Alumni Spotlight on Nicole Chen: Post Sale Administrator at Sotheby’s

Nicole Chen (ARAD ’20) currently is a Post Sale Administrator at Sotheby’s. As a recent graduate, we spoke with Nicole about her experience in the ARAD program and starting a new position in the midst of the pandemic. 

Liliana Guerrero (LG): You are currently working at Sotheby’s. How did you land your current position?

Nicole Chen (NC): It actually took quite a few turns before I got to my current position. I first started interviewing with Sotheby’s last summer for several positions, but I didn’t land an offer initially. Then, HR reached out to me about a Seasonal Support role with the Impressionist & Modern Art department and set up an interview with me, after which I received the offer. Although this was a temporary position, I thought given the really tough job market in 2020, this would be a good starting point for me as I figure out my next steps. So I joined Sotheby’s last October, right at the beginning of an extremely busy sale season for the Impressionist & Modern Art department, but that also forced me to jump on a steep learning curve and to pick up responsibilities as fast as I could. After my assignment with Impressionist & Modern art concluded last December, I interviewed for the Post Sale Administrator opening and was hired soon after. Even though these two positions are very different, it was pretty clear that the hiring manager thought my ability to perform well under a demanding pace and the understanding I gained about Sotheby’s were also key to the Post Sale Administrator role. 

What are your responsibilities as post-sale administrator?

NC: This role is quite business-oriented, and I work with buyers for the most part. A big part of what I do is processing post-sale transactions and coordinating fulfillment, which includes invoicing, processing buyer payments, working with the shipping coordinator to offer clients logistics support and/ or arranging in-person collection. As Sotheby’s clientele is very international, my job also deals with tariff, tax, import/export restrictions – matters that accompany global art trade, and I continue to learn about them every day. Sometimes, if an item doesn’t sell at an auction and the consignor wants it back or wants to re-consign it, I also work with the specialist department to coordinate the process. Because the role is very client-facing, I answer client inquiries all the time or redirect them to other staff members when appropriate. 

LG: How did ARAD help prepare you for this opportunity (courses, extracurricular activities, internships, etc.)?

NC: I especially appreciate courses that trained my ability to think strategically about the art world and to understand the art world from a high level, such as Arts in Context and Business Policies & Planning for the Arts. This kind of high-level thinking allows me to see how different parts of the art world overlap despite their apparent differences, which I think is very relevant as I try to understand Sotheby’s business that practically engages with all different entities within the visual art – private dealers/ galleries, museums, foundations, art advisories, smaller auction houses, collectors, sometimes artists, too.

For my current job, specifically, Accounting was really helpful, while another course I audited from the business school “Designing Markets: The Economics of Matching, Auctions, and Platforms” provides useful frameworks and insights into how auction as a business model works. I wrote my thesis in online art auctions – which also turned out to be a great opportunity for me to investigate art auctions more generally. 

As I didn’t have formal working experience prior to ARAD, the internships I completed allowed me to build practical skill sets for working in the art sector. In addition, I was also able to reflect on the type of work or organizations that I was drawn to during these short-term professional experiences, which provided valuable information that guided my career choices. I did my internships with The Winter Show, TEFAF New York, and Cooper Hewitt. Overall, I had really wonderful experiences at each of these organizations and I have since stayed in touch with my former coworkers, who have now become powerful resources and connections for me. 

LG: What opportunities do you recommend ARAD students taking advantage of while at Columbia to prepare for a career in this industry?

NC: I want to emphasize the amount of support ARAD and other Columbia professors offered throughout my time at ARAD and even after I graduated, perhaps not for preparing me for this specific opportunity but more so for my career development more generally. The professors here are often both accomplished scholars and experienced practitioners in their fields. I have talked to Prof. Lynch about job searching in the art market, to Dr. Mangione about academic publishing, to Prof. Munro about effective networking and relationship building, and to Prof. Chang about being a POC leader in the art. Truly, the professors are wonderful resources I recommend everyone to utilize even outside of classrooms. 

Our own ARAD Professional Development Coordinator, Lonnie, has also provided me a lot of wonderful tips and actionable advice during my job search! From identifying ARAD alumni to network with, goal setting during the job search, to preparing for specific interview questions, Lonnie offered support that was highly specific to my needs and circumstances, which I really appreciated. 

LG: How long did your OPT application process take?

NC: It took around 2 months for me, between submitting my paperwork and receiving an EAD card. 

