Azure Qi Zhou (AZ), Founder of Stilllife
Hi, I am Azure Qi Zhou, the founder of Stilllife. I bring my expertise in funding acquisition, team management, partnership building, and creative direction to the organization. With a diverse background spanning five years in the international art, creative, and tech industries, I seek to engage and communicate with the youth culture through practical business models and technological innovation. I graduated from New York University with a major in Art History and a minor in Business Studies in 2022.
Jeffrey Ziyu Liu (JL), Co-Founder and Director of Communications
Hi! I’m Jeffrey Ziyu Liu, a co-founder and Communications Director at Stilllife where I excel in cultivating and maintaining relationships with internal and external stakeholders, including emerging artists, next-gen collectors, like-minded organizations, and the global public. With over five years of experience in the international art and fashion industries, I have developed a sharp professionalism that enables me to communicate creatively with a diverse range of perspectives while highlighting the emerging youth culture. I am currently pursuing a degree in Art History and a minor in Comparative Literature at NYU’s undergraduate program and am expected to graduate in December 2023.
Katerina Chenyu Wang (KW), Co-Founder and Director of Operations
Hi! I’m Katerina Chenyu Wang, a co-founder of Stilllife, and I lead the charge in managing operations and expanding our organization’s global presence. My unwavering passion for the art market drives me to collaborate closely with artistic visionaries, amplifying the voices of emerging artists. With a warm and engaging personality, I bring three years of experience in the art world to Stilllife, having gained insights from galleries, art fairs, and PR agencies, and actively advocating for making the arts accessible and inclusive for all. I hold a BA degree in Economics and Art History from NYU, and am currently pursuing my master’s degree in the Arts Administration Program at Columbia University.
Shu Gao (SG), Co-Founder and Director of Events
Hi, I’m Shu! By day, I work as a software engineer and speak fluently in binary code. However, outside of work, I’m an active member of the vibrant NYC art scene, where I’m passionate about fostering a community of young, talented artists. As a co-founder of Stilllife, I’m responsible for logistics planning to make sure every event goes without a hitch!
AF: Hi Stilllife team! We are delighted to chat with both of you. To start this interview off, we would love to know more about your upbringings. Where are you all from and what are the arts communities like there?
AZ: I come from Zhuhai, China, a small city in close proximity to Macau and Hong Kong. In Zhuhai, the art community is relatively small, and much of the artistic influence in my life stems from my family. My father, who is a photographer passionate about films and documentary production, has played a significant role in shaping my artistic perspective. Additionally, my mother used to take me to ink-wash painting classes, providing me with the opportunity to explore traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy. However, despite these early experiences, the concept of an art community and the act of creating art remained unfamiliar to me. It wasn’t until I left home at the age of 14 to study in the United States that I realized the existence of diverse communities. One significant discovery for me was YouTube, through which I immersed myself in various music videos and attempted to emulate their aesthetics. To further explore my passion for photography, I asked my dad to send me his old camera, allowing me to engage in the process of capturing images alongside my peers.
JL: Growing up in Beijing, with its vibrant and longstanding art scene, provided me with a wonderful opportunity to delve into China’s diverse cultural heritage. From a young age, I was immersed in a plethora of traditional and historical art forms. It allowed me to recognize the immense value of preserving our artistic traditions while also recognizing the need for innovation and freshness. Witnessing this dynamic dialogue between the old and the new sparked my ongoing fascination with bridging the generational gap and finding ways to honor our shared past while embracing the future.
KW: I am from Nanjing, China, a city steeped in history and cultural heritage as the former national capital during a portion of the Ming dynasty. Today, the city is dotted with enduring monuments and landmarks that stand as testament to its rich past. Despite the lack of a thriving contemporary art scene in my hometown, my engagement with the arts took root in my school’s art festivals where I was an active participant. Being a stone’s throw away from Shanghai, the heart of China’s art scene, proved to be a blessing – I often visited a lot of art galleries and museums there. This exposure to a diverse range of art forms and expressions played a crucial role in shaping my understanding and appreciation of art.
