Opening a gallery in New York to promote Contemporary Ink painting, she sees her career as a creative process
Almost no successful career path is the same. In our new column, Stories from the Workplace, we talk to representatives of the arts industry to hear their stories and give advice to newcomers.
New York had its first big snowfall just before Christmas. On the snowy side of the road, we met the curator of Fu Qiumeng Fine Art, a gallery based on the Upper East Side, where she was wrapping up an exhibition exploring renowned Chinese connoisseur and scholar Wang Fangyu’s research on 17th-century master painter Bada Shanren.
While the gallery space is not comparable to a museum in scale, the show is complete and inviting. It is not easy to run a gallery anywhere, let alone in New York, the heart of the global art market where challenges are equal to opportunities. Influenced by her family environment, Fu Qiumeng’s interest in art began with traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy, but her career did not start there. It was a convoluted path to starting her own business. But, as Fu points out, “many job opportunities in the art world need to be created by ourselves. Maybe everyone in the art industry should be an entrepreneur.”
Founder of Fu Qiumeng Fine Art
Q: 2020 is sure to be a tough and unforgettable year for gallery professionals in New York. How did you get through this year? Were there any difficulties and surprises during the epidemic? Can you talk about the latest project?
A: In January, we held a successful exhibition show titled “The Null Set” for the conceptual calligraphy artist Feng Mingchip. In March, everything changed. On the opening day of the “A Room of One’s Own” group exhibition, the New York governor announced the lockdown of the entire city, so we closed down the show right away. The gallery quickly transformed into my personal space. I stayed alone in the gallery and began to sort out my manuscript files focusing on Wang Fangyu’s study of Bada Shanren. I researched Wang Fanyu’s scholarship, wrote a paper about his work, and began planning an archival exhibition exploring his authentication methods.
“The 40th anniversary of the Master of Nets Garden in Suzhou and Astor Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” Shooting site, Alfreda Murck explains the history of the construction of the MET’s Master of Nets Garden|《苏州网师园和大都会明轩四十周年纪录片》拍摄中，姜斐德（Alfreda Murck）讲解大都会明轩的建造历史
In September, I was fortunate to be invited by Christie’s Asia Contemporary department in New York to present a cooperative exhibition project titled “White Background.” The exhibition’s goal was to introduce our artists and curatorial approaches to Asian contemporary art audiences and break the stereotypical binary between traditional and contemporary categories: concepts usually regarded as contradictory. At the same time, I participated in a documentary project titled “The 40th anniversary of the Master of Nets Garden in Suzhou and Astor Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” This allowed me to conduct in-depth interviews with Maxwell K. Hearn, the director of the Metropolitan Asia Department, and Alfreda Murck, the former curator of Metropolitan. I have a great deal of respect for their contributions to Asian art history and promoting Asian culture overseas, and it was a great privilege to talk with them about traditional landscape aesthetics.
“The 40th anniversary of the Master of Nets Garden in Suzhou and Astor Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” Shooting site, Alfreda Murck explains the history of the construction of the MET’s Master of Nets Garden
On December 1st, I opened the archival exhibition “Authentic or Forgery: How does a Chinese Connoisseur work? Fangyu Wang’s Research on Bada Shanren.” The manuscripts, photographs, and writings of scholar Wang Fangyu are displayed to present his personal appraisal methods alongside the more general practices and thought processes used by authoritative appraisers of ancient Chinese calligraphy and painting. The show culminates in the last week of January when we will exhibit Wang Fangyu’s authentic collection of Bada Shanren’s masterpieces alongside forged Bada Shanren works made by Modern painter Chang Dai-chien. The show will provide the public with an opportunity to fully understand an authoritative scholar’s appraisal rationale. We welcome all interested audiences to make a reservation to explore the exhibition.
I’m very accustomed to being alone, and my productivity became very high during the pandemic. It may also be because of being too idle. It drove me to complete research work that I wouldn’t have done normally. So really, I find it hard to define time as “good” or “bad”-it’s transitional.
