For this chapter of our alumni spotlight series, we had the opportunity to speak with Alexis Yuen (ARAD’16), who is currently an Art Advisor and the Manager for Trade Programs at Uprise Art.
Could you share a bit about your background and what led you to join ARAD?
I grew up in Hong Kong and I went to art school in Boston for college. It was the Museum School of Fine Arts, which is under the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I did a dual degree with Tufts University majoring in Photography and Design, and I minored in Art History and Studio Art. After graduating, I ended up with a job with Christie’s in London in the Asian Art department. Being one of the youngest on the team and as one of the translators, I found it to be an exciting experience. If you look into archives for those times, that was when the auction prices were the highest for Chinese art. Starting as a paid intern, I was hired two months later as the Junior Administrator, then as the Senior Administrator. This meant that I was the liaison between clients, specialists, and other departments. I was there for three years; and as I was approaching my second or third year, I realized that I wanted to engage in a career related to business and I wanted to take my career to the next level. I also wanted to see what was outside the auction field. Within auction houses, you tend to either become a specialist or a business manager. As a business manager, you don’t actually get to interact with the artwork or people. Since I am a people person, I felt like there must be more. So that’s when I applied to the Arts Administration program in New York.
What was your journey like after graduate school and how did you get to your current role?
During ARAD, I learned about AEA consulting in Beacon. Very often, a lot of the planning and business policy aspects we learn at school are done by Executive Directors at non-profits. So unless you are in a similar position, it can be difficult to put these skills to use. However, there are a few consulting companies in the art world that do this really well. One example is that AEA was hired by one of the Department of Culture & Tourism (Abu Dhabi) to develop a 5-year business plan and financial model. To elaborate, if a city is lacking tourism, then the consulting firm would recommend them to put more resources into the sort of art that would attract that demographic for tourism sustainably. This kind of research and application of the arts was fascinating to me. So I started to look for positions that could use these skills and was fortunate to stumble upon Art Basel Cities, which was a new project back then. Art Basel is a global art fair; but what they did not realize initially was that Art Basel would transform Miami and Hong Kong as cities. Before they came to Miami, there were only a handful of galleries. Now there are 200+ galleries that emerged within the last 15 years. That was why the director kept receiving calls from mayors around the world asking him to bring Art Basel to their countries. At the same time, the Art Basel mindset was to refrain from expanding to avoid unsustainable practices. They didn’t want to expand so they started Art Basel Cities as a popup, or a kind of consulting for local governments. I loved the prospect of this project and I contacted the founder. Amazingly, I got this opportunity. He was based in Hong Kong so I actually moved back home for a while. We were hired by Buenos Aires in Argentina and received amazing press coverage throughout the world. We were able to get a lot of artists like Barbara Kruger to participate. Other than that, I also worked on Art Basel Inside, which was a conference to bring together people working in arts and technology, eventually leading to social change. I was able to put all my ARAD learning together.
After Art Basel, I decided to go on my own. By that time, I had worked for many large corporations so I wanted to work for myself. I started a small business in art advisory and started to offer consulting services to help people buy art. I helped small organizations and nonprofits on how to engage artists. I did that for two years and I worked privately on the client list that I had built. I was traveling around the world, writing articles, and learning about how to start a business. A lot of the ARAD skills didn’t quite come to use until I started my entrepreneurship journey. I chatted with my more senior friends and those who have their own freelancing companies, they benefit a lot from the program. Because the program helps you become entrepreneurs, basically it’s all about how to be a leader. When I was working for myself, I was really excited to rely on myself such as building my own website and doing my own accounting. I started freelancing for AEA and conducted architectural research around the world to see how much money each government was putting into cultural infrastructure. Once COVID happened, I couldn’t travel and didn’t have a team. That was when I decided that I really wanted to go back to working in a group. I knew I didn’t want to go back to large corporations like Christie’s, so I ended up working as part of the small team at Uprise Art. It’s a very small team and very entrepreneurial. We were founded in 2011 and we went on being from an online gallery to a brick and mortar gallery with an online platform. We still have that entrepreneurial energy, which is really fun.
What are some of the challenges that you face in your current role?