AF: How did your upbringing shape what you do in the arts today?
AZ: Supported by my family, I had the privilege of immersing myself in painting and calligraphy, fostering my creative passions. My father’s photography ventures took him to captivating destinations such as Tibet, Bhutan, Antarctica, Pakistan, and Mount K2, resulting in a meticulously curated collection and archived books that profoundly influenced me. At 16, we resided with a skilled craftsman in Qamdo, Tibet, deeply immersing ourselves in the creation of a bronze statue of Buddha. This firsthand experience allowed me to gain a profound appreciation for the local culture and the intricacies of craft production. These familial influences seamlessly merged with my own encounters with American culture. Through social and video media, I discovered a diverse range of cultural expressions that harmoniously resonated with my background, empowering me to actively engage with various artistic communities.
Therefore, I am always excited to create and interact with different creatives in the art industry. Stilllife is about accessibility to different talents and creating meaningful connections.
JL: I am very lucky to have supportive parents who introduced art to me at a very young age and continue to inspire me in all my creative endeavors. As avid collectors, my parents have curated a diverse collection that spans from the Qing dynasty to contemporary Chinese art. I am particularly grateful to my parents for instilling in me a love for the research and discovery process involved in collecting each piece. Now, I am eagerly looking forward to bringing my knowledge, passion, and experiences from the realm of traditional art to the vibrant emerging art scene of New York City.
KW: The joy of my initial encounters with art has played a significant role in shaping my current endeavors. Without a family background in the arts, my parents’ support made me realize the importance of advocating for the accessibility of art. This understanding drives my work today. I aspire to use my efforts to enable more people to feel the power of art, to be moved and healed by it. In this sense, my upbringing serves as both my compass and motivation in the arts.
AF: What was your first ever job? What did you learn from this experience?
AZ: My first job was as an editorial intern at NOWNESS ASIA in Shanghai. The most valuable experience was witnessing the transformation of creative ideas into reality and their dissemination to a wide audience. I was amazed by the seamless coordination and execution among various departments in bringing these ideas to life. It was particularly impressive how they made these creative concepts relatable and accessible to the public. These experiences taught me the importance of cross-team coordination and accessibility, which I am now able to practice again at Stilllife. Here, we communicate with different artists, curate their work more intimately, and bring their bold creative ideas to fruition. Moreover, accessibility and making the public feel relatable is another key aspect of Stilllife. We offer free entry to the public and ensure we have a wide price range of the work yet ensuring its quality, making art accessible to all, keeping the prices reasonable, and allowing anyone, the collectors or fairgoers, to own a piece of art they enjoy. We’re committed to making art appreciation and collection a reality for everyone through Stilllife Art & Design Fair.
KW: My first job was with an Art PR Agency in Shanghai, where I collaborated with esteemed organizations such as West Bund Art & Design. My role involved assisting in planning and executing media events for large-scale art projects and independently analyzing global art scenes. This hands-on experience provided me with invaluable insights into the importance of careful planning, efficient communication, and data-driven decision-making in the art industry. Furthermore, it was during this internship that my interest in art fairs was sparked, a passion that continues to influence me to work on Stilllife Art & Design Fair today.
AF: How did the four of you meet? What was the process like deciding to collaborate together?
AZ: We all crossed paths at New York University. Katerina, Shu, and I first met in Florence during our freshman year. During the initial two years of university, I was uncertain about my direction and future plans. Even the concept of art history was unfamiliar when I chose it as my major. It wasn’t until my third year, which coincided with the pandemic study away program in Shanghai, that I began contemplating my future and aspirations. Shanghai became a hub where many people gathered during the pandemic, and it was there that I gained valuable internship experience and immersed myself in the vibrant creative culture. It was in Shanghai that I also met Jeffrey, and we attended events like the West Bund Fair and art 021 together, although we were unsure how to truly engage with them at that time. It was only in my final year of college that I started dreaming of establishing our own community, with the art fair as the starting point to bring together artists and creatives. I consider myself fortunate to have met such individuals who support one another in realizing our goal and dream together.