Q: Why did you get into art? Before you entered the art world, did you try something less art related?
A: When I was young, my parents were busy with work, so I spent most of my time alone at home, painting. From day to night, time would disappear naturally. Since my grandfather and father have some involvement in collecting modern Chinese painting and calligraphy, I had the opportunity to establish a basic understanding of Chinese ink art at an early stage. My undergraduate major at Michigan State University was Communication. But I took some art history courses, and in my spare time, I often read ancient Chinese literature, religion, and philosophical history. After graduating, I came back to Beijing and used my communication background to work in advertising. My first job was as a junior analyst with the Lexus Automotive Greater China advertising strategy team at Zenith Optimedia, a subsidiary of French Publicis Groupe. After about four months, I decided to quit the job. This was the first time I started to question my career path choices. College major or hobby; what should I choose?
Q: What was your first real job in the art world?
A: In mid-2012, after resigning from the job that suited my major, I took the advice of a relative who encouraged me to pursue my interest in Chinese cultural history and applied for a junior specialist position in an auction house in Beijing. The company’s founders were Yang Wu (who studied under the scholar Yang Renkai) and calligrapher, connoisseur, and collector, Zeng Yiyan (who studied under the calligrapher Ma Gongyu). Both Mr. Yang and Mr. Zeng helped establish the classical Chinese painting and calligraphy market in the early stages of the Chinese auction industry in the 1990s. Bao Rui Ying International Auction Company is the result of their entrepreneurial project.
Mr. Zeng Yiyan corrects the information entered on the document (calligraphy, seal identification) of calligraphy works | 曾一琰先生校正书法作品的底卡（书法、章印识别）录入信息
The couplets inscribed by Lu Runxiang, Cai Yuanpei and Zhang Daqian during the work of Bao rui ying, from left respectively | 宝瑞盈工作期间，左起分别为陆润祥、蔡元培、张大千题写的对联
When I joined the company, it was just starting out, so my work was not confined to dealing with artworks. In addition to honing my knowledge of Chinese painting and calligraphy from the classical period to the modern period, I assisted in handling every aspect of the operation of the auction house, such as acquiring artworks, assessing their condition, making identifications, researching classical literature, writing articles, catalog production, exhibition planning, publicity, building client relationships, sales, shipping, insurance, and other post-sales services. The two seniors in the company placed a great deal of trust and responsibility in me. This allowed me to build my practical knowledge and quickly gain a relatively comprehensive understanding of Chinese auction house operations and the secondary art market.
In my opinion, entrepreneurship is particularly like leading an expeditionary force. First of all, you are leaving your hometown, surrounded by a chaotic foreign land. The team is unstable without a comfort zone, and it’s difficult to know how to coordinate and strategize the project, achieve a relatively balanced and stable state in a constantly changing situation, and push changes forward. I think this is the problem that every entrepreneur needs to face and overcome. My work experience, participating in the developmental period of a professional auction house and secondary market commercial institution, played a vital role in founding my gallery in New York City.
Ink art’s quality is assessed by a sophisticated aesthetic system that takes into account the artist’s integrated skills using brush, ink and water. So, from the beginning of my career as a calligrapher, Mr. Zeng helped me refine my understanding of the visual expression and historical development of ink painting and calligraphy by encouraging me to imitate old master ink paintings and recommended books on the history of Chinese calligraphy.
In 2014, I left my job and returned to the U.S. to pursue a master’s degree in Leadership at Northwestern University. After graduation, I moved to New York and interned at Tyler Rollins Fine Art in Chelsea (a gallery specializing in contemporary Southeast Asian art and the primary market). Later I worked with Lark Mason Associates, an expert in antique Chinese works of art. These experiences provided me with a better understanding of New York’s primary contemporary Asian art market and secondary antique market.
