Due to technical difficulties, our audio recording of Tze's podcast interview wasn't up to our standards, so we're presenting a transcript of the conversation below. Enjoy!
Tze Chun, Founder of Uprise Art
SS: Hello and welcome to the Remix podcast. I’m Steven Sergiovanni, joined by Remix co-founders Heather Bhandari and Courtney Colman.
HB: Hi, Steven.
CC: Nice to be here today.
SS: Nice to see you. And our guest today is Tze Chun, the founder of Uprise Art. Welcome, Tze.
TC: Thanks for having me.
CC: Thanks for coming.
HB: Hi, Tze.
CC: Thanks for joining us.
HB: Let’s begin by hearing about how you started Uprise.
TC: Sure, so I started Uprise Art in 2011 and, to back up a little bit, I had graduated from Columbia University in 2006. I double majored in Art History, through the American Studies Department, and dance. So, at the time that I graduated I knew my calling was to be in the Arts. I had also been through a 2-year entrepreneurship program, while an undergrad, so I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur in the Arts. The career path of a choreographer and dancer and performing artist happened first. I actually started my professional adult career as a choreographer and I started a dance company, which I was the artistic director of and ran for 5 years. Around 2010, I noticed that there were some interesting changes happening in the art world, especially online and that was the time to start something new and to try new things.
HB: Who were your first artists?
TC: I launched a gallery with 11 artists and it was, I think, a bit risky for them. Really, looking back now, I can’t believe that I convinced them. But it was a group of artists that I had been following that I really wanted to support, that I thought were underrepresented. And I won them over, over coffee and studio visits and said, “You know, I can’t offer you a solo show in Chelsea, but what I can offer you is the opportunity to meet a larger and different collector base and that I will be transparent and work as hard as I can for you.”
SS: I love that you said "support" because I think of the kind of model, historically, of Peggy Guggenheim – and I’m looking at Courtney –a model where people really supported artists. That was, I think, a primary reason to have galleries back in the early SoHo days.
TC: Yes, and that is the approach that we take with our collectors. We call everyone who visits our site… all the language on the website refers to Uprise Art collectors. Because we believe that if you are interested in art, it doesn’t mean that you have to have an extensive collection of original works by Uprise artists. We think it is a state of mind. So anyone who expresses an interest in art, we consider an art collector. What that means is that when these collectors are acquiring pieces by Uprise Art artists, they are patrons of the arts. They are directly supporting the artistic practice of an artist.
SS: When we all met through working together at Mixed Greens - and when Mixed Greens started -- we were focusing on not just the 500 biggest collectors in the world. We were thinking: let’s reach out to everybody else and hopefully that is our audience. Who is your audience?
TC: So – it’s changed. Or, rather, my thinking around it has changed. When I launched the gallery in 2011, I thought, Ok, this is the way for upwardly mobile young professionals who are interested in art, love going to the museums, and have disposable income to learn how to collect art at the beginning, maybe 20 or 30 years earlier than they would have otherwise. It would be before they meet a certain pay grade or are retired and have time to go to the fairs… that’s when people start collecting, right? What if we started them off earlier and, also, introduced them to artists earlier?
That was back when I was very naïve. (laughter) I didn’t realize… On day one of the launch, I did send out an email announcing that I started this gallery to people with ‘Please, could you send it to other friends and put it out there on the interwebs.’ Of the first 5 collectors that we had, 3 of them worked in the art world. One was a gallery assistant and another one was a specialist at an auction house. It really changed my thinking because I realized that it’s one thing to educate your collectors and give them all the information, but the actual early adopters are people who already know about art. They already know what they like, they can spot quality, and they know that they can make an educated decision very quickly. So then I thought, ok, so maybe I don’t know who my target demographic is.
SS: Yeah, it’s a tough one.
TC: Yeah. I realized that it’s a lot of creative people and a lot of people in the art world who were attracted to the curation, to the roster, of course. But also, since day one, we’ve had an installment plan where you can purchase art through 10-month or 20-months installments. You take it home and purchase it with a recurring charge to your credit card. So, people who know art, but don’t really think of themselves as collectors, were the ones who were very excited about the model from the get-go.
HB: I’m going to ask a nitty-gritty question…
HB: …about the payment plan. I think it’s brilliant for people early in their careers. One of the favorite pieces of art that I own, I bought on a payment plan over a really long period of time and I am so glad I did it. But how does it work from the artist’s perspective? Are they getting paid monthly as the gallery is getting paid?