LG: You graduated last year. Did the pandemic affect your job and OPT application process?

NC: Oh absolutely!! The OPT application process was relatively fast, but the job search process was grueling! I started looking for jobs around March last year, and as everything started to shut down because of the pandemic, I saw jobs in the arts quickly disappeared. Between May to July or so, there were practically no opportunities available. Admittedly, it was a very challenging period for me, as a recent graduate who was also an international student balancing further limitations posed by OPT. 

In the summer, as I realized that the job market was not bouncing back any time soon, I reached out to my former internship host Cooper Hewitt and another contact who is leading a museum foundation. I was able to work on a part-time basis to keep myself somewhat occupied and also to register myself as “employed” on the OPT status to prevent the permissible three-month unemployment period from running out. When there were no jobs to apply to, I devoted a lot of my energy to expanding my network and reconnecting with existing contacts, which really paid off when job opportunities came up. By the time I was applying for jobs, I was more informed about the companies I was interested in and sometimes even had ready connections from the companies who could provide referrals. 

LG: Do you have any tips for international students applying for OPT? For example, how did you navigate finding work and sponsorship in the U.S.?

NC: For my graduating class (‘20), I think it was best to apply for a late OPT start date because the job market was practically non-existent in the spring and early summer. For the class of 2021, however, I don’t think that would necessarily be the best approach, as I am seeing a much healthier job market at the moment, at least for the visual art sector. At the same time, because the art industry typically only hires as needed, rather than ahead of time, it is also not realistic trying to land a job offer before applying to OPT. When it comes to applying for OPT and job searching, my best advice would be to gauge your own comfort level and be prepared when things don’t end up aligning with your ideal timeline. 

As you are deciding how to approach this process, think through different possibilities and ask yourself questions like if I don’t find a job one/two months after the OPT start date, what is my backup plan going to be? Or, if I am being seriously considered for a position but my OPT doesn’t begin in a month, how can I negotiate with the employer so that they don’t offer the position to someone else who can start immediately? These are tough questions to think about – trust me I know! But the job search process sometimes unfolds quickly, too, so staying prepared and nimble allows you to make the best judgment when the time comes. 

In terms of visa sponsorship within the arts, unfortunately, many art companies/ organizations tend to not sponsor employment visas. Unless they explicitly state it on the website, sometimes you just don’t know until you ask. For international students interested in pursuing a career in the US after OPT, I recommend looking into an O-1 visa sooner rather than later. Despite the amount of work it requires from the applicant, this option allows for much flexibility and also avoids the negative impact that the need for sponsorship can possibly bring while the employer considers your candidacy.

(Check out ARAD’s blogpost on employment visas in the arts amid COVID-19)

LG: What is your advice to students interested in pursuing a career in art auctions?

NC: Following the news and paying attention to the industry is one of the easiest and quickest ways to build up your understanding of the auction world. When possible, attending auction viewings is also a great way to get a concrete sense of how auction houses sell their offerings. (Common misconception: you can only attend auction viewings if you are buying – not true! Most auction houses require reservations these days because of the pandemic, but viewings are absolutely free and open to all.) 

After that, talking to people in the field is a very effective way to gain insights into the specifics, and I find having informational interviews with alumni or connections tremendously helpful. Having such one-on-one conversations allows you to understand a business/organization on the level of specific functions, rather than what the business/organization does broadly. 

These are just ways to understand art auctions better, but when it comes to pursuing a career or applying for a specific position in art auctions, don’t forget to highlight your transferable skills and advocate yourself after understanding what the position calls for. I think this also goes for job searching in general, but no company expects the applicants to have done exactly the same kind of work previously. If you are interested in pursuing a career in art auctions broadly, I would also recommend being open-minded about the type of positions you pursue. If you don’t land your dream job right away, it is totally okay as one job doesn’t define you as a professional. On the other hand, one experience can often lead to the next opportunity.

About Nicole (Jiawei) Chen: Nicole graduated from Colgate University with a Studio Art major and double minors in Economics and Museum Studies. With an interest in both fine art and design, she has completed internships with various organizations during her time in New York City, including TEFAF New York and Cooper Hewitt, the Smithsonian Design Museum. Having the opportunity to conduct curatorial research on art objects in a museum setting and to participate in the organization of an international art fair, she recognizes and appreciates the interdependence of for-profit and non-profit art sectors.

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