While working in New York, I was fortunate to learn more about painting from Arnold Chang, a contemporary ink artist, auction expert, and scholar who studied under C. C. Wang. He was the founder of Sotheby’s Chinese painting and calligraphy department in the 1980s. Mr. Chang often took out his collection of classical ink paintings to teach me the old masters’ brushstrokes, patiently explaining brush and ink techniques and painters’ styles in past dynasties.
This method of looking at works with the eyes, imitating paintings with the hands, and applying these experiences to the research of painting and calligraphy, helped me understand the Confucian philosopher Wang Yangming’s axiom of “unity of knowledge and action,” and its importance to the development of Chinese art history. It is the essential building block of Chinese literati art. While I was studying with Arnold Chang, I often met Chinese art history scholars and other experts in classical Chinese painting and calligraphy. Following these encounters, I realized that the ancient literati philosophy integrating scholarship, creation, and life remains vital to many practicing artists in the contemporary era.
Q: Why do you focus on Chinese contemporary ink painting? What is the current market situation in this area?
A: I often traveled around Europe and the United States for work, and I established close contacts with many top antique experts, family estates holding classical and modern Chinese painting and calligraphy, and artists engaged in ink art practice. After graduating from college, the first contemporary ink artist I came into contact with was Mr. Tai Xiangzhou. I remember seeing his works for the first time in New York, in the home of a classical Chinese art collector whose ancestors were descendants of a large family from the Republic of China who had fled to the West during WWII. Her collection includes ancient porcelain, bronze ware, Ming Dynasty furniture, rare books, classical calligraphy and painting, and modern painting, including contemporary works that inherited the spirit of ink art.
Looking at her collection, I could see she had built a personal narrative in relation to China’s cultural and historical context. As she explained to me, her collection reflects her experiences seeking identity in a foreign country. Her words touched me deeply. So many of us in the diaspora have studied abroad. We have completed most of our education in the West and have a relatively incomplete understanding of Chinese traditional culture. Living in a cultural melting pot affected by globalization, we are constantly trying to reconcile cultural belonging and identity with diversity and inclusion. These concepts are the concepts that concern our generation as we face the world.
Qiumeng in front of Tai Xiangzhou’s work | 秋萌在泰祥洲作品前
American museums and academic education systems often explore the historical and stylistic links between classical calligraphy and painting and contemporary works in order to contextualize these traditions. By juxtaposing the past, the modern, and the contemporary, the art historical time line starts to look less like a linear concept and more like a network of ideas that crystallize to form a spatial and visual record of each cultural period. In the early 2010s, most Western antique dealers and auction houses exhibited some contemporary works with classical Chinese aesthetics. Still, there was no contemporary gallery dedicated to organizing and promoting this group systematically. I decided to open a window for my peers to enter the history of art from the perspective of Chinese classics, so I founded Fu Qiumeng Fine Art in New York in 2016.
In 2019, Arnold Chang and Michael Cherney's "Yellow Mountain Album" participated in the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition "Streams and Mountains without End: Landscape Traditions of China” | 2019年，张洪和秋麦（Michael Cherney）的《黄山册页》参与大都会艺术博物馆展览《溪山无尽——中国山水画传统》
It is the responsibility of secondary market experts to grasp short term price changes, but it requires a little more patience and long-term planning to run a gallery focusing on the primary market. Unlike the classical Chinese art market, China’s contemporary art market is still in its infancy: trading, donation, regulation, museum acquisitions, commercial institutions, and collecting networks are still being actively built and improved. Contemporary ink paintings, rooted in Chinese tradition, need to be promoted in tandem with the growth of the traditional Chinese art market. Paris was the world’s art center in 19th century Europe. In the mid 20th century, along with the rise of the United States economy, the artistic center moved to New York, and abstract expressionism became the defining movement of its time and place. Abstract expressionism was linked to notions of democracy, individualism, innovation, and the desire to break free from the bondage of traditional forms of representation, and its symbolic role, signifying American ideals, helped the movement evolve into a backbone of the global art market. From my point of view, it is just a choice made by history.
