Interview with CEAS student and Schwarzman Scholarship Recipient Anqi Xu
Center for East Asian Studies student Anqi Xu was among five Stanford students selected as part of the 2021 Schwarzman Scholar class. As a fellowship recipient, she will pursue a one-year master’s degree in global affairs at Schwarzman College at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
Xu, who is a Beijing native, studied art history and comparative literature at New York University and has trained and worked at various organizations and companies including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Christie's, Asia Society, and the New York studio of the pyrotechnic artist Cai Guo-Qiang. At Stanford, Xu is pursuing an MA in East Asian Studies with a focus on Chinese contemporary art and art marketing. In 2019, she received the CEAS Summer Grant, which supported her research into artificial holidays in the digital age in China and in 2018 she participated in the summit for the Forum for American/Chinese Exchange (FACES), which promotes dialogue between future leaders in U.S.-China affairs. She is the editorial director of arts and director of art projects at Huasheng Media, overseeing ten company titles, including the China editions of Wallpaper, The New York Times T Magazine, and WSJ Magazine. As a Schwarzman Scholar, Xu will pursue studies in the field of science and management.
CEAS sat down with Xu to discuss her goals for her year at Tsinghua University, her time at Stanford, and how her academic and career interests have grown and evolved over the years.
The interview is lightly edited for clarity and length.
CEAS: How did you hear about the Schwarzman Scholarship and what made you want to apply?
Anqi Xu (Xu): I heard about the scholarship from a family friend who visited Stanford. She is a faculty member at Tsinghua University, so when she was visiting campus she said ‘have you heard of this Schwarzman Scholarship program?’ Basically she introduced the program to me. Then later on when I was communicating with other students at the department like Xiaoyong Wang, they also knew about this program, so I felt like I might try it. This next year I originally planned to go back to Beijing, so I thought it would be a good opportunity for me to come back and have this transition period where I can still access the outside world and be in Beijing.
CEAS: Through this program, you will be doing a one year master’s degree in global studies. How does this fit in with your academic career so far? What do you hope to learn about in greater depth through this program?
Xu: So I think this is kind of an extension of my studies at Stanford. In my undergrad studies I was focusing particularly on the arts: on art history and comparative literature and especially on ancient civilization. But then at Stanford I transitioned into the contemporary world with a focus on the art and business side. I think through Schwarzman, I want to focus more on the science management side and particularly on business management and public policy. I want to be more rigorous with my research and my professional development, to basically make up for the holes in my previous trajectories. I have this arts background and would like to have something that’s more management- and science-focused that can help make a strong foundation for my future career.
In the program you can choose three paths. The first is culture and communications and includes education. The second is business and finance and the third is public policy. I think, culture and communication is more my default, so I want to know more about finance and business management. Right now I’m also working as an editorial director of art at Huasheng Media where we’re launching a subsidiary under the group that I’m going to run which helps private museums, especially in China, to fundraise and survive on their own. So I definitely need some business knowledge, which I am lacking.
CEAS: At your undergraduate institution you studied art. What made you want to study that and what made you transition from ancient art to contemporary art?
Xu: Towards the end of my undergrad studies, I was especially focusing on ancient paintings of women, in particular, portraits of women, including erotic paintings and portraiture and paintings by female artists and pictorial depictions. The reason is that I was very interested by the idea that paintings of women are very connotated in a way: they are more symbolic than pictorial. It was just fascinating for me to learn about that, especially when the artists were not women themselves, but were men. That’s what got me into this research. Then later on, just in my professional career, I was working with a contemporary artist, which totally changed my view and shifted my direction from ancient art research into contemporary art. That’s kind of where the pivot came from.
CEAS: Did you apply to Stanford as a result of that pivot? What made you want to pursue your master’s here?
Xu: I applied to CEAS right after I graduated from undergrad and I deferred my offer for a year. Actually, I applied for EALC first so I started out from this ancient [civilization] route and I couldn’t even imagine that I would actually do a more contemporary route, which is why I chose to transfer to CEAS during the first quarter of my time at Stanford. For example, when I applied for the Schwarzman scholarship I felt that it’s a good transition, as right now I’m focusing on art marketing and art management with Professor Richard Dasher. So this is kind of continuation towards a professionalization of my research. Not necessarily [to do] research just for academics, but for more applications to the real world.
CEAS: What do you see as the value of a “less academic” approach?
Xu: I was a little bit disillusioned for a while just coming out from school and interning at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where I just felt that—where, working with the artist afterwards—I just felt that as an art historian I was more giving educated guesses, rather than real vignettes of history. Especially if it’s ancient [art] I wouldn’t really know what the artist thought. It was kind of conjectures based on the [historical] materials and evidence. So that was the disillusionment. I want to actually be able to dialog with artists and really know and present from the truth of what they think instead of what I think they thought. Basically, I think especially after working with artists, my interpretation of what artists think [turned out to be] really different from [what the] artists think. They think more from a creator’s point of view and there isn’t so much drama—like the twists and turns of history—basically they think “if I were to stand in front of a canvas or if I were to draw on this blank sheet what should I draw?” It’s really straight forward and that’s where I think perhaps I need either a more direct approach to art or it’s more in relation to something concrete rather than my imagination or my educated guess. So that’s why I wanted more of a professional [approach] rather than a strictly academic one.
