With her background in history of art and a resume that includes Christie’s and now Nicholas Hall, it is very easy to talk to Yuan Fang about pictures. Visit the gallery’s booths at art fairs or one of their expertly curated exhibitions in New York and you will see that she is eloquent and observant. But it is much more fun to talk to her about the work that she does to bring Old Masters to new viewers. She creates projects, curates exhibitions, and works with international scholars to educate audiences on how they too can connect with images that may not be immediately familiar. Of course Yuan loves art, that goes without saying, but it’s easy to see that she also enjoys the spark of a viewer realising that they have learned something new.
Carving Out A Career In The Art World
After growing up in Hangzhou and the United Kingdom, and then moving to the United States for University, how did your interest in Old Masters begin?
For most of my university experience, I lived a double life: in the daytime I was a chemist and at night I was an art historian in training. It was unclear where I was heading until I took a course led by my art history advisor – a Ghent native who specialised in Early Netherlandish art and markets – which brought me to the Low Countries. For around two months we were based in Amsterdam and Ghent, and took daytrips to places like Antwerp and Leiden, as well as Ypres and Mechlin to see works of art in museums and churches. To this day I remember being haunted by the skinned man in Gerard David’s Judgement of Cambyses at the Groeningemuseum in Bruges; equally transformative was my experience of seeing the monumental triptychs by Rubens in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, where many works by Quinten Metsijs were summoned from the KMSKA.
In my childhood I rarely saw original Old European paintings despite having lived in England – which I have fond memories of mostly nature and ruins: the heathered moors of Northumberland and Bamburgh Castle being my two favourites. I did, however, get to know many Western artists as a teenager through drawing and painting – like most Chinese students of art, I routinely studied plaster casts of Michelangelo and Rodin, and paintings after Rubens and Titian (via printed reproductions). In retrospect there was something cathartic about seeing art on the aforementioned journey. I never looked back since.
You are unusual in that there are very few women who are directors of major Old Master art galleries. Why do you think that this is and how do you hope that the role of women in galleries will change?
It is interesting to think that compared to the Old Masters world there are more women in prominent positions in contemporary art – at least you have women like Marian Goodman, Paula Cooper, Pilar Ordovas running their namesake galleries. I suspect it has something to do with the pace of change in an old establishment like the Old Masters world where women and non-Europeans are considered late comers. The sellers are key in driving the business and if they are used to dealing with a certain type of European men, then naturally it is with such preference that the new generation of dealers and auction specialists are being selected. I do think that as more collectors from the ‘new world’ start collecting and eventually selling, there will be a need for diversity.
You were the first Christie’s Old Master specialist to be based in Asia and you worked very hard to make this field more accessible to a new audience, something that you continue to do at Nicholas Hall. How do you think that your childhood in China helps you to communicate your enthusiasm so effectively?
It is a general consensus that Old Masters have a steep learning curve – which is inevitable since connoisseurship (the judgement of quality and authorship) takes many years to train. I enjoy getting to know what brings different people to this field. And China is particularly interesting because there is a longstanding culture for art collecting, but a near-total vacuum for Western Old Masters. So whenever there is a travelling exhibition of great Old Masters, people of all backgrounds flock to see it. They linger for minutes in front of each work and the excitement is palpable – perhaps you can get a sense of that from my photo taken from the exhibition La naissance des Beaux-Arts: du Grand Siècle à la Révolution at the Shanghai Museum in January 2020. What I learnt from China is perhaps to be more accepting of different value systems.
Incorporating Old Art Pieces Into Contemporary Interiors
Both in your previous role at Christie’s New York and since the founding of Nicholas Hall in 2016, you have been dedicated to making the world of Old Masters more approachable. You invite scholars to contribute to your website and your publications, present new exhibitions in your gallery, and produce very high quality catalogues. Aside from furthering the education of enthusiasts, why do you think that these initiatives are important?
We are part of an ecosystem formed by museum curators, collectors, conservators, scholars, and other dealers; we want to chime in and feel connected to others in our community but that is purely a matter of preference.