TC: Yes, that’s a great question. The easiest way to approach the business model is: everyone’s interests align. One of the reasons I started Uprise Art was that I saw that artists have walked in dangerous territory, in that they often have day jobs. You know, they’re nannies, they’re Hebrew teachers, it’s New York – any job on Craig’s List you can think of an artist is probably the one doing it. It’s risky because if you are not making your primary income from art, then maybe one day it will just become a hobby and maybe you’re not an artist who bartends anymore, you’re a bartender who used to paint.
When I was looking at some of the issues that existed in that art world, a primary one was the problematic seasonal or unpredictable nature of sales for artists. You work for a long period of time creating a body of work that then goes into a show.All the pressure’s on that one show and there are sales afterward, but you may not budget things the way you should. So instead of taking a year or longer to sell a work, why not sell it immediately? Start receiving income on that piece and then receive it on a monthly basis, as the collectors are paying for the work on a monthly basis. Then it becomes predictable revenue for the artist.
HB: Yeah, and for you, too.
HB: I think it’s good for both of you.
TC: And then what’s nice about that is they can really understand their expenses and say, “I have a studio rental cost. I have material costs. I can predict that next month I will make X amount from recurring revenue from Uprise Art,” in addition to any other outright sales that they might make. And that’s a way of thinking for an artist. “I’m an artist because I make a predictable salary from my sales.”
HB: I think another thing that you do that’s extremely interesting is your partnerships with different corporate entities and other institutions. Can you talk about that a little bit?
TC: Sure. So, similar to our collector base, we have a wide range of corporate partnerships that we do. One of our largest partners is the New York Presbyterian Group. They have many buildings on their campus and multiple campuses. So, we work with their interior team to build out new areas of the hospital or perhaps there’s often some wing that’s being renovated and we’re bringing in more contemporary works by emerging artists. Instead of a print by a well known artist, they’re really supporting artists that could use the exposure and, of course, the sale.
We also like to tell the story of the partner that we’re working with. So, for instance, for a different hospital, The Hospital for Special Surgery, we had original commissions made for each of the patient rooms for their children’s pavilion, taking into account the existing design of the pavilion, but also the visitors who would be seeing the work. And, you know, it’s not just the kids. It’s also the families. Presenting work that’s thoughtful, that may be whimsical, but isn’t juvenile, was really important to us because sometimes the parents are the ones that are the most distressed by being in the hospital.
SS: Sure. Like RxArt…
SS:That has such an amazing program and they’re such well-known artists. They’re not artists that are really geared toward children. You’re right, it’s absolutely the parents and the visitors as well as the patients and it’s such a great thing. So is it a monthly contract? How does it work with contracts? Does it depend on the situation?
TC: At this point only a quarter of our sales are through installment plans. Most of the work…
SS: Are they loans?
TC: No, they’re just acquiring them.
SS: Oh, they’re acquiring them. Ok, so it’s not a loan. That’s great. It’s also great that hospitals are purchasing, because I wasn’t aware of that.
HB: I think it’s interesting that you’re talking about broadening audiences, in all different ways.
I’m also wondering how you feel representing artists when you have no gallery space. We grappled with this in the early days of Mixed Greens. What exactly are you doing for an artist? You’ve already mentioned that you’re broadening an audience in a way that a lot of galleries can’t do, or don’t do. Or don’t focus on doing. Can you talk about some of the other things that artists are able to do through Uprise Art? I know you also do physical exhibitions. Can you mention that, as well?
TC: Sure, so we have our offline programming, as you mentioned: Art Fairs and pop-up exhibitions in different spaces. We craft those spaces around the show, which is nice, because then the environment really reflects the work. But really the core of being a ‘digital first’ gallery is that we are using the internet and social media and the tech tools that we have to--like you said--reach a wider audience.
We are constantly engaging our collectors with the stories of our artists and their work. That might be through content, like the Uprise Art Journal, which has the virtual studio visit, collector profiles, and corporate partner profiles (we call those ‘at home’ and ‘in the company’ on our Journal). We take the approach that because we’re featuring one-of-a-kind artworks, we’re not trying to sell any one person any one piece. So, you’ll never receive an email from Uprise Art that says, you know, “On sale.” Or “For Sale.” Our job is to consistently engage collectors with visual information, and to remind them that our brand is here, that our gallery exists, and that there are interesting artists that we work with. And then, at the specific time when they are looking to acquire pieces, we are top of mind and they have a familiarity with the artists that we work with.
