The MMIAM Journey

A blog about the Master of Management
in International Arts Management program

Preparing the Arts for a Digital World

An interview with Viahsta Yuan

Viahsta Yuan grew up in Beijing, China immersed in the arts. After studying business at the University of British Columbia, she became involved in startups and entrepreneurship. She chose to do the MMIAM so she could reenter the arts in a professional and managerial way and graduated in 2017. Viahsta is now the Curator and Director of Programs at the SUNZEN Art Gallery in Vancouver, Canada.

What skills did you gain during the MMIAM program that help you succeed at your current job?

I think the most important thing I gained from the MMIAM was entrepreneurial spirit. Before the MMIAM I was on a startup team and there was lots of trial and error. I was mostly in charge of the design aspects and therefore quite focused on one field. MMIAM taught me to seemore long term goals, focus on them, and achieve them.

MMIAM also helped me understand the importance of teamwork and how to operate as a small team. When you’re with a small team, everyone needs to be a leader. Everyone is doing things hands-on and this is what allows the organization to expand.

The trip to Bogota was inspirational for me. We learned about the arts organizations there that don’t receive funding or grants from the government and are therefore driven to find all their funding themselves. This makes them very community-based. They worked hard to engage their communities and attract people.

Lastly, I think MMIAM gave me insight into the contemporary art world. There is a constant question in curation of how to select art that promotes accessibility. MMIAM helped me realize how important it is to listen to your constituents to see what they like, and then design programming to entertain them and attract them to your mission.

Man admiring a painting by Chinese artist Ren Zhong
Exhibition: Ren Zhong – Twin Wings to the Glory, curated by Viahsta Yuan. Photo credit: RoyHoh.

What is Sunzen Art Gallery and what do you do there?

Sunzen Art Gallery is a commercial art gallery that is focused on traditional and contemporary East Asian Arts, especially Chinese. Our headquarters is in Qingdao, China and was founded in 2002.

At Sunzen, I curate shows, organize the education programs, prepare budgets, implement new programs, and focus on the larger strategic side of things. Our location in Vancouver was founded about two and half years ago and when I joined it had only just opened. They were originally very focused on traditional arts like calligraphy and ink-wash paintings. Traditional art is great,  but the art isn’t well known locally and could be difficult to understand for people without the cultural background. They needed someone to point them in the right direction in the North America market.

We started offering more contemporary art and new programs to attract a new and more diverse market. We started working more closely with the community and emerging artists. By bringing in new artists to mix with the traditional masters, everyone was able to learn something new. Newer artists have a chance to enter into the market and the well-established Chinese artists that we represent are gaining a new perspective by having their works in North America.

How has the forced shift to a digital atmosphere affected your organization?

The shift to include more contemporary art has been important. The accessibility of the art opens doors to consumers from all around the world. As we hold online exhibitions, 360° tours and 3D modeling have helped us stay relevant.

Personally, I began learning 3D modelling to allow myself to more easily explain my curatorial ideas. It’s hard to get a sense of a piece or a space when all you have is a photo. 3D modelling allows us to tell a story with our space, instead of just having digital photos arranged on a screen.  Even when our gallery is open and people can visit it physically, it remains extremely useful for people to visit our space from a distance. Oftentimes, artists are located in China or elsewhere outside of Vancouver. A 3D model allows them to see the space and give insights into how their art should be shown. This also allowed for more interest in sponsorships and partnership, especially for cross-industry collaborations, because our curatorial proposals can be visually available to them. Honestly, I think it’s a growing trend for curators to include 3D modeling in their skill sets  at this point because of how much nonlocal communication there is around a physical space.

Another thing we have been experimenting with is crypto art. Crypto art is digital art that can be collected through blockchain technology. Although it appears promising in the long term, there are still many challenges to overcome. There is lack of institutional support, an abundance of work but little curation, and an obvious technical requirement. Despite all this, it appears to be a “blue ocean” for the art market and I think it will be the next big trend.

A sculpture by contemporary artist Chen Wenling next to a pool
Chen Wenling’s exhibition – Rising to the Sun, curated by Viahsta Yuan. Photo credit: Viahsta Yuan.

How have customers and art-purchasing habits changed because of Covid-19?

At the beginning we had a 4 month lockdown where we had to close. This made us shift entirely online. Since we were active online the entire time we were locked down, we had a lot more foot traffic once we reopened. Some of our visitors were telling us that we were a major source of entertainment because so many other places were still closed. Bars, theatres, cinemas and more are closed so since we’re open, people visit.

We are slower in terms of selling, but it has been a great opportunity to increase our image, brand, and reach new people. We’ve been collaborating with social media influencers to come see the shows and share it on social media. Even though we can’t technically host events, people can still come and promote us. It’s important for smaller arts organizations to leverage social media because there are so many people there these days. The influencers are also looking for content. Since everything is closed and it’s hard to travel, influencers also benefit from using our gallery for new content so we can leverage that relationship. The pandemic has proven to be a good time to expand your marketing.

What do you think are some of the themes that we will see in the arts world after COVID-19?

It’s hard to say. Even though we’re doing ok, many arts organizations are still at the survival level. Governments are cutting grants for the arts as there are so many industries that need support.

We must recognize that the arts are essentially entertainment. It is where people can spend money when they have extra. And, I think people will spend money more attentively after covid because so many people are having a hard time.

Strategically, I think art managers should be focusing on how to create programs that attract people, but don’t require them to spend too much money or effort and are more adjustable to their schedule. This presents a specific hurdle for the performing arts that are tied to a time, place, and fixed costs.

More people are working from home and are stuck at home all the time. They will get used to this environment. They will want to go out again, but home has become more comfortable. So, we need to ask how we are going to be able to provide them with the entertainment they’re looking for from their home? Perhaps the next step will be creating budget entertainment.

Two paintings by a Chinese contemporary artist in an exhibition at the Sunzen Art Gallery.
Exhibition: Fable and the Prophet: Inside and Outside the Redline, curated by Viahsta Yuan. Photo credit: Viahsta Yuan.