Q: Why did you decide to open a gallery in the Upper East Side of New York? Is there a story about site selection and initial customers? In the past few years, were there any customers or exhibitions that impressed you?
A: Before 65 E 80th Street, I used to do pop-up exhibitions. Later, after the clientele became more stable, I decided to open a space in the Upper East Side’s gallery district. This area is home to museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim and many private top-tier antique dealers and established galleries. Unlike the hustle and bustle of most of New York, this quiet neighborhood has a more historic feel.
2017, Group Exhibition Purity of Mind Opening reception at the 65 E 80st new york space, From left to right are Wang Shaofang, Qiumeng, Wang Mansheng, Arnold Chang, Kelly Wang, Micheal Cherney, and Yau Wing Fung. | 2017年，65 E 80st新空间《澄怀味象》群展开幕现场，左起为王少方、秋萌、王满晟、张洪、Kelly Wang、秋麦、邱荣丰
Q: What exhibition/event has made a big impact or impression on your career?
A: In 2018, my classmate Guo Xinran and I launched the QM Project. She had just graduated from Northwestern University with a Ph.D. in Art History. We tried to communicate the links between traditional Chinese aesthetics and global modern and contemporary art in various exhibitions, talks, research, and publishing activities. Our joint research project is very important to me. It helped me identify issues in the superstructure of the art system. For example, artworks referencing Chinese tradition and classical aesthetics have diverse narratives due to rising from different origins within the existing discourse on global modern and contemporary art. We have jointly launched several more writing projects, such as QM Vignette, Bulletin, and Art News in Chinese, to provide gallery subscribers with a window to understand the relationship between Eastern and Western art.
Later, we planned Tang Ke’s solo exhibition “Fruits,” Yau Wingfung’s solo exhibition “All’s Well, Ends Well,” and Feng Mingchip’s solo exhibition “The Null Set.” One of the works in “The Null Set,” The Word of Light, has been acquired by the curator of Asian art at the Art Museum of Chicago.
Q: Do you collect art? Whose art do you think is particularly important to the zeitgeist today?
A: The definition of the term “collecting” differs greatly between China and the West. In the history of Chinese art, collecting is a necessary part of both scholarly research and artistic creation. Therefore, the experts and scholars mentioned above are all collectors. Their lifestyle has had a profound influence on me. I collect works by each artist I represent, and I also collect some modern and ancient artworks.
At Qiumeng’s apartment, Arnold Chang’s work on the left and Shen Chen’s work on the right. | 秋萌家，张洪（Arnold Chang）作品（左）、沈忱作品（右）
We live in an era of intense global, geopolitical, economic, and cultural changes and conflicts, and most of the value systems from the last century are in active transition. I think artworks serve as important witnesses to this dynamic historical period.
Q: Do you have anyone you can call a mentor? How have they influenced your career and the way you work?
A: I’ve had a lot of mentors and helpful friends along the way, and each of them has influenced me in different ways. The person I want to mention here is Mr. Shaofang Wang, the executor of the Wang Fangyu family estate. He is a professional in the finance industry, but his hobby is researching ancient Chinese gold and silverware. His father, Wang Fangyu, and his mother, Shen Hui, established the world’s largest private collection of Bada Shanren works. They donated their collection to the Freer Museum in Washington, where the works attest to the power and influence of Bada Shanren’s works for global audiences.
Thanks to Mr. Wang, I developed a more comprehensive understanding of the research direction and history of Asian art in American museums and academies. He helped me expand my vision of working in the art world, enabling me to think about the foundation and systems of the Western art industry from a research perspective and develop better judgment and a broader understanding of the field. These skills are crucial for an entrepreneur promoting Asian art in the West.
