As Director of our New York Institute, Christine Kuan pioneers new academic programs, finds interesting artists, gallerists, curators and other art world professionals to teach at the Institute and establishes new partnerships to maximise our graduates’ art careers opportunities. Previously Chief Curator and Director of Strategic Partnerships at Artsy, Christine has worked across the art world - in curation, education, publishing and program administration. Here, she tells us how her career started with a choice, what drew her to Sotheby’s Institute of Art, and why succeeding in the international art business comes down to building relationships and following your instinct...
You studied art history, literature, and poetry at university. How did your art career begin?
Selling antique and estate jewelry at a gallery in NYC. It taught me a tremendous amount about how to work with collectors and wealthy, international people, and how to run a business.
After my MFA in poetry, I landed a job at The Metropolitan Museum of Art as an administrator for a new program to teach Chinese museum directors American museum practices. It was an amazing opportunity. I also had a full-time marketing job offer that paid quadruple what the Met was paying, but I chose the Met.
I learned everything I know about how to run both commercial and nonprofit art businesses from those two jobs. I felt a lot of pressure to make more money, but you have to block out all the naysayers and go with your gut in this industry.
Were you always passionate about art?
Yes, always. There’s a photo of me aged two painting with watercolors. My whole family is artistic and literary - my grandfather was an artist who taught at a fine arts school in Taiwan - and I spent most of my childhood in museums and libraries. Some people take pleasure in numbers, or in the mechanics of things - I take pleasure in aesthetics and words.
You’ve had a varied career, as a curator, editor, lecturer, and program administrator in your previous roles at Artsy, Oxford University Press, Beijing University, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. What do you find most rewarding about working in the art business?
I believe people live for the arts - it’s the highest expression of our humanity. We need art more than ever in this world. As funding for arts education gets cut, as world monuments are tragically destroyed, as archaeological sites are looted, as corporations digitize and lock up our intellectual property, it’s vital that we promote and preserve art and culture.
Anyone who works in the art world in an ethical way is a steward of our cultural heritage. People often don’t realize that by teaching and learning about art, collecting artworks, supporting museums, seeing exhibitions, they’re keeping art and culture alive.
What did you learn from being Chief Curator at Artsy, a startup technology company, which is the leading online resource for collecting and learning about art?
The art market is a dynamic place and no business today can succeed without harnessing digital technologies. I learned to be agile, and to stay positive even when it’s a vertical ascent. I established relationships with more than 600 major museums and the top 15 commercial auction houses in under four years. People will run with you if they’re inspired by the project.
What attracted you to working at Sotheby’s Institute New York?
The program combines art history, connoisseurship, and professional expertise - which is what the industry needs desperately. It excited me that I could draw upon all my industry experience at Artsy, Artstor, The Met, and elsewhere to shape the curriculum and the program. I worked with many Sotheby’s Institute graduates at Artsy and I was really impressed by them. I was also interested to work with the next generation of leaders in the art world.
I worked with many Sotheby’s Institute graduates at Artsy and I was really impressed by them.
Tell us a bit about your vision as Director
The Institute was the first graduate program to understand that working in the art market requires different skills than working as an art history scholar. We have the longest track record for providing the academic and professional training to enable people to thrive in a highly competitive art market.
The program is already incredibly strong, but there some copycat programs, and I want to make sure ours remains the best. Our goal is that every graduate will leave the Institute prepared to significantly and meaningfully impact the art world.
Our goal is that every graduate will leave the Institute prepared to significantly and meaningfully impact the art world.
And your other interests... do you still write poetry?
I write for myself. I don’t have time to really develop my poetry, but it’s always on my mind. I gave all my art books to Artsy’s library so I only have poetry books in my home. Sometimes I say I write poetry on the job. Negotiation, dealmaking, building partnerships are all about language and feeling.
Do you have some advice for people just starting out in their art careers?
Dress for the part you want to play. Understand the business goals of the organization. And, you catch more flies with honey. The art market is a business of relationships - cultivating your expertise, building your network, and finding your allies is everything!