Alexis Yuen is on a mission to discover socially engaged art by underrepresented artists that creates dialogue around today’s pressing issues and encourages action. Alexis is an art advisor, business and branding strategist, art tour docent, activist, and former artist. She’s now a creative entrepreneur and founder of her own company, The Art Diplomat, an art advisory for good. Her new business educates young people on how to change the world through art collecting; curates socially-conscious artworks for homes and brands; breaks barriers and creates paid opportunities for underrepresented artists, and inspires women of color to pursue careers in the arts.
An aspiring diplomat since she was young, Alexis believes in the power of art to bring together different cultures. She travels internationally in search of art, meeting with women artists who are creating socially engaged artworks. In this podcast, she describes her journey to find her place in the art ecosystem, how she found the confidence to start her own company, and why she is passionate about mentoring the next generation of artists and art administrators.
Jenifer Simon [00:00:04] Hello and welcome to the Creative Careers Podcast. My name is Jenifer Simon. I’m Director of Business and Content Development at Artrepreneur, an online platform that helps creatives succeed. My guest today is Alexis Yuen, an art advisor, business and branding strategist, museum docent, activist, and former artist. Prior to founding The Art Diplomat, an art advisory for good, she worked for the premier art show, Art Basel, and the prestigious auction house, Christie’s.
Jenifer Simon [00:00:31] Welcome, Alexis, to the program.
Alexis Yuen [00:00:33] Thank you for having me.
Jenifer Simon [00:00:35] What was your initial interest in the arts?
Alexis Yuen [00:00:38] I grew up in Hong Kong. I loved drawing, painting, photography, dancing and singing. So, when there was time to choose college, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, except that I was really good in art. So, I thought it was natural to go to art school, and I came to America for the first time to study in Boston. I went to Tufts University, where I did a Bachelor of Fine Arts and studied studio art and art history. I was practicing photography and design and I loved it in the beginning, but then I was surrounded by so many students at Tufts that were studying international relations and aspired to become diplomats. So, that got me to start thinking about what I could do with my own art practice. And so I started including social message and my own art, and started thinking about what I could do with my art for social change. I did a project with immigrants in Boston, documenting their stories as well as working with survivors of domestic violence, and teaching them how to use a camera, to do photo essays, to tell their own stories. I loved being an activist and artist in college, but then afterwards I didn’t really know how to become a full time artist, so I started brainstorming ways that I could use a Bachelor of Fine Arts. And that led me to Christie’s. So it was a great opportunity — they put me as an intern where I helped out with a lot of the auction, valuation and client service, and very quickly I got a full time job there. And I worked there for quite a few years, and I learned so much about business. I learned so much about technology and the art gallery system, as well as client service in general, and it was just so interesting I decided to go back to grad school to get more business skills. So I went to Columbia in New York City to study Arts Administration for my Masters. I studied Visual and Performing Arts Management. I took many classes at business school involving accounting, branding, and investment, and actually took many classes at the Urban Planning school as well, because I was really passionate about public art and how art engages people in a city. And so after graduation that led me to work at Art Basel.
Jenifer Simon [00:02:59] That’s really interesting. It’s great that you have the confidence now and the skills to kind of do what you want. So, Alexis, some of our listeners might not be familiar with artists who practice socially-engaged art. Can you tell us a little bit about what that is?
Alexis Yuen [00:03:13] That’s a really good question. When I say socially-engaged art, I’m thinking of artists who use art as a tool for their activism. Take climate change for an example. I know so many artists that send a message about why this is such an important issue in the world. And to me that’s so important. I recently went to an event where they had a scientist talk about the effect of climate change on rainfall. And he said the reason that he is now looking to artists to send us a message is because when people hear “science” it may not necessarily give them the positivism and encouragement to do something about the world, because it’s just so dire and it’s just so sad when you send a message through art. Sometimes the message is more powerful when it’s so beautiful, it’s something that people can engage with. I think there’s something that is so special about using art for activism.
Jenifer Simon [00:04:11] Alexis, you just started a new business called “The Art Diplomat,” an art advisory for artists for social good. What impact do you want to see as a result of forming the company?
Alexis Yuen [00:04:21] What I want to do through The Art Diplomat is bring together the two worlds between activist art and commercial art, because I really see that they are very different worlds. There are artists and activists doing great work with social message, but they’re not really getting the funding, or attention, or expertise to have great events or have great spotlights to showcase what they do, and that actually affects their platform. And that’s why sometimes they’re not seen in art fairs, or galleries, or in people’s homes, because their work is seen as non-commercial. And I think I want to change that. And for the commercial art world, we have so many great artists that get great exposure and have great gallery openings, and they get a lot of funding from the business world, people with means, and not just because of the attention that they’re getting. And I see that there is a huge opportunity to bring together these two worlds and I could be the glue. And of course I’m only one person, I can’t do so much, but I would love to start this movement and get more people to notice this field of using art for social change.
Jenifer Simon [00:05:28] What is it like to start a company and be a creative Artrepreneur?
Alexis Yuen [00:05:32] I think it’s still so new that sometimes I don’t believe it. It was really, really scary starting my own thing at first. I remember just thinking, when I was approached to do a lot of art advising or curating, I just kept thinking “I’m not qualified to do this”. In the art world we all know that you need a PhD in Art History to be a curator. And I just kept thinking “I’m not qualified”. And after so many encouragements from friends and colleagues, I started doing it without thinking too much about it. And I had friends from outside the art world who don’t understand my doubts. They actually told me that while you see art every day and you’ve been in this world for so long, I don’t understand why you think you’re not qualified. And that gave me the confidence to just go out and tell people what I do. I think I still get scared sometimes. It’s like an imposter syndrome. Like, “who am I to do this?” But sometimes it just takes someone who is willing to do this, because if I don’t do this, is someone else doing what I want to do?