JL: Yes! I am very grateful that I met Azure in Shanghai during such a formative time for us. But, I am even more grateful that our friendship has evolved organically to take on so many different shapes – it is truly a pleasure to work with your talented friends on a shared passion! Collaborating and learning with our Stilllife team has made me rethink what work could mean and how much you can grow with one another. What brings me even greater happiness is that we are able to extend this energy and spirit to everyone we work with, including artists, collaborators, and collectors. Being part of such a supportive, inspiring, and empowering community is a tremendous honor, and it continues to fuel our creative endeavors.
AF: You are co-founders of Stilllife, a Gen Z-founded art community based in New York City. Tell us more about Stilllife, what inspired you to start the community, and what are your hopes for the future!
AZ: During our graduation, we came to the realization that not only ourselves but numerous young artists with international backgrounds were still grappling with uncertainty regarding their futures. The high barriers to entry, including financial constraints and visa-related challenges, were common hurdles. We, as founding members, also experienced the struggles of navigating the New York art scene. Recognizing this shared struggle, we, as their peers, felt compelled to establish a community where we could mutually support one another.
Experimenting and exploring different models such as the gallery, the fair, and educational programming. Our goal is to build a next-generation artist and collector community, offering panel talks, curatorial exhibits, educational programming, and breaking geographical limits. Through these different programming, we will keep cultivating our community and enhance our content and quality in the future.
JL: Yes, as Azure mentioned, we were inspired to create our community through listening to the countless challenges our artist/art professional friends faced. Everything came very naturally which shows in what we do. Therefore we not only create opportunities and help artists continue pursuing their creativity in a financially sustainable way but we also foster an empowering community that highlights a myriad of perspectives. Through this, we see Stilllife becoming a global community that offers the next-generation a new way to interact and experience the world.
AF: Who makes up the Stilllife team?
AZ: The whole Stilllife team is coming from a diverse background, ranging from art history, graphic design, communication design, computer science, and accounting. This diversity enriches our perspective and approach, making us a well-rounded team.
KW: Our team is segmented into different areas, each contributing to our collective success. We have creative minds who breathe life into our projects, visual experts who translate our ideas into compelling imagery, marketing strategists who amplify our reach, and business development coordinators who ensure our sustainable growth. Each member plays a crucial role, making Stilllife a dynamic and inclusive platform.
AF: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced with Stilllife?
JL: For me, I’ve had to balance Stilllife with school and constantly switch between two different mindsets. At Stilllife, I maintain a strictly logical and professional persona that allows me to quickly assess situations and execute solutions in a timely manner. But, at school, I try to give myself space to creatively play around with ideas that might lead to “unproductive” results. In the past, I clearly separated the two mindsets. But, now that I’m on the brink of graduating, I am very grateful that Stilllife’s role involves interacting with the creative community. We are constantly in conversation with people and objects that enrich the way we think, which in turn we hope to communicate to the public. Stilllife’s power is to connect everyone’s creativity, no matter their background, into a single yet multi-dimensional collective where everyone feels empowered to pursue their passions. Therefore, we are also very grateful for our collaborators and friends who have given us invaluable advice and pointed us in the right direction that aligns with our goals.
KW: Working on Stilllife has been both an exciting and challenging journey. One of the primary obstacles has been the global vision of reaching a diverse audience and artists. It’s been difficult to penetrate various cultural barriers and establish a network that truly embodies diversity. Additionally, gaining attention in an oversaturated market is another hurdle we have faced. Transitioning from an internship to entrepreneurship has also posed challenges. Entrepreneurship requires a different mindset and significantly more responsibilities. Navigating through the trials of running a business, from managing finances to ensuring team coordination, has been an enlightening yet demanding experience. Finally, establishing a sustainable business model for long-term development is a continuous challenge. Balancing between nurturing the artistic integrity of Stilllife and ensuring financial viability has proven intricate. We’ve been exploring various revenue streams, from partnerships to patronage. It is a balancing act to generate income without compromising the core values of Stilllife.