CEAS: Can you tell me a little bit more about the company you’re working for right now?
Xu: So Huasheng Media is a media group. We’re the international licensing partner of a lot of international media brands like The New York Times T Magazine, the Wall Street Journal Magazine, and Wallpaper*; we have the China editions of Food and Wine, of Nylon, which is college culture, New York Times Travel, Drift, which is coffee culture, Fathers is an education title from Poland, focusing on the psychological ties between parents and children, and several others. So we have almost ten media brands, which is a good variety and I’m in charge of their arts. So I work with each team, and then we collaborate on the type of coverages they do. Usually I would propose a topic to a team and we collaborate. So I do have very strong teamwork at the company where I can talk about ideas I want to focus on. A lot of the times I am very inspired by my studies at Stanford. I did teamLab two years ago for Wallpaper* and the different things I encounter here like motherhood or the Me Too movement has influenced me a lot. I was focusing on it when it got to China.
This November for T Magazine China edition I did a coverage about when artists become mothers. How is it going to influence their creation? It’s pretty impressive when I learned about their perspectives. Some artists are very abstract—they’re abstract thinkers, they’re very meta and have a panoramic view on life. They’re philosophers. But when they give birth, they have to think about very concrete, everyday details. They are preparing diapers, they have to breastfeed. So motherhood pulls them back to reality in a way. And then for some other artists—for example one artist who is selected as the only female artist for the Chinese pavilion at the Venice Biennale—because she just gave birth she couldn’t go to the exhibition opening. She couldn’t go to the exhibition at all so what would she would feel about the birth giving experience? So I think it’s really interesting, it’s really worthwhile. Those are the topics that are very much influenced by my life at Stanford.
CEAS: You’ve had a chance to work in the art world in the US and the art world in China, what do you see as the similarities and differences? Do you see yourself as someone who can bridge these two worlds? What have you been able to take away from your experiences in both countries?
Xu: I have two agendas for my life that that I set for myself very early on. One is that I want to do public engagement with art. The second one is I want to be the bridge between Eastern and Western cultures. For public engagement, from all of my work experiences I benefited the most from working at public institutions. I interned at an auction house, but I didn’t quite enjoy the experience because all of the people I interacted with were collectors and it’s a very flat segment of society as a whole. I feel like only by the public partaking in what art is can art become a better form of enjoyment. Earlier this year I interviewed Mark Bradford, who was the artist at the American pavilion for Venice Biennale in 2017. And he was saying that when he grew up in a very poor neighborhood in LA, you had to take the free buses to go to see art at museums, which means that art does not belong to the community, it exists outside. And it touched me so much that I want to do more to create a connection between the general public and art. Because art can be intimidating: seeing it at a museum on a pedestal creates this natural distance. I want to break that distance especially by means of contemporary art, where there can be a lot of interaction and a lot of communication and dialogs going on.
As for my second goal [to be a bridge between Eastern and Western cultures], I think especially with the US-China trade war… it’s tricky because when I grew up it was the best years of US-China relations. So I grew up in the “global village, we’re helping each other.” For example, one of the fanciest things as a kid growing up in Beijing, was to go to McDonald’s for a birthday party. So it’s interesting for me to encounter this complete shift. As someone who has been living in the US for so long I see that deep down, on a personal level, everyone is so friendly. I’ve never had a really bad experiences. But I feel like there can be a lot more communication between the two art worlds when the political or economic relations are cooled down. The art world could be this means of communication that warms things up and continues the dialog. For example, earlier this November I was in Shanghai for the Shanghai Art Week. I was moderating a panel at the Yuz Museum with the curator and three artists, where the museum is collaborating with LACMA [LA Contemporary Museum of Art], and the theme of the exhibition is Hollywood, film productions and artist studios. I feel that everyone has so much interest in the US in its current state and I guess there is a lot of interest in China as well in terms of its development and in terms of the people. So I felt like it was a good chance for me to build that bridge and I can see myself doing more and more of that.
CEAS: Do you have plans for once you’re done with the Schwarzman program?
Xu: It’s up in the air but I do want to continue working for the company I’m working for now. I envision myself working for them during my time at Schwarzman, too. So it’s kind of a continuation. I do have some other offers, but I felt like I still want to be better at what I’m doing now instead of developing something new, and I feel like there are still a lot of challenges at my current work. Since I will be in China, there will be a lot of adjustments to do. It’s home, but I’ve been away from home for a while. I’m quite excited about that. I’m also ok with leaving the art world; I love the art world, but I can see myself applying my skillset to a lot of other industries as well. I’m very interested in tech, transportation, but I still feel like art is my anchor and I could do more integration of art with something, for instance art and technology, or art with other industries. I think particularly I’m quite interested in art and copyrights or art and real estate.