Alexis Yuen [00:06:37] Maybe there is, but then there is always room for more people to do something meaningful. And right now I’ve gotten into the groove of being an entrepreneur. It’s been so much fun. I think when you’re brave enough to tell people what you want to do, that attracts people and that confidence that you can do something makes other people believe that you can do it. And they trust you with your work, and in the past two months I’ve just been amazed by how many people who have come with amazing projects I never thought I was qualified to do, and they trust me with so much expertise. It’s just really really fun to do.
Jenifer Simon [00:07:21] You make a couple good points, Alexis. Being an entrepreneur is scary, but it is also so much fun. Why specifically are you interested in women artists?
Alexis Yuen [00:07:31] I remember when I was thinking of starting this, my friend told me, “well, if you were a guy you would have done this a long time ago”. As women sometimes we look at a job description and we just think, “oh if I don’t fit all 10 criteria then I wouldn’t even apply”. And that’s not what a lot of men do. When I was doubting myself, I just told myself, “well, a guy would have gone for it”. So that led me to doing this podcast, that led me to do a lot of panels, and just talk about my expertise. And once you start doing it, you just feel more and more confident. I see a lot of myself and women artists be really harsh on yourself and don’t put your work out there until you think it’s 100 percent ready. But sometimes that’s not what men do, like they even show people their drafts, and that’s how they get commissions. People really encourage confidence. So when I talk to women artists, it’s love for work, but sometimes I feel like I’m almost talking to them as a friend, almost as a therapist or an encourager, to tell them, “you’re qualified to do this, and I’m excited for you, and I believe in you.” So, it’s just been so great meeting so many women artists.
Jenifer Simon [00:08:44] So, Alexis, you mentor a lot of artists but also arts professionals, arts administrators. What advice do you have for somebody who is just about to start college or just graduated college? What skills do they need or what should they look out for?
Alexis Yuen [00:09:00] Jenifer, you’re totally right. Mentorship is so important to me. It’s my number one privilege for me to be in this position, and being able to speak to younger artists and also administrators, because I just remember so clearly being in that position and how helpful it was. So, that’s why I think the most important thing is to get a great mentor. If I look back in my email during my graduation year, so many people that didn’t know me helped me. They didn’t even meet me. They were people that I found on things, and alumni strangers who interviewed me. I was just so open about asking for help and people really wanted to help. I really think most people in the arts are passionate about what they do, and they have all been through it, so they want to help. Just ask and if they don’t reply it’s not because they are too good for you, it’s just because they’re too busy. So don’t hesitate to ask for help! People like it, and people want to bring up others in the arts. When you meet someone that loves the arts and wants to be in a career filled with art, they’re usually people that are so passionate, and just just have this joy of wanting to do something meaningful, and that is just beautiful. And I think one advice that I would give to graduating students right now is to find a group of people that can go through this journey with you. I think one advice I would give graduating students who want to become arts administrators, or artists, or just be in this art world is to find a group of people that share your passion and just make a pact to support each other. When I was an intern, I remember a mentor telling me that instead of going for all the museum directors and making friends with your supervisor, to make friends with all the interns because these are the people that will grow with you in your career. So I started a text group with the group of interns at different companies, and throughout our careers we just invited each other to openings to our events and to tell each other about exciting artists, or exciting business models that are out there. And to be honest, that’s as great as my graduate degree, because you just learn so much from each other’s perspective and you also get entry and connections into each other’s worlds. And that’s been so amazing and we’re still growing together. So many people in this group are now gallery directors, auction house specialists, and I’m so proud of them.
Jenifer Simon [00:11:33] Alexis, I can absolutely see why you’ve been so successful. So you’re from Hong Kong and you have this international experience. How is the art world different there?
Alexis Yuen [00:11:44] I think the Hong Kong art world is still very green compared to London and New York. But it’s also very exciting because Hong Kong doesn’t have an established infrastructure in the arts. That’s why there is also more room for creativity and it’s been really exciting seeing how many new business models are coming out of Hong Kong that connect entrepreneurship with design and art and that’s something that a lot of people from the West actually are learning about because they’re starting from scratch. People are thinking about what they can do in technology and how they can combine the commercial world with the art world and that’s something that the West can learn a lot from. And for myself, after years of working internationally and New York, London, Buenas Aires, Switzerland, I’ve learned so much about the different art worlds. But I’m also really happy to say that the arts so international. Art is a language that can translate wherever you go. So, I used to worry about losing my network if I kept moving around the world, but actually it’s just been a benefit and it’s strengthened my resumé and my expertise.
Alexis Yuen [00:12:56] So, I’ve worked internationally in many different countries and these include new New York, London, Switzerland, Argentina and it’s just been really fun seeing how the different art worlds are and while they have many differences and they all have their own unique edge, I’m also really happy to say that art is a universal language and I’ve been able to use my network internationally while moving around and meeting different artists because sometimes even when I didn’t speak the language I was able to communicate through art and thats just something very beautiful. So I think for that reason I will continue to work internationally and to look at different examples of great museums and great artists everywhere. And as an art diplomat I would love to use art for cultural exchange. It would be my dream to be able to bring say a Chinese artist to America and American artist to China and just to encourage a conversation around it and to encourage people to use art to look beyond their circle and their society and see what is happening around the world.
Jenifer Simon [00:13:58] Alexis, it’s been wonderful talking to you today, and I find you and your experience so inspiring. Our guest today has been Alexis Yuen. You can follow Alexis at @ysyalexis and learn more about her work on her website, theartdiplomat.com. To learn more about Artrepreneur, go to our website Artrepreneur.com.