SS: How do you find your artists?
TC: Just like every other gallery. It’s where the bulk of the work lies.
SS: I know you just said you were on a studio visit before you came here.
TC: Yeah--Studio visits. It’s going to the MFA shows, although often it’s not the right time, right after someone graduates, because they’re still decompressing from that and figuring out where they want to settle in the beginning of their post-graduation careers. But, we are at MFA shows and group shows. It’s also Instagram now. We are really looking to see who our artists are engaging with and also, in real life, who our artists have as studio mates. A lot of times we’ll have our artists (when they do this it kind of speaks to their experience with us) ask “Hey, is it ok if I introduce you to a friend of mine? Would you be willing to do a studio visit?”
SS: That’s the best, with artists. We found that that’s so helpful.
HB: Artists who already know you and know how you work and what you can provide.
CC: Oh, it’s so great to have someone you know say that they’re good to work with.
SS: Yeah, definitely. That’s how we have always worked and met a lot of artists… They were all kind of connected.
Do you represent artists exclusively?
TC: We have an exclusive roster and we have artists that we don’t represent exclusively. What we’ve noticed is that many of our artists consider us their New York representation and then, when it’s convenient, if they have a gallery that they work with in New York, then we’re their online representation.
CC: That was going to be my next question.
TC: Many of our artists treat us as their exclusive representation, even though they are not on our exclusive contract. So that just means that they’ll forward all their inquiries. We’ll even field gallery show inquiries to ask them how they’ll coordinate that consignment. And, again, I feel like that really speaks to the kind of relationship they have with us.
Just to take a step back, when artists are referring other artists that they know, I think that it goes back to this idea of trust. It’s really great when you can start a relationship with an artist and there’s already that layer of trust. Where they’ve heard great things and they’ve heard how we work and what we are able to help them achieve.
CC: Your model is still very new in the art world. The art world is so slow to adapt to technology, but in general, it’s not the newest model. What I do think is new is your success at it: the fact that you’re an online entity that has sustained, has lasted, and continues to grow. What are you attributing that to?
TC: [Laughs] You mean the secret sauce?
CC: Yeah. What’s the secret?
SS: Spill it.
TC: You know, I did not have an extensive gallery background before I started Uprise Art. And at that time, I thought it was a huge weakness. But I do think now, because I’m a little bit more established, 6 years in, that it was an asset. To look at everything new and say, not ‘oh this is how it’s done,’ but to say, ‘this is how it should be done.’
I really started the gallery, and every single contract, and every real process that we have, based on problem solving. ‘Ok. This is how we sell art. This is how we talk to our collector base. This is how we approach our relationships with our artists.’ Doing it the way I think it should be done, and not the way it has historically been done, allows for a lot of clarity. We treat our artists with the utmost respect. We’re, as you know, as transparent and as friendly as we can be to our collectors. It doesn’t matter if they’re looking to spend $100 or $10,000. They deserve time from us and they deserve information, which is not readily accessible elsewhere. Like, I know with Mixed Greens it was a big deal that you put prices online. We said, 'people are spending real money. They should see real prices.'
SS: I must say that I have seen your gallery at art fairs and your team is so nice and helpful. I was in Miami and they were really helpful and I appreciate that now as an adviser. As Courtney can attest, going around to galleries and getting prices and images is hard, and they are completely on top of it.
TC: That’s really nice to hear.
SS: Yeah, so kudos to you all.
CC: Where do you see yourself in 5 years? What is the next step for Uprise?
TC: That’s an interesting question. I think the core of what we’ve been doing so far is to make sure that we’ve been making a curated vision for the gallery. So there are challenges in scaling something that’s supposed to be curated. We’ve been very careful to grow our artist roster at the same rate as our collector base grows, so that we’re able to ensure that we’re offering artists something valuable to them and that we’re able to give them the attention that they deserve.
It’s kind of a chicken and an egg, in that we grow our collector base and opportunities and sales that we can offer, then probably our roster will grow at that same rate. I’m hoping that, as technology becomes easier, that we’re able to continue to push the boundaries of what we’re able to do online: to offer more context, more content, more video… I’m sure that there are things that will exist in 5 years that we have no idea. Maybe a VR experience in some artist’s studio.
