In 2012, three Stanford alumni set out to bring a high-minded, counterintuitive business model to the anything-goes frontier of Chinese art, where business ethics are sometimes murky and counterfeiters often go to extraordinary lengths to fool private and institutional collectors.
“A copy’s intent is to mimic, not to express anything authentic,” says Craig L. Yee of Seattle, who along with fellow GSB graduate Christopher Reynolds and Stanford art historian Britta Erickson co-founded Ink Studio, a Beijing-based gallery and experimental art space that since May 2013 has been exhibiting China’s leading contemporary ink artists. “We felt it was important to get back to the intrinsic value of the art itself.”
How they did that — and built an internationally respected art business in just three years — is a direct result of the trio’s decision to employ business strategist Michael Porter’s theories about strategic alignment. “Porter talks about focusing as much on what you choose not to do as what you choose to do, and then aligning your operations to accomplish that most effectively,” Yee says. “That alignment [among the three founders] has been critical” to Ink Studio’s unusually rapid rise to a position of stature, which includes being invited to participate in one of the most prestigious art fairs in Asia.
They began with the basics. To convince the reluctant Erickson to participate in their commercial venture (her first), Yee and Reynolds asked about her challenges as a scholar who typically deals with museums and institutional collectors. She mentioned that those entities often take three or four years to bring an exhibition to the public — “an eternity in contemporary art,” Yee says. To work with a commercial gallery, Erickson said she’d need total control over the programming, from identifying the artists with whom they would work, to the number of shows they would produce each year, to the standards for the catalogs they would produce.
“She’s been going to China since the 1980s, and she has a 30-year working relationship with some of these artists,” Yee says. “She’s not tainted by any commercial interest, and has really maintained her integrity. That meant we could put together programs by working with some of the most important artists in our field.”
Next, according to Reynolds, they had to choose a position. They decided upon contemporary ink because ink painting and calligraphy have been considered the highest form of artistic expression in China for more than 2,000 years. Their market research uncovered a wave of interest in the genre among a growing population of collectors in mainland China, but also substantial confusion as to what constituted quality, since no existing gallery focused squarely on contemporary ink art. “It was a movement waiting for a leader,” Reynolds says.
Finally, Yee says, Erickson insisted that they choose not to build their business with profit as the primary motive but instead with impact and ethics as the gallery’s core mission. “Those were her requirements, so Chris and I sat down and thought about it and eventually decided that not only is this doable, but it’s a very interesting way to do business. We could establish ourselves as distinctive in the field.”
“Not many people go into the arts to build huge fortunes; you go into it for the impact you can have,” says Reynolds, who euphemistically describes many players in the Chinese art world as “short-term oriented and with flexible approaches to doing business.” But he says the Ink Studio approach “can manifest itself in a sustainable business model that will be profitable over the long term. For us, being very differentiated, and being transparent, and acting in the best interests of our artists and collectors — it’s kind of an open field for us.”
The approach is working, both culturally and commercially. Within three years, Ink Studio has been invited to participate in top art fairs, including New York’s Armory Show and the 2016 Art Basel Hong Kong art fair. For Art Basel, the gallery founders decided to create a single-artist exhibition that the fair’s director recalls as “impressive,” and as a result Ink Studio has been invited to return in 2017.
Reynolds reports that the gallery has rapidly turned a profit, with about half of sales going to museums, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Hong Kong’s M+. Such sales create a virtuous cycle: The museums’ imprimatur raises the profiles of Ink Studio’s chosen artists, which improves confidence among collectors, which in turn elevates the gallery’s prospects.
At the root of that success is their focus on authenticity. Yee says the Chinese view the interplay of ink, brush, and paper in art and calligraphy as “an index of the state of character of the person wielding the brush.” He compares it to the Western notion of handwriting analysis, or to a person’s tone of voice. “You can tell a lot from it. Are they being honest or disingenuous? Are they angry? Happy? Ill? Are they focused on themselves, or have they led a life of generosity? The Chinese believe you can read all this through a person’s brushwork.”
Their Art Basel Hong Kong presentation was a solo show featuring Li Huasheng, a critically acclaimed but highly reclusive ink painter whose abstract grids of hand-brushed lines capture the momentary, ever-shifting state of his emotions and consciousness. Collectors who seek that type of Chinese art are not just buying paintings or drawings, Yee says, but also “a record of the artist’s state of being, character, and spiritual cultivation in that moment of their lives. That’s what people see as direct and authentic expression. And if you’re not collecting something authentic, then you’re basically collecting nothing.”
As gallery owners, Yee and his partners understand their critical role in a fragile ecosystem. By dealing directly with artists, there’s less chance of selling something inauthentic. And they deal with collectors who are as interested in the cultural significance of the artwork as they are in its potential monetary value. It only works, he says, because all three of the founders share the same core values. “It’s all in how you define your mission.”
How does that philosophy fit into a world focused on the next quarterly earnings statement? Yee agrees that the pressure for short-term gains is enormous in large public corporations, but he believes that many small businesses operate on the same principles that he and his partners use to run the gallery.
“Think about a restaurant that serves ‘authentic’ ethnic food,” he says. “Their competitors turn down the hot and add a little sugar [to appeal to a wider audience]. But this restaurant has a mission and sticks to it. Eventually, the food nuts find that restaurant and make it a cause célèbre. True, the owners may never be able to franchise it, but it could end up becoming very influential.”