As the Manager of the Trade Program, which is a program for interior designers, architects, real estate developers, basically anyone that buys for a client, otherwise known as B2B. For me, that’s very different from talking to my old clients who were buying for themselves. For now, my main clients are interior designers. It’s super cool that I am talking to design professionals and my day to day is looking at floor plans, mood boards, and then doing the creative curation that I didn’t get to do in my previous positions. Also, because our group is small enough that I can do the curation personally and I don’t have to hire a curator to do that. However, the drawback is that it can also be hard to work with designers. They have their own creative visions and the struggle is to balance between interior designers, artists, and clients. With artists, I want to keep their artistic integrity, but at the same time, I would also like to please my clients. Sometimes if a client loves your work, they’ll want to see the same thing. This may be great for financial gains when you’re beginning your career, but we want to make it more differentiated for the artists. It can be hard to balance varying visions but it’s also fun to be the art advisor and to be able to appease both sides.
How did COVID-19 impact your work and Uprise Art?
Back when our organization was founded, we were one of the only online galleries. Our founder, Tze Chun, decided something that was unheard of in 2011. Because we had 9 years of building up our website, we were already set up for our online presence when the pandemic hit. Our advantage was that we were ready for a stay-at-home experience. Our sales actually went up as more people were purchasing during their time at home. This helped us sustain our website and our normal operations. Now we are looking at how we can keep it exciting for our artists as we expand. The artists we represent have now grown so much with us, so we want to bring in more opportunities from abroad and go into new markets and new companies. Basically, to keep them inspired and to create new work.
What attracted you to the ARAD program?
I chose the ARAD program because I liked that students came from different aspects of the arts administration field. I don’t like the idea of having only one path in your career. For example, there can be a lot of performance art in the visual arts world. I came to Columbia University with this mindset and it was the best decision because I met friends who are now at the Met Opera, at the Martha Graham Dance Company, and at a lot of visual art companies. I also chose ARAD because I wanted to pursue policy and planning and take a multi-disciplinary approach.
Are there any courses you took during your time in ARAD that you feel were particularly helpful for your career journey?
Business Policy taught by Martin Vinik, who also went to Tufts and ARAD. He was a theater person but eventually started doing consulting. One of his projects back then was on the West Kowloon district in Hong Kong, which led me to be interested in cultural districts and arts planning for a city. I am really passionate about how arts can change a city and its community. Through that class, I got to explore these topics a lot.
Cultural policy was also really helpful. As I look back, they may not be directly related to what I am doing now. But I am now part of the business development team and I am now able to make use of the different aspects of the arts.
Back then, I also got myself into a GSAPP class about urban planning, which became instrumental to my consulting work. I know a lot of ARAD students previously expressed that they struggle to cross-register but it’s worth it. For the business school, I recommend anything entrepreneurial. I think there’s a class about building a company with your class; so I took it with two other ARAD students and we were approached by many other groups when it came to formulating a plan. It was really cool that we had a musician, an artist, and myself as an art administrator. I would find a professor that supports your work, pitch yourself, and tell them what you can bring to the class. They will be so glad to have you in the class. There are also so many professors who are passionate about the arts that teach in other schools too. For example, I found a professor at the architecture school that supported what I was saying about city planning/arts. You need to be part of the conversation. Try to get in until you’re sure you’ve tried everything.
What was your capstone project about?
It was titled: “Art Museum Capital Projects in New York City: The Dual Role of Art Museums as Economic Drivers and Community Anchors” because I am interested in how arts institutions affect a city. Back in 2016, there were all these capital projects, which meant multi-billion dollar buildings going up for museums around the world. That was also happening in New York, a place that seems less open to change in capital projects due to the limited space. Yet, Whitney Museum, Cooper Hewitt Museum, and the Queens Museum were all doing this at the same time. I studied all these projects and interviewed people to talk to them about their goals and accomplishments in these capital projects. My findings included how community development rolled out and how the architecture would reflect that. The Whitney Museum used to be on the Upper East Side, but now they are in the Meatpacking District and West Village. I interviewed people who were part of the move and one thing they said was that they wanted it to be a welcoming space for the community, hence why they abandoned the old concrete building sectioned off from the street, a design from the 70s, and opted for an all-glass building in 2016 to make everything transparent. That’s an example of what I was interviewing people for.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I am a docent trainee at the Whitney Museum. I joined their docent program when I was working freelance. Even though I am working in the for-profit field, I wanted to do something that was very grounded in non-profit and I also like talking to people about art. I applied during my time at ARAD and I was on the waitlist to volunteer for four years. When I did my thesis project there, one thing led to another, and I think this is what will happen for current students too. You’re gonna do projects and you’ll be meeting new people whom you might work/volunteer for later.