CC: We’ve been talking about VR a lot. [general agreement]
SS: We’re going to have to cut that out. [laughter]
TC: At the end of the day, even though we’re an online gallery, it's an experience. And even though we don’t have any digital art on our platform, we’re really focused on making it easier for people to have a physical object in their possession. One thing that we are thinking about is how we can amplify what we currently do. It might be a strategic partnership with a much larger gallery or an auction house. Something where we take a lot of what we’re able to achieve now, but get the logistical underpinning or capabilities of a larger entity and collaborate in some way.
HB: Are their other models out there that are doing what you’re doing?
TC: Well, there are a lot of galleries, and there are a lot of platforms, and there are a lot of marketplaces. We always have that idea of collaborations and competition, because we love when we’re able to consign works by our artists to galleries in different states, in different cities. We think that more press is always good for revenue and consigning out brings more exposure than we already do for our artists. I think that what we’ve really done is differentiate ourselves from marketplaces and platforms because we’ve maintained a curated vision. In terms of a model, I think that the idea of purchasing anything through installments isn’t really new, and we never thought we were being revolutionary with that. I mean you can finance your couch. You can finance a lot of things, and the galleries have always offered an installment plan. It’s just never been something that they promote widely.
CC: Yeah, it’s never been written on their website, that’s for sure.
TC: It’s always been invisible to people who probably would like to know it the most. So when people ask, “Who’s your competition?” We say any other person who’s selling art. On the flip side, we’re promoting something different because everyone works with different artists, at the end of the day.
CC: I’m wondering, really, how actively you and your team are thinking about the future. I mean, we briefly mentioned VR or digital work. Is that something you’re really seeing as being 5 years away in your plan or is it something you secretly have on the back burner for next year?
TC: I think it depends on our curatorial team at the time. We don’t really work with a lot of street artists, for instance. It’s not something that our curatorial team is particularly well versed in, so, we like to stick with what we’re good at. I think that if we grow in a way where we feel like we’re able to find and converse and be a sounding board for digital artists, that might be a time in which we bring some digital work on.
CC: I’m just thinking about some of the challenges that we faced at Mixed Greens. I don’t think most people realize the amount of work that’s involved in selling unique work online. It’s not like selling t-shirts where you don’t have to constantly update your inventory. It’s just this one item. How many people do you have working with you to manage this?
TC: We’re a team of 7 and everyone’s always surprised with how much content we create and how much inventory we move, given that we’re a small team of 7. It became clear early on that if we’re able to make our goals regarding the number of pieces sold, that means we have to increase our goal of number of pieces added.
CC: Right, that’s huge. Intake is major.
TC: Our secret sauce is that we’re extremely efficient and that we’ve looked practically at what we need to accomplish and realize that in order for a team of 7 to accomplish that we have to be very clear. It’s one of the themes that has come up a little bit is the clarity of what you do. It’s not that complicated. Sometimes galleries, because we’re in a relationship business, make it more complicated. We’ve had artists who say, “You’re the first gallery to have given me an agreement, a written agreement.”
SS: That’s so shocking, isn’t it?
TC: And then we’ve had art advisers who’ve said, “You know, you’re the first gallery to ever give me an agreement for art on approval.”
TC: There are a lot of misunderstandings in the relationship business. I think that the clearer you can be, the better. There’s no situation in which being vague has helped anyone.
TC: So, you’re setting yourself up for more work for yourself. So we just say we’re going to be as clear as we can, at the beginning, of what we do with artists and our relationship with collectors. That helps to streamline everything. We’re very, very efficient. There is some software and tech to help us, too.
SS: Of course.
[Laughter and chattering sound effect.]
SS: I don’t know what that one was, but I just had to use the sound machine for some sound effects. I don’t know.
CC: That was like in cartoons where they speed them up.
SS: Yeah. I think so.
CC: Time for the last question:Tze, what are you drinking these days and where are you drinking it?
TC: So, I am drinking a lot of water. [laughter]
HB: That’s true, right now.
SS: Cheers to that.
HB: Cheers to that.
[Womp-womp-womp-womp sound effect.]
TC: I think I have said goodbye to my cool days of cocktail bars and my fun days in New York. I am now definitely in my mid-thirties. I’m definitely done.
SS: Is there a nice water bar somewhere?
HB: Do you like a lemon in your water?
TC: I’m a purist. Right now I’m drinking out of this mason jar and that’s about right. [Laughter]
SS: Thank you Tze Chun – we appreciate you being here. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Production is by Courtney Colman. Thank you Courtney. The theme is by Rob Carter. Thanks Rob.
CC and HB: Thanks Rob.
TC: Thanks for having me.