Art Institute of Chicago Asian art department, from left, Qiumeng, Colin Mackenzie, Curator of Chinese Art, Art Institute of Chicago, and Wang Shaofang | 芝加哥博物馆亚洲馆办公室，左起为秋萌、芝加哥博物馆中国艺术策展人Colin Mackenzie、王少方先生
Visit Bada Shanren's works and ancient painting and calligraphy collection at the Freer Museum archival storage. | 在弗利尔博物馆仓库参观八大山人作品以及古代书画珍藏
Because of his trust, at the beginning of 2019, he handed me Wang Fangyu’s accumulated manuscripts and research materials in hopes that I could help analyze and organize them. I proposed to write a research paper and organize potential exhibitions, but the magnitude of the work made me feel a lack of confidence. I told him: “I am not formally trained in art history, but Chinese art is my hobby. I truly want to analyze Mr. Wang’s working methods and thought processes, but I can’t guarantee the length of time I will need to perform the research and achieve results.” He said humorously: “My father also started to study Bada Shanren because of his hobby. His job was teaching the Chinese language. Ancient Chinese literati were not professional artists either. They did everything; painting for a while, writing poetry, and retiring to live in seclusion. Although what they do are just hobbies, as long as they are willing to do it seriously, hey can always make something.”
Princeton University Art Museum, Wang Shaofang’s wife (second from left), Wang Shaofang (third from left), and Qiumeng (first from right) | 普林斯顿博物馆，王少方夫人（左二）、王少方（左三）、秋萌（右一）
Wang Fangyu will collect some forgeries and genuine works for comparative study, the picture on the left is Zhang Daqian's forgery of Bada Shanren – Four Geese, vertical scroll, ink on paper; the picture on the right is Bada Shanren's Four Geese, vertical scroll, ink on paper | 王方宇会收藏一些伪作和真作进行比较研究，左图为张大千作伪的《八大山人-荷花水鸟图》，立轴，墨笔，纸本；右图为八大山人《荷花水鸟图》，立轴，墨笔，纸本，1698
Wang Fangyu will collect some forgeries and genuine works for comparative study, the picture on the left is Zhang Daqian’s forgery of Bada Shanren – Four Geese, vertical scroll, ink and brush, on paper; the picture on the right is Bada Shanren’s Water Birds with Lotus Blossoms, vertical scroll, ink and brush, on paper, 1698
His words finally answered the first question I asked myself in my career – how to choose between profession and hobby: Career need not be an either/or choice. It depends on who we ultimately want to become, and it is achieved through continuous learning and practice.
After two years, we finally presented the archival exhibition “How does a Chinese Connoisseur work? Fangyu Wang’s Research on Bada Shanren.”
Q: What do you think is the biggest misconception about the art world?
A: I don’t think there is any misunderstanding about the art world. Everything is a very vague mystery when you look at it from the outside. But as long as we seek truth from facts and adhere to the pursuit of truth, we can clear away the fog and find something relatively stable, something weighty with a solid core. In the Chinese art tradition (which is not as narrowly defined as the modern international art market), there is value in retaining the historical perspective and engaging in learning and researching.
Q: What advice would you give to yourself at the beginning of your career?
A: Art professionals should have extraordinary creativity, just like artists.
In “Career Stories (职场故事)” published on Artnet News (Artnet新闻), Artnet News interviewed Fu Qiumeng about her career trajectory. She talks about how she switched from the advertising industry to the auction business, her notion of entrepreneurship in the art world, her understanding of contemporary ink, the people who have mentored her along the way, and the founding of Fu Qiumeng Fine Art. She emphasizes the importance of approaching art from the perspective of Chinese literati, a necessary condition for understanding one’s cultural identity in the globalized present. She also talks about her thoughts about career choices. As she said, “career may not be an either-or choice. It depends on what kind of person I ultimately want to be, and it is achieved through continuous learning and working.”