Collector Tianyue Jiang on Supporting the Work of Female Figurative Painters
Installation view, from left to right, of Caleb Hahne Quintana, My Heart to Turn to Stone, 2021; and Sun Xun, The Time Vivarium - 69, 2014. Photo by Dayan Liu. Courtesy of Tianyue Jiang.
Over the past three years, Tianyue Jiang has developed her personal interest of art collecting into a more influential group activity. Born in China and based in New York, Jiang is a former vice president and specialist in Christie’s Asian 20th-century and contemporary art department and director of Kasmin Gallery.
In 2019, she co-founded the YRen Art and Culture Society, a club for Asian female collectors, and in 2021, she founded Les Yeux Art Foundation in New York, dedicated to supporting visual and performance art education. The foundation supports organizations such as Concerts in Motion, the School of American Ballet, and several visual art programs.
When it comes to buying art—which the foundation makes available to loan for museum exhibitions and student studies—Jiang’s mission is clear and focused on collecting figurative works by contemporary women artists.
Jiang’s engagement in contemporary art began with an interest in Chinese artists such as Cai Guo-Qiang, Zao Wou-Ki, Liu Ye, Zhan Wang, and Xu Bing, and her collection has since grown to encompass artists from around the world. Jiang and her husband, renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Ning Lin, are gradually building their New York residence into an art space, enriched by contemporary narratives and personal emotions.
“Our foundation is named after les yeux (‘eyes’) in French, and in Chinese, it’s pronounced as yue (meaning ‘mountain,’ as in my name), so the two are homophones,” said Jiang. “With the name, we’re actually trying to say that art collecting is just like mountain climbing—you need to use your eyes, rather than your ears. The more you see, the broader your horizons will be.”
Artsy talked with Jiang at her home about her collecting trends in recent years, covering topics including how she developed her current direction and what criteria she follows when collecting contemporary artworks.
Installation view, from front to back, of Emma Webster, Narcissus, 2020; and Laurens Legiers, Cold Branches, 2021. Photo by Dayan Liu,courtesy of Tianyue Jiang.
What factors drove your change from working at an auction house and a gallery to founding a female collector club and starting your own art foundation?
Many collectors I know have previous experiences in the art industry. I got to know more Asian women who settled here in New York, who usually have collecting experience in various other fields. New York is a great platform for collecting contemporary art, and I can provide them with more opportunities to understand and collect contemporary art with each other’s support and camaraderie.
Every year, the foundation donates to some cultural, educational, and art institutions in our own name. Doing that through a foundation will make the donations’ priorities and procedures more focused, standardized, and transparent. To create a more formal nonprofit foundation, we must have a clear purpose to have a curatorial focus and long-term planning in terms of art collecting.
How did you begin to collect art?
I used to study art history at Williams College, and my graduation thesis was about the influence of Chinese calligraphy on contemporary art. When I traveled, I mostly visited contemporary art shows. But with New England’s rich history, the local collecting interest is mainly in antiques.
I would drive to surrounding antique fairs every weekend to collect Chinese jade, porcelain, cloisonné, and scholars’ rocks from the 15th to the 19th centuries. That was a very interesting experience. After moving to New York in 2014, collecting antiques took a backseat, and I began to visit more contemporary art galleries and fairs, translating my previous knowledge and interests into art collecting.
Installation view, from left to right, of Laurens Legiers, Lilies with a Sun Glare, 2022; and Molly Greene, Rushes, 2022. Courtesy of Tianyue Jian.
What was the first contemporary artwork you collected?
The oil on canvas Seltene Erde II (Rare Earth II) (2013) by GAMA. When we first came to New York, we would naturally visit Asian galleries. One summer, we visited Chambers Fine Art in Chelsea, and I fixed my eyes on the painting immediately after entering the gallery, because it carries elements of traditional German art history.
We later acquired Facing Myself (2014) by Do Ho Suh at The Armory Show in New York. I have always admired this artist, who was born in South Korea and later moved to New York and London. So many of his works explore ways to define his own cultural identity. No matter how massive a space his fiber installations constitute, they can always be folded and squeezed into a suitcase, and the concept of “home is something you carry along with your life” strongly strikes a chord with me. We also came to the United States from China to study, and then settled here and lived in many different cities, so there is always an urge of finding our home.
During the COVID-19 outbreak, we were unable to get in touch with more Chinese and Asian artists. That’s when we began to focus our collecting efforts more on American and European contemporary artists.
Being of the same era, we have experienced the same things, and have a greater chance to really know and communicate with these artists. I think this is the biggest gain throughout my journey of collecting. During the period, we collected works of many outstanding women artists, including Rebecca Ness, Emma Webster, Chloe Wise, Katherina Olschbaur, Amanda Baldwin, Molly Greene, Bambou Gili, Haley Josephs, Nadia Waheed, Sara Anstis, and Louisa Gagliardi.
