Sunday, November 1, 2009

5 Questions: Yixuan Chen

Yixuan Chen is the manager of a gallery in New York City that specializes in Asian art and has lived in New York City for 12 years, much of that time as a student or as an employee in the art field. In this interview, we’ll talk to Yixuan about her work and any advice that she has for students who are interested in pursuing careers in the art market and about trends in the Asian art market.

Q: Yixuan, can you tell us a little bit about how your interest in Asian art developed?

I majored in studio art in college in Taipei, Taiwan, spending most of my time learning Western art techniques. My interest in Asian art developed after I began to practice ink painting, an art form unique to China and its neighboring countries. I practiced line drawing using ink and brush on rice paper, learning by making paintings after images such as the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Groove (Six Dynasties, on pottery molded bricks). I think that my early training in art school gave me insight into understanding Asian art forms such as ink painting.

Q: What was your educational background before you started working in the art world? Are there any suggestions that you have for students about what types of classes they should take or whether they should go to graduate school before pursuing a career in the art world?

Upon graduating from art school, I decided to do something else, partly because I did not know how to build a career as an artist, run a studio, look for an agent, and sell my own art. I also did not feel the urge to make art as a career.

After working for one year as an administrative assistant in a writer’s club in Taipei (somewhat art-related), I came to New York City to pursue a master's degree in Arts Administration. It was just the right kind of training I was looking for—the how-tos of running a not-for-profit art organization: forming a board of trustees, writing a by-law, review a balance sheet, fund-raising, marketing, programming, recruiting volunteers, and working with interns. While learning about management issues, I had a better sense of positioning a visual artist in the art field. It’s much more than making great art for art’s sake.

I think a master’s degree will be beneficial in the long run, if you have the opportunity to work in a large institution, regardless of which department. Careers in education, curatorial, and editorial do require at least master’s degree in art history or literature or education; after a few years you’d find it’s necessary to get a PhD in order to advance your career in the same field. You don’t need a master’s degree to get a gallery job, but after working for a few years, based on your observation in the field, you may decide to go back to school for an advanced degree in art history or MBA or law. Go for a master’s degree only if and when you really want it, and be sure to take advantage of building professional contacts.

Q: What is a typical day at your job? How many employees do you work with, and what type of work does each of you do? Are there certain times of the year when you’re especially busy at the gallery?

Now working in a gallery specializing in premodern Asian art, a typical day would be to follow up with clients, or keeping on top of projects (such as advertising or exhibition catalogues), and dealing with walk-in clients or random phone/email requests. The gallery guarantees the authenticity and age of every item, which is supported by extensive research and connoisseurship. The gallery has a very small staff: another colleague and I work full-time, and the gallery owner works seven days a week. The gallery also has a part-time bookkeeper and a part-time junior staff member. We do all of the research, manage inventory, prepare incoming and outgoing shipments/packing, deal with client and public inquiries, order stationary and supplies, as well as fix the copy machine.

The busiest time of the year is March, over a two-week period when NYC auction houses hold their spring Asian Art auctions. Art fairs are held in two locations in Manhattan, and many overseas galleries rent local gallery spaces to present their special exhibitions at the same time. Our gallery also holds a special exhibition accompanied with an exhibition catalogue. We often see collectors and curators around the world during this intense period of time.

Q: Do you have any advice for students who plan to look for jobs in the art world? Obviously, New York City is a major center for the art world. Is it feasible to pursue a career in the art world outside of New York City?

I think my experience probably only applies to New York City, but as a rule of thumb, networking is extremely helpful in getting a job in the art field. I got my first job through an internship, and my former boss was very generous in referring me to all kinds of freelance opportunities. When I see a job opening within the institution I naturally would recommend the best interns I’ve worked with. There are a lot of art jobs in New York, but there is a lot of competition, too. There are many qualified resumes so it’s better to have someone recommending you and perhaps you’d get an interview.

Art jobs don’t always pay well in NYC, especially not-for-profits like museums. There is an abundant of talent in the job market so art institutions don’t have to offer high salaries to attract competent staff. Similar positions outside of NYC probably pay the same type of salary, but the cost of living is lower.

Q: In light of the current economic recession, what is the market like right now for Asian art? Are there certain areas of Asian art that are especially attractive to collectors right now?

The current recession has no effect on top quality works of art, but the mid and low range items have retained their selling prices and may be harder to sell. At the same time, “provenance” has become a highly political issue in the US, so Asian art from old collections with good documentation have been bringing high prices. The Chinese buying power has been driving Ming-Qing (14th-early 20th centuries) items made for the imperial court to record prices, a significant shift compared to 20 years ago when Japanese buying power was promoting classical Tang and Song (7th-13th centuries) ceramics. Good art does not equal high price tags—trend, taste, politics, and the economy all play a part in the market.

Thank you, Yixuan, for sharing your experiences with us!

(Section from an ink rubbing of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, 2nd half of the 5th century, from, click to enlarge)

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