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April 1, 2016

Hello, art lovers, friends, family, faculty and Class of 2015! I am so honored today to speak with you and share a few things I’ve learned in my twenty years of working in the art world. I thought about all hundreds of things I could cover and I boiled it down to three very serious topics—parties, instant success, and, last but not least, money.

As I’m always telling people outside the art world, going to parties is my job. For the past four years, I was Chief Curator at a startup technology company. Some of you may have heard of it, it’s called Artsy. I’ve never attended so many parties in my life, and I’ve never worked so hard.

We hosted a dinner with Kate Moss and other celebrities in Hong Kong. We threw a cocktail party at the Guggenheim Museum in Venice. We ran an online auction with CEOs from Silicon Valley in San Francisco. We raised millions of dollars for AIDS research at benefits in New York. And the list goes on. These events accelerated the relationships that enabled Artsy to flourish practically overnight.

My point is, art parties are where alliances are built, deals are made, and sales get done. The art business is a business of relationships, and knowing the right people is as important as knowing about the art, the artists, the scholarship, and the market.

In the age of Instagram and instant gratifications, it often looks like everyone is achieving instant success. But instant success is a mirage. Don’t be misled by social media because few people make it in this business overnight. Because this is a business of relationships, this is an industry that takes time to master.

After getting my extremely lucrative degree, an MFA in Creative Writing Poetry, I was offered two jobs: a six-month, $12,000 contract at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and a full-time marketing job that paid three times as much. I took the job at the Met. And that meant I also had to take a second job working weekends to make ends meet. It was a huge gamble, and everyone told me I was making a big mistake.

Who knew then, certainly not my extremely worried parents who wanted me to be a doctor (and still want me to be a doctor), that this decision would lead me to become Editor in Chief at Oxford University Press, Vice President at Artstor, Chief Curator at Artsy, and now Director of one of the most prestigious graduate schools for art and its markets.

But, you can all relax because I’m not suggesting that you need to work two poorly paying jobs. But I am advising you to think not only about what the job will pay you, but also what the job will teach you.

At every step, people doubted my decisions. When I left Artsy last December, I received hundreds of messages of shocked and surprise. But the surprise of others always confirms for me that I’m making the right move. I try to see opportunities before other people see them. I try go where I can make the most impact. And I try to go where there are big challenges and an even bigger mission.

Throughout your career there will be people who will tell you that you should earn a certain salary, that you should have a certain title, that you should change course. Throughout your career there will be naysayers and critics. But you’ve got to go with your gut.

Don’t measure your success by society’s narrow parameters. Think strategically about how you want to position yourself two or three moves out. Gamble on the long-term. But most importantly, take the time to cultivate your knowledge and expertise, your network of relationships, and most of all, your reputation for excellence and integrity.

These days the art market revolves around the multi-million dollar auction sales, mega-star artists, and celebrity collectors. It is a $66 billion dollar industry and growing. But, there this is something that is far more important than money. I know, what could be more important than money?

The answer is: The art.

Other than a handful of blue chip artists, our society undervalues art and art is endangered. Schools have cut funding for arts programs and kids are learning how to take tests instead of thinking creatively and critically. Priceless world monuments are being destroyed by extremists. Important archaeological sites are being looted. Corporations are digitizing and locking up our intellectual property rather than making it freely accessible to the public.

Art is not merely a commodity or a luxury good.

The great painter Agnes Martin once wrote, “Art restimulates inspirations and awakens sensibilities. That’s the function of art.” I believe art is the highest expression of our humanity. Art has value beyond monetary value. It is our responsibility as art professionals to assert art’s value, not only in the marketplace, but also in our culture.

In my first three months in this role, I’ve sat in on several classes at the Institute—I’ve seen students’ amazing self-portrait videos, the analysis of various art businesses, discussions about the rise of a unique sensibility in American painting, and lectures on the booming Chinese art market.

The education you have received from the Institute is not only an understanding of the history of art or the business of art, but it is an understanding of the inner workings of the art market to enable you to be an agent of change in the art world.

Whatever you do from now on—whether you are directing an art fair, developing the talents of a young artist, fostering new collectors and patrons, fundraising, curating, running your own business, or simply taking a friend who knows nothing about art to a gallery opening—you are doing important and meaningful work.

When we work in an ethical way in the art world, we are stewards of cultural heritage.

You are now not only ambassadors for the Sotheby’s Institute, but you are the new ambassadors for art and culture.

Congratulations, Class of 2015!

Christine Kuan
Sotheby’s Institute of Art, New York