An Art Diplomat Pushes Boundaries
It’s time to leverage the power of art to create social good.
Conjure up an image of art in your mind. Let it linger for a moment. Now conjure up an image of a diplomat. Are the two images starkly different? Alexis Yuen is working to change that. She defines an art diplomat as someone who “who uses art and culture to bring about cultural exchange and social change” and recently founded The Art Diplomat to do just that.
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Alexis credits her upbringing for largely shaping the woman she is today. The product of a Christian girls’ school, she was “surrounded by female role models who led governments, changed the world, [and] told men what to do.”
How did you get started creating art?
I loved creating from a young age. I drew, painted, built legos everyday and even had group art shows at home where my siblings and I sold art to our relatives. When it was time to choose an academic path, it was natural that I applied to art and design schools. I studied Studio Art at Tufts University which is known for educating leaders in social change. This caused a big identity crisis as I struggled to find a bigger purpose as an artist. I almost changed majors to study medicine because I wanted to make an impact like my fellow classmates. However, I came to terms that my skills and talents were in art and that I would make a bigger impact by being a great artist than a mediocre doctor.
After this crisis, I started making art that addressed social change, mainly related to migrants’ and womens’ right. I documented immigrants’ stories in Boston Chinatown, created design campaigns that attacked today’s unrealistic standard of beauty, and I taught youth survivors of domestic violence to use photo essays to tell their stories. I also applied my art directing skills in fundraising. I co-founded a charity fashion show called LUX, did the photography, design, websites, and social media campaigns myself and absolutely loved it. It ran for 10 years and raised thousands of dollars for the OneSky Foundation and has changed the lives of many children in the Chinese foster care system.
With a Bachelor of Fine Arts, I struggled to find a job after graduation (I had no idea that being a full-time artist was an option). I tried advertising, arts nonprofits and eventually landed on a job at Christie’s in London, organizing their Chinese Art auctions. They needed a Chinese speaker because Chinese nationals were starting to buy artworks from abroad as part of a repatriation effort. I was in a unique position as a Hong Kong person working for a British auction house, selling Chinese Art from European to Chinese collectors. Some of my diplomatic tendencies started to emerge…
Tell us more about when those diplomatic tendencies began to emerge. Is this when you began curating and selling art?
After three years at Christie’s, I wanted to gain formal business training so I went to Columbia University to pursue a Master in Arts Administration. At Columbia, I delved deeply into the impact art has in cities and communities. I studied how museums engage their impoverished neighbors as well as how property developers use art as a tool for luxury branding.
I joined Art Basel after graduate school on their innovation and partnership team. Our responsibility was to strategize new revenue streams and creative ways to engage the public with art. I travelled extensively to study different cultural events and cities as well as to speak to stakeholders to present our ideas.
After Art Basel, I took a break to reflect on my next steps and how I could fully use my gifts to achieve my purpose. I traveled around the world to see museums, galleries and meet with artists in places like Seoul, Doha, Mexico City, Shenzhen, Toronto and many more. It was during this time that I was approached by friends who are from outside the art world to start investing in art for them. I initially said no because I thought art advising was superficial and only for the rich. But when a mentor asked what I would buy if I was advising, I named a list of artists only to realize that they were all women and minority activists working on social causes. It dawned on my that by introducing art collectors to buy or commission art from lesser-known artists who are doing meaningful work, I could play a part in supporting the artists’ causes. I recognize that buying art is not the only way to support the arts but it also excites me to be able to connect art lovers with artists who do great work.
How do you identify and why is your identity important to you?
Growing up in Hong Kong—a place that’s not fully Chinese nor British, but has its own unique identity—I had to think about my own cultural identity starting at a young age. How I identify culturally has changed over the years but I currently identify as a Chinese woman from Hong Kong. I think my upbringing in a mixed culture has made me naturally drawn to people who do not fit in a box. I love hearing unlikely stories about others’ upbringing because it always reminds me not to judge someone based on their looks.
My identity as a woman is very important to me now and I work hard to support other women everyday. However, this was something I only started thinking about after I was shocked by many gender biases in the workplace. Growing up in an all girls’ school with an almost all-female teacher staff, I had the privilege of never thinking about the topic of gender. My mother and sister are both pioneers in their industries and I was always surrounded by women who are math geniuses, athletes, student leaders so I knew no limits to what a woman can do.
How can one use art for good?
So many ways but what I’m promoting right now is by supporting emerging artists who are making art that addresses today’s social issues. This can mean buying artworks from them, following their Instagram account, or simply telling friends about their works.
What frustrates you the most about today’s art culture?
The idea that art is only for the elite. I think anyone regardless of education or income level should be able to enjoy art. The perception of art being unapproachable needs to be changed dramatically through art education, access, and technology. The art industry also needs to change and pay their staff more fairly so more people can enter the industry.
What do you want people to take away from your work with The Art Diplomat?
Anyone can change the world regardless of your trade or skills. I used to think art was too unimportant to make any impact but I was wrong. Don’t underestimate your gifts. There is a greater purpose to all lines of work.
“Don’t underestimate your gifts. There is a greater purpose to all lines of work.”
What are some of the biggest differences between the art scene in Hong Kong compared to the art scene in New York?
The Hong Kong art scene is very green, which has its pros and cons. There are so many creative business models coming out of the Hong Kong art scene because they’re not burdened with the century-old art world structures of the West. However, there is a lack of support system that supports grassroot arts nonprofits and artists. I think as soon as people realize artists are an important part of a healthy creative economy, there’ll be hope for a more developed arts ecosystem in Hong Kong.
What’s your positive message for the rest of 2019?
Stop living from a place of fear. Be open about what you want to do, talk to people about your dreams, and somehow, all the dots will connect and the right opportunities will surface. At least that’s what happened for me in 2019, I hope it will for you too 🙂
*This interview has been condensed for clarity.