How do you think your criteria in art collecting have changed?
Previously when we decided to buy a painting, we had to see the work in person first. And from its visual impact on me, I could decide whether I really had the passion to own it. Later, especially during the pandemic, I found that many galleries and artists began to display and sell artworks or participate in charity auctions on social media and platforms like Artsy. “Online shopping” from trusted gallerists has also become a new trend in art collecting.
The first artwork I bid on [through] Artsy was a small self-portrait, Untitled (2021) by Sasha Gordon. To protest anti-Asian hate and violence, the proceeds of the charity auction were donated to nonprofit Asian organizations. Back then, the artist only had one solo show at Matthew Brown in L.A. I saw images of her artworks on Instagram, and I was immediately impressed by the expressiveness and texture of her works. Since then, I have gradually become accustomed to buying works online.
However, I feel that this trend has shifted a bit recently. I’ve found that many artists do not promote all their shows on social media, or even stop updating their Instagram accounts. If you want to learn more, you have to personally visit their shows. It seems that many gallerists now tend to “reward” collectors who visit in person.
Amanda Baldwin, Flooded Neptune, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Jason Haam.
What’s your advice for accessing and collecting the best artists?
Information and timing matter. I always love to read collector interviews on Artsy. Some collectors themselves have multiple roles, like independent curators or art consultants, and I will follow their collection, social media posts, and artists included in their curatorial practice. About two years ago, I read an interview with art advisor Lawrence Van Hagen that mentioned Katherina Olschbaur. I found her paintings very powerful and touching. She had just been represented by Nicodim Gallery, and was also shifting from painting abstract to figurative, so I acquired several pieces to support her and the gallery.
Building long-term trust with artists and galleries will allow you to get early previews. When artists develop to a certain height, galleries will prioritize institutions as well as collectors who supported them in the early days. This is a partnership that slowly builds up.
You must learn and see more in your spare time because intuition is also a kind of elevation that comes with accumulation. And you need to be a little bolder and trust your own judgment. If you like an artist, even if the artist isn’t raved about by others and hasn’t yet had a secondary market, you can still buy his or her works. We’re now in an information age: As long as an artist has creative talent and a unique point of view, he or she will be discovered and recognized sooner or later.
Installation view, from left to right, of Gao Hang, Apollook!, 2021; Michael Kagan, Friend of Ours, 2021; and flower pillow by Takashi Murakami. Photo by Dayan Liu. Courtesy of Tianyue Jiang.
How do you decide on what artworks to purchase?
We mostly focus on figurative artists of our generation, and to be exact, figurative artists with an abstract inclination.
If the Mei Moses Indices represent a macro indicator that reflects the general trend of the art market, I think every collector should gradually establish one’s own micro database and indicators. In addition to researching artists’ bios, visiting their studios, thinking about the uniqueness of their works, and anticipating their art historical significance in the future, one should follow fellow collectors, curators, gallerists, and art media practitioners who share similar collecting mentalities.
When you start following an artist on social media, you can see how many contacts you share, and who these people are. Then you can roughly build a multi-dimensional collection framework. From here, you can learn more about which small group this artist will gradually become popular with.
I also pay much attention to the professional training and educational background of an artist. I seldom buy self-taught abstract works. In addition, I will read artist interviews and self-declarations, and try to know them and communicate with them face-to-face. I am also very interested in how artists present themselves. I think that to be successful, an artist must have a very distinctive creative approach, be able to express oneself clearly, and be more active in the art world.
Another thing that matters is the creative output of the artist. I think artists must ensure a certain amount of output; otherwise, there is no way to meet the needs of collectors, and then they will be gradually forgotten. So I care about whether the artist would participate in a few shows every year, and whether there would be many works. It doesn’t matter whether they are good or bad, because there will be good ones and bad ones. But the most important thing is that the artist needs to keep up the output.
The last thing may not be broadly applicable. We took our son to various exhibitions when he was very young, and we often talk about art at home. He is now well-versed in art criticism, and we often ask for his opinion before making acquisitions. I think the way a kid sees and thinks is very simple and straightforward, unlike us adults who are sometimes inevitably swayed by external factors such as the market.
Installation view, from left to right, of Poppy Jones, Bright Heat, 2021; Rebecca Ness, Football Shirt, 2020; and Caleb Hahne Quintana, Noah and Jones, 2020. Courtesy of Tianyue Jiang.
Katherina Olschbaur, installation view of My Muses, 2021. Courtesy of Tianyue Jiang.
Any advice for new collectors?
Read more Artsy articles; register a social media account to follow curators, artists, and other collectors; and spend some time learning. Your own daily input is what matters most.