As an international design studio, Designed by Woulfe is exposed to many tastes and interests. How do you advise clients who are new to buying Old Masters, but want to incorporate the artworks into contemporary spaces?
It depends a lot on how the client approaches art collecting. From time to time we do see collectors of contemporary art venture into Old Masters, but their tastes can really vary. Some go for a particular look: it could be figurative, action-packed, or eccentric and slightly naïve; others focus on a few big names, or regional schools, or perhaps purely visual qualities (not bothered by attribution). It is important to know that the quality of an artwork does not always equate to the fame of the artist. So, when you are advising clients on Old Masters, there are a few factors that determine the value of an Old Master painting, which could be handy for you to know. It is also worth trying out different arrangements to see if the artworks go well together. We organized an exhibition at David Zwirner’s gallery space in 2018 which included over 130 works created between the 13th and 21st century. And when it came to the hanging, we pretty much decided everything on the spot.
This is a time when you would normally be putting together your artworks, fact sheets, photographs, condition reports and even stand equipment, for The European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht. Unfortunately, we will not be gathering together in The Netherlands for the fair so what do you see as the future of art fairs and how do you think clients will adjust?
Covid has certainly made us re-evaluate the purpose of art fairs and the need for such physical gatherings. Perhaps auction houses are asking themselves a similar question: do we need physical auctions if we can sell a 92 million-dollar Botticelli online? We would love to find a buyer for everything we take to TEFAF Maastricht; but would we want to miss out on the social side of things? There is something rather beautiful about seeing friends, colleagues and clients year after year at the same place. I think once the pandemic is under control, fairs will return with a bang!
Designed by Woulfe, like every business, is trying to adopt new practices for their businesses. How would you advise interior designers to approach purchasing an Old Master painting if this is not a field that they are familiar with?
It is always helpful to know what is available on the market; public auctions, fairs and Old Master galleries are different in style and clients often have different preferences. Galleries tend to have a personal approach and it could be beneficial for you to develop a good working relationship with a handful of reputable dealers – that way, you leave the connoisseurship (e.g. is this drawing really by Delacroix?) and pricing to them so you can focus on matching the right object to the right person. If you do decide to proactively incorporate Old Masters in your repertoire, then I suggest that you start building a visual database of art from different periods, regions, and artists. That could help you narrow down on your search when the time comes. Start with an aspect that you are personally drawn to – it could be by period (e.g. Baroque), subject matter (e.g. still-life with fruits), region (e.g. Naples), or perhaps a certain mood (e.g. introspective) – and go deep.
Trend Cycles Within The Art Market
After the exciting sale of the Sandro Botticelli, Young Man Holding a Roundel, at Sotheby’s New York in January 2021, there seems to be a renewed interest in this field. Do you have any artists who are particularly underrated whose pictures you would recommend to clients, both who have bought in this area before or are new to it?
It might be easier to begin with what is not underrated: Caravaggesque paintings, Italian gold grounds in great condition, Mannerism (both Northern and Southern), for instance. As with fashion, there are cycles in the art market. Back in the 90s French Rococo was all the rage but now that market has cooled down. Many artists went out of fashion for hundreds of years before they were ‘rediscovered’: Vermeer, Frans Hals, Chardin, Caravaggio and Botticelli all belong to this category. There are also artists and schools that are ‘underrated’ but have never taken off – the Lombard school (which our previous exhibition was dedicated to), with the exception of Giambattista Moroni, is one such example. I do think there is something to be said for well painted works of art regardless of market or critical recognition. If we all went for the same blue-chip artists, how boring would that be?
Who is your ideal client?
He/she is communicative, decisive, and pays on time.
Designed By Woulfe has invited Tova Ossad of Ossad Art Management to interview a range of art world personalities. Her fifteen years' experience working in this sphere has exposed her to many artists, auction specialists, art advisors, conservators, and gallerists, thereby giving the Design Journal fresh insight into the fundamentals of art. This series will explore buying, selling, appreciating, and everything in between.