Nicole Chen Talks about Joining Sotheby’s Amidst the Pandemic, Navigating US Art World as a Foreign Art Administrator, and Tips for Early Professionals Wishing to Enter Auction World. | Arts & Creative Interview | Art Jobs

Nicole Chen Talks about Joining Sotheby’s Amidst the Pandemic, Navigating US Art World as a Foreign Art Administrator, and Tips for Early Professionals Wishing to Enter Auction World.

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Nicole Chen

Nicole Chen is a New York-based arts administrator. She holds a BA in Studio Art from Colgate University and an MA in Arts Administration from Columbia University. She has professional experiences from a wide range of arts organizations in the US and China, including art fairs, museums, and auction house. She currently works at Sotheby’s New York. With research interests in digital strategy in the arts and the online art market, she is a contributor at various prestigious art media, including Art China (art.china.cn) and artsmanagement.net.

You are currently working at Sotheby’s. How did you land your current position?

It actually took a few turns before I landed my current position. I first started interviewing with Sotheby’s last summer for several positions, but I didn’t land an offer initially. Then, HR reached out to me about a Seasonal Support role with the Impressionist & Modern Art department and set up an interview with me, after which I received the offer. Although this was a temporary position, I thought given the really tough job market in 2020, this would be a good starting point as I figure out my next steps. So I joined Sotheby’s last October, right at the beginning of an extremely busy sale season for the Impressionist & Modern Art department, but that also forced me to jump on a steep learning curve and to pick up responsibilities as fast as I could. After my assignment with Impressionist & Modern art concluded last December, I interviewed for the Post Sale Administrator opening and was hired soon after. Even though these two positions are very different, it was pretty clear that the hiring manager thought my ability to perform well under a demanding pace and the understanding I gained about Sotheby’s were also key to the Post Sale Administrator role. 

What are your responsibilities as a post-sale administrator?

This role is quite business-oriented, and I work with buyers for the most part. A big part of what I do is processing post-sale transactions and coordinating fulfillment, which includes invoicing, processing buyer payments, working with the shipping coordinator to offer clients logistics support and/ or arranging in-person collection. As Sotheby’s clientele is very international, my job also deals with tariff, tax, import/export restrictions – matters that accompany global art trade, and I continue to learn about them every day. Sometimes, if an item doesn’t sell at an auction and the consignor wants it back or wants to re-consign it, I also work with the specialist department to coordinate the process. Because the role is very client-facing, I answer client inquiries all the time or redirect them to other staff members when appropriate. 

You graduated in 2020. Did the pandemic affect your job search process?

Oh absolutely! The job search process was grueling, to be honest. I started looking for jobs around March 2020, and as everything started to shut down because of the pandemic, I saw jobs in the arts quickly disappeared. Between May to July or so, there were practically no opportunities available. Admittedly, it was a very challenging period for me, as a recent graduate who was also an international student balancing further limitations posed by OPT (Optional Practical Training: a type of work permit that follows the completion of a degree program in the US). 

When there were no jobs to apply to, I devoted a lot of my energy to expanding my network and reconnecting with existing contacts, which really paid off when job opportunities came up. By the time I was applying for jobs, I was more informed about the companies I was interested in and sometimes even had ready connections from the companies who could provide referrals. 

How did you navigate finding work and sponsorship in the U.S.?

When it comes to applying for OPT and job searching, my best advice would be to gauge your own comfort level and be prepared when things don’t end up aligning with your ideal timeline. 

In terms of visa sponsorship within the arts, unless a companany or organization explicitly states it on the website, sometimes you just don’t know until you ask. For international students interested in pursuing a career in the US after OPT, I recommend looking into an O-1 visa sooner rather than later. Despite the amount of evidence it requires from the applicant, this option allows for much flexibility and also avoids the negative impact that the need for sponsorship can possibly bring while the employer considers your candidacy.

What is your advice to early professionals interested in pursuing a career in art auctions?

Following the news and paying attention to the industry is one of the easiest and quickest ways to build up your understanding of the auction world. When possible, attending auction viewings is also a great way to get a concrete sense of how auction houses sell their offerings. 

After that, talking to people in the field is a very effective way to gain insights into the specifics, and I find having informational interviews with alumni or connections tremendously helpful. Having such one-on-one conversations allows you to understand a business/organization on the level of specific functions, rather than what the business/organization does broadly. 

These are just ways to understand art auctions better, but when it comes to pursuing a career or applying for a specific position in art auctions, don’t forget to highlight your transferable skills and advocate yourself after understanding what the position calls for. I think this also goes for job searching in general, but no company expects the applicants to have done exactly the same kind of work previously. If you are interested in pursuing a career in art auctions broadly, I would also recommend being open-minded about the type of positions you pursue. If you don’t land your dream job right away, it is totally okay as one job doesn’t define you as a professional. On the other hand, one experience can often lead to the next opportunity.

ARAD Columbia