January 6, 2020

Ethical art dealership

January 6, 2020

Nguyen Phuong Thao is a Class of 2023 Fulbrighter who has just finished her Visual Culture course. It revealed to her an entire new career path that she is now greatly excited about.

For a very long time, as a math major, I had set investment banking and finance as my career goal. So when came the time to take the core course Visual Culture, I wasn’t sure how well I could follow or how much interest I would have in this seemingly art-oriented class. I was very scared. After all, lots of my classmates were very knowledgeable about the topic. I questioned myself: how can I benefit from this class? How can I participate? I was at a loss as to how to proceed and contribute my ideas to the conversations. I saw myself as completely different from them, an outlier in both my opinions and ways of thinking around the material.

Fulbright students visiting a lacquer studio in Da Nang

Fortunately, studying here I realized so much of what we learn can be used to succeed in other classes, and there is much to learn from other areas of expertise. Vietnamese Studies for example really prepared us to deeply and efficiently think through our many readings. Logic and Limitations taught me a lot of what I know about not only expressing my ideas, but to really make sure they are conveyed. Even my advisor here at Fulbright, Kevin Hart, specializes in literature, not math. We always strive to find different ways to approach a topic. He opened the way for me to take full advantage of the class, and his advice was very straightforward. Try to see the correlations, the connections, and how you can apply this knowledge to your goals. Find your own questions to ask. The obvious but shallow solution was to use visual culture as a useful topic to discuss with people from the finance industry, my chosen field, which didn’t satisfy me.

I then came to several realizations.

Firstly, I’ve always been worried of the possibility in investment banking to focus too much on profits, and thus lose a part of my moral principles or my humanity. I’m preparing the chartered financial analyst program, and CFA graduates have to take a pledge of ethics and integrity. I take this very seriously. We need to see more ethics in the finance world. We need to build a better understanding of integrity, and more empathy. Can we have a standard of ethics to guide us through life? Do we decide on a case by case basis? This question stays with me and courses like visual culture help me investigate.

Secondly, it became evident this was a whole industry I could invest in. What is a metric for success in our visual culture class? Knowledge about art, references and concepts to experience it, articulate it? That’s not the entire picture. We should look about the entire ecosystem that makes the art world, from the paintings, to the artists, but also the audience who experience art, and the market. So I took this market approach to the class.

Thao and Aaron, her Visual Culture teacher

Aaron who teaches Visual Culture gave us so much support, even when it comes to disagreeing and challenging. I was very afraid my ideas would go contrary to everyone else’s, but he was completely open to self-study and encourages exploration. This was a platform where I could contribute to the community from a very different background.

And then I fell in love with visual culture. I loved to debate and argue, was thrilled by the readings, discovered so much about myself and my assumptions. Before visual culture, I already enjoyed art and photography, but had never considered myself knowledgeable enough to pursue it. Trading and making profits were always important concerns for my career choices. Now I am more solid, and trust that I can follow my interest and still make money. Keeping an open mind, challenging myself and getting out of my comfort zone brought me to unexpected discoveries, and I came to decide I would open an ethical art dealership.

Thao talking to Oanh Phi Phi, an accomplished lacquer artist

Indeed, through the class and with our professors’ help, I’ve had the chance to talk with artists and other actors in the industry, and discovered that commercial art dealers take a very large commission when selling artworks, which must be corrected if we want thriving and fair commerce.  I’ve researched lacquer in particular, which holds so much promise as a booming market inside and outside of Vietnam. I can use connections in institutions to help others and move the conversation forward, raising the profile of Vietnam internationally, while promoting and improving access to art and art education, which is always a challenge. I can also use my skills in relationship building, marketing, product sales, turn my expertise into a force for society and others. This course I was so reluctant to take, showed me a path forward. A path where I can follow my passion, help others and my country, while securing my financial future all at the same time. A path of purpose.

Nguyen Phuong Thao (Class of 2023)

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