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Interview with Curator & Gallerist Echo He

She is a curator, gallerist, writer, art researcher, and vintage hat maker based in New York.

Echo He is a curator, gallerist, writer, and milliner in New York. She is the Outreach and Programming Manager of Research and Archives Department at Pace Gallery, a leading contemporary art gallery with locations in New York, London, Beijing, Hong Kong, Palo Alto, Seoul, and Geneva. In 2013, she founded and has continued to operate Fou Gallery, a unique gallery space and creative lab located in a historic brownstone in New York, with a focus on promoting Chinese contemporary artists. Fou Gallery is considered as a notable and viable model for alternative exhibition spaces, and ecology that thrives outside of mainstream gallery culture and has received significant media attention globally. Most recently, Fou Gallery received special Congressional Recognition in 2018 because of the large public art project The Song of Dragon and Flowers by artist Chen Dongfan. Echo received Yishu Awards for Writing and Curating Contemporary Chinese Art (2016). She is a prolific writer and regularly contributes to a variety of publications, including The Art Newspaper (China), Lens, Art China, Marie Claire, World Heritage Geography, Condé Nast Traveler, among others. Besides that, she is also a milliner and has her own studio Chapeau Echo.

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Did you always know that working in art was what you wanted to do? How did you decide to become an art curator? Can you tell us a bit about you?

I studied Business Administration at Peking University. I was well on the way along with the International Ph.D. program at the Guanghua School of Management when I realized that I had chosen that path, not for myself but to please others. After a stint abroad in Amsterdam, I returned to Beijing, graduated from the program with a master’s degree, and moved into Caochangdi, an underground artist community for a year.

Echo He Fou Gallery
Photo by Siyu Tang, courtesy Fou Gallery

That’s when I chose art. I gave up a high-salary job opportunity in the business world and a prosperous career and began to intern at Pace Gallery Beijing and eventually applied to study Visual Arts Administration at NYU. In New York, I continued to work part-time at Pace and also did an internship at Christie’s. At the same time, I started to curate exhibitions and programs on my own.

How Fou Gallery came to life? What are some of the main steps you took to build this art space?

When I did my master’s study at New York University, my friend Jessie and I started to launch a project called UNTITLEDdialogue, a series of cultural events with Asian related artists, curators, writers, dancers, musicians and independent filmmakers in New York. It is a self-organized project. We started with zero funds and organized monthly events in alternative art spaces, such as tea houses, theater, film studios, classrooms, etc. After one year, we had a group of followers and it became a community of artists, curators, and other creative professionals who are interested to engage in Asian culture. At that time we realize that it’s very difficult for Asian artists to show their works in New York.

Echo He Fou Gallery
Meng Du: Embers opening, Fou Gallery Echo He and Meng Du, Photograph by Nadia Peichao Lin ©Meng Du, courtesy Fou Gallery

Therefore we decided to start a gallery in Jessie’s apartment.

Fou Gallery opened on December 13th, 2013. I have a full-time job at Pace Gallery, so I’m familiar with the professional practice of a white cube gallery. However, with Fou Gallery, we want to do something different. Instead of an industrial white cube commercial gallery space, Fou Gallery is located in an apartment. It is a home-like environment where people can enjoy art in an intimate setting.

Echo He Fou Gallery
Photo by Ma Sai, courtesy Fou Gallery

Meanwhile, we continue to host a great variety of events, such as independent film screenings, concerts, talks, mushroom workshops, tea ceremonies, private dining, to create a diversified space that bridges art and design, culture and technology. 否 is an ancient character which is still in use today. It has two pronunciations – “Pi” and “Fou”. “Pi” is one of the 64 hexagrams in the I Ching book (also named The Book of Changes), an ancient Chinese divination text and the oldest of the Chinese classics. “Pi” means un-fortune, but it can also be a turning point to fortune. “Fou” is a more contemporary pronunciation, which means denial and negative.

“Fou” can be also found in Scottish and in French. In French it means crazy and in Scottish it means drunk. I found the character very interesting as it means similar rebellious meanings (negative, but also positive, like Ying and Yang) cross cultures! It responds to Fou Gallery’s mission to be a different model from mainstream commercial galleries. After one year, Jessie is tired of running a gallery and decides to become a photographer. We lost the space. I continue to curate exhibitions in alternative spaces with Fou Gallery’s brand, such as restaurants. In 2016, I found a new home for Fou Gallery, a duplex in a 100-year old brownstone in Brooklyn, New York. The rent is way above my budget but I decided to take a chance. I withdrew all of my savings to pay one-year rent upfront, I just want to see if it works. Fortunately, it works.

