist’s signature. I also include the purchaser’s name, a frame grab of the video and the date of purchase. For digital video also include file type, duration and format, e.g., 3 minute 1080p HD 29.97fps QuickTime file.

The work looked great in the gallery—how do I install it at home? This varies with the work, obviously, but for basic screen-on-the wall installation you will need a contractor and an electrician for optimal installation. Try to install in a place easy to run wires to. The screen should be properly mounted to the wall and all electrical aspects hidden.  Projection pieces are more involved and the cost of high quality installation will be higher. Installation expense is usually born by the collector. (Other options exist, including stand-alone screens that can be placed in a bookcase or shelf or table.)

What is the artist’s responsibility?

As the artist, I supply high quality files on high quality USB sticks or Flash Cards (yes, there is a wide range of quality of these devices) and one backup, a DVD, and a certificate of authenticity. Beyond this it is also my responsibility to limit sales to the stated edition number (just as with photography or prints). Although I do not guarantee anything, I also try to keep multiple on-site and off-site backups of all works. This is expensive and time-consuming and you cannot assume that all artists are doing it.

What about the future when displays and computers are different from today? I also view it as the artist’s responsibility to make clear any specifications for future viewing—i.e., must the piece always run a certain size or type of screen? Or can it be projected? Nam June Paik’s work obviously is not the same taken off an old TV and shown on a plasma screen and I believe he specifically disallows his. Bill Viola has beautiful giant screens and probably does not allow clients to show his work on their TVs. The artist may have explicit guidelines for future incarnations or should at least express their intent. The artist, gallery and collector should also think about possible adaptation for new devices—such as mobile ones. In my case I am very flexible and will re-render files for different platforms/devices free of charge. This decision is different for different artists and different works. It doesn’t really matter what you decide as long as it is clear to all parties.

What is the collector’s responsibility? Keep track of the files and certificate. Make another backup copy. I supply one backup—but whatever you get from the artist, back it up right away—ideally on a hard drive that is then routinely backed up in some professional manner. I also highly recommend that collectors get the artists contact info and make sure the artist has yours. Most galleries do not have the technical expertise to help you if something goes wrong. Although the artist cannot make any definite guarantee, I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t try to help, replace files, fix hardware, etc. We want you to enjoy the works and keep them running. On a related note: if your piece stops working for some reason—contact the artist or a designated gallery representative. Do not be shy in this regard.

More responsibility: Do not copy and distribute your video file. When you buy a digital video, you get a digital file. Just like buying an expensive piece of software, this does not give you the right to make copies and send them to your friends for their birthdays. Some artists password-protect or otherwise control their files’ reproduction. My approach now is to embed a virtually invisible watermark in each final file so I know who bought it. If copies start to appear in other people’s collections or on the web, I will know where they came from. The art world is a small place and reputation is everything.

Will my digital video still play in 2020? An oil painting is great because with a little care it will last hundreds of years. How many files do you have now that you created in 1990? Your digital video will still run on its original equipment, but it can also be upgraded to work with new operating systems and equipment. Today Quicktime is popular—in 2020 Apple could be defunct and we could all be using something else.  This is why I supply each frame as a .tiff file. The tiff file format has been around forever and is easy to understand. You can always have your video re-encoded for whatever software and hardware exists in the future. Some artists restrict their pieces to be run only on certain equipment. Find out before you buy what the artist’s intent is for the future. Given the uncertain state of ever-changing technology I anticipate collector’s upgrading many aspects of my work—better screens, new devices etc., but not all artists feel this way. I also keep backups and can re-render files for new environments. Find out what you are getting before you buy to avoid costly misunderstandings.

What if my files are destroyed in a fire or flood or I just lose them? If you lose painting, you are SOL. If you lose a digital video art work or the certificate, the artist may replace it on a case-by-case basis.

How do I know un-authorized copies will not be made? Limited editions in any medium depend on the trustworthiness of the artist, gallery, and collectors. Between the certificates (work cannot be resold without one) and watermarking, it is unlikely for the editions to be compromised. There is no reason to think that a digital video will not hold and increase in value like any other fine art work.

It’s a file on my computer, can I change it (edit it, remix it, add new colors, etc.)? No.

More detail on what you get: If you buy one of my works you get a Quicktime (.mov) file on a USB stick or CompactFlash Card that will play when stuck in your computer or TV or other display device. I also include .tiff files of each frame.  Today’s computers and devices need files to be compressed to playback in real time. In the future this won’t be the case and you’ll be ready. I also include a DVD so you can put on the piece at a party or other events. Most DVD players are not designed to run 24/7 (they will overheat and be damaged) and DVD files are dramatically compressed so the image quality is not at all the same as the Quicktime file I supply. Do not pay thousands of dollars for a DVD! Demand a high quality file.

What collectors do not get: The “movie” file is the result of work done in some kind of editing/special effects software, such as, (in my case) Adobe After Effects. When I create a work, it is saved as a series of instructions in an AfterEffects project file. This is essentially a visual programming environment in which I design the work. When I am happy with everything I “render” the file—this takes all the instructions and uses them to make each frame of the final video. You get the rendered video, not the project file. 

I bought the work in NYC but I live in Europe—will it work at home? Yes. Virtually all common electronic devices (TV screens, DVDs, media boxes, etc.) have built-in transformers so all you will need is a local adapter. If the piece includes very specialized electronics, check before buying because you may need to purchase some pieces locally.

My work ran well but now it has a problem. Who you gonna call? Ideally ask about this when buying the work. If the gallery is not equipped to maintain the work, call the artist. If the artist is not local or cannot fix the work your next line of defense is a computer or A/V person—the same kind of professional who would come to your house and do systems administration work (set up a network, make sure your computers are running well, etc. or fix your TVs and home media systems). As discussed above, the work is just a file and it runs on a computer or media player so it’s not really too mysterious, technically. A competent computer or A/V professional, combined with your document of the artist’s intent (see above) is all you need.


Benefit of solid state vs. moving parts players (e.g., media players vs. DVD) :http://dvsignage.com/products/benefits-of-solid-state-players

Any questions not answered here? Email us at anne [at] annespalter.com and ask!

Digital Video FAQ by Anne Morgan Spalter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at https://annespalter.com/faq.