Fou Gallery is a space for creative people where they can meet and collaborate

Echo He Fou Gallery
Photo by Eugene Neduv, courtesy Fou Gallery

From China to the USA. How New York appeared to you at the beginning? What cultural differences did you find more particular? What did it mean for your path? Does living outside Asia have influenced your way to see art and life?

I came to New York because I’m told that New York is the center for contemporary art and is the land for freedom. I grew up in Sichuan, where the most popular dish is hotpot. For me, New York is like a big hotpot. All kinds of people come here and call it home. Everybody is nobody. No matter how important or how talented you are, you become invisible in the city. However, in this way, you win freedom.

For some people, freedom is to swing by 5 parties on Friday evenings and get totally drunk. For me, freedom is to make tea ceremony wearing Hanfu in the center of the city. It’s the same freedom. The best lesson New York teaches me is to be yourself, and embrace life with your full passion and energy.

FOU GALLERY is an apartment gallery and creative lab based in New York. Fou is dedicated to promoting the creative talents and projects of our time. As suggested by its name, Fou is both a denial of the mainstream commercial gallery model and an active contributor to a new, organic art community. With the belief that the enjoyment of art is an essential part of everyday life, Fou offers a vibrant, inspirational selection of original works in art and design, and hosts various events to create a diverse and accessible art space.

Echo He Fou Gallery
Chen Dongfan exhibition, Photograph by Liu Zhangbo, courtesy Fou Gallery

How would you describe your approach as an art curator? Where do you get your inspiration from? How do you understand that the work of an artist is going to be strong and meaningful?

I like to curate exhibitions in alternative spaces, home, schools, workplaces, restaurants, on the street, in the temple and in the woods. My passion is to bring art to places where people don’t normally see art and to create site-specific art projects. I see the role of a curator as a matchmaker. In this way, art empowers life, and life enriches art. I keep my mind open and allow my imagination to fly all the time.

My inspiration is from the shimmering of everything. I enjoy working with artists who are not constrained with one medium, who is able to break the boundaries of traditional art space, who can challenge social norms, and who can create artworks to specific spaces.

What’s the most exciting part of working in the art field? What is the biggest lesson you have learned over the years?

The most exciting thing is that you are surrounded by creative people all the time, so your life is full of surprises. Every day is new. Even with eyes closed, you are an artist. The relationship between an art dealer and a representative is almost like a marriage. I learned a lot from each of the artists. Respect the differences and seek the common ground of growth. It’s the same principle as in a relationship, right?

Echo He Fou Gallery
Chamber Music Concert, Photo by Chenlin, courtesy Fou Gallery

What do you think is the biggest issue today the art field is facing?

Art reflects reality. The top two religions of our current world are money and technology, which is the same as in the art world. I think the biggest issue is the increasing polarization of the art world and the art market towards the highest end. A lot of artists are creating works to “chase the game” rather than to “explore their real voice.”

What is the most important thing you would like to see changed?

People can slow down and seek the meaning of life.

Echo He Fou Gallery
Cassini Concert, Photograph by Tianxing Wan, courtesy Fou Gallery

Do you believe there are still barriers to success for women working in the art field, if so, how can these barriers be overcome? Do you think that gender bias can influence and impact in building a career?

Yes, the glass ceiling definitely has a strong presence. As female art practitioners, we just need to stay who we are and express our true voices. In recent years, more and more female artists have gained acknowledgment because of their confrontation with the male-dominated society. For example, I just read the newsletter today that the annual Pommery Prize at 2020 The Armory Show was given to Christine Wang who humorously comments on the widespread Internet culture, gun violence, sexual harassment, and climate change.

Echo He Fou Gallery
Between Mountains, installation view, Photograph by Peichao Lin, courtesy Fou Gallery

I’m not a feminist and I’m always cautious of the danger of being too “politically correct.” My hope is that one day when we appreciate an artwork, we would not question the gender of the artist.

What advice did you receive in your career that has stayed with you and helped you to make a significant decision? What would be your message to women trying to work in the art field?

Treat others how you want to be treated. Take the time you need and be a steady person in what you are doing, and things will come naturally.

Echo He Fou Gallery
Echo He at Fou Gallery, Photograph by Peichao Lin, courtesy Fou Gallery
Echo He Fou Gallery
Lin Yan – Installation Views, Photograph by Eugene Neduv, courtesy Fou Gallery
Echo He Fou Gallery
Ikebana and Tea Performance, Photo by Echo He, courtesy Fou Gallery

Photos courtesy of Echo He and Fou Gallery

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