AF: What do you want the art world to know about the Gen Z art community? How is Gen Z already changing the art industry?
JL: Gen Z itself is one of the first maturing generations that grew up with technology as we know it. By engaging with social media, we are incredibly socially aware while also understanding the power and importance of community building. Therefore, aside from the unwavering determination and honest passion of the Gen Z art community, we are always rooting for one another online/offline and finding new inspiration around every corner of the internet.
Stilllife is a great example of how we see Gen Z actively changing the art industry by highlighting creativity through the interaction between different groups of people. For example, LINK by Stilllife is our panel talk + networking event that we host every 2-3 months. In the past, we’ve worked with The Here and There Collective, TRLab, GIPHY Arts, and many other organizations in discussing trendy topics and sharing invaluable advice between experienced professionals and the younger student community. We are excited to continue bridging communities together and broadcasting the revolutionary perspectives of Gen Z!
KW: We don’t want the art world to pigeonhole Gen Z as mere creators, exhibitors, or collectors of the trendy. Many young artist friends around me have started being represented by galleries. Some of my peers in art management programs have begun to assist major galleries in operating their social media or have even started their own gallery businesses. Viewed through the lens of our generation, we are in motion, ever-advancing towards a more vibrant artistic future.
AF: As you know, Art Frankly is a community that cares about job transparency and supporting fellow art professionals. What is the best piece of advice you can give about working in the art world?
AZ: It is essential to avoid taking things for granted and acknowledge the contributions of others. Particularly in industries such as art, creativity, and fashion, name recognition holds significant value. Creative projects rely on the hard work and ingenuity of individuals, especially considering the initial challenges of achieving a high income in the art or creative industry. Therefore, it becomes crucial to give credit where it is due and appreciate the work of others when they contribute to a team.
In addition, it is common for many people to emphasize the importance of networking in the art industry. However, it is crucial to note that solely focusing on networking without simultaneously working on personal projects and honing specific skills is futile. Networking alone lacks substance without genuine expertise and tangible achievements. By dedicating more time to building personal projects and developing skills, individuals can establish a solid foundation for their career and enhance their opportunities for success.
KW: Indeed, staying connected is pivotal in the art world. My best piece of advice would be: Don’t underestimate the power of follow-up! Building and maintaining relationships are key in this field. Whether it’s a thank-you note after a meeting or a quick email to touch base with a contact, these gestures keep you in mind and open doors to future opportunities. Persistence, politeness, and genuine interest go a long way.
JL: We are really excited to be part of Art Frankly’s community where transparency and building a supportive network of art professionals is highly valued! At Stilllife, we are also actively highlighting new opportunities for the next generation of art professionals, artists, and collectors through our accessible programming. So, this advice is a bit narcissistic, but come to Stilllife’s events!! As a Gen Z founded art community, our programming is built upon connecting and creating new relationships with a diverse group of people. Through this, we aim to encourage individuals to be their authentic selves while also gaining new ways of thinking.
AF: How do you think the art world can become more transparent?
JL: We believe that the art world can be more transparent by having a fair and standard set of regulations to work upon. As a young organization, we want to make sure that from the start we offer our collaborators and artists a comfortable legal agreement that protects all parties.
Additionally we are actively building mentor relations which we believe is crucial to making the art world more accessible and fruitful. Mentorship is something that is really lacking in the art world and Stilllife is here to change that through our programming.
KW: The art world can become more transparent by democratizing access and inclusion. This means not only making art itself more available to diverse populations but also opening up the processes and decision-making within the art world. Supporting young artists, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds, can help broaden the variety of voices and perspectives in the art world. This can be done through mentorships, grants, and opportunities for exposure. Practicing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in organizational management is another crucial step. This includes diversifying leadership and staff, ensuring fair pay, and creating a culture that values and respects all individuals.
AF: What are you most excited for this year in your collaboration efforts or in the art world as a whole?
AZ: I would say the 2023 Stilllife Art & Design Fair, which is our signature event of the year. This year is also our first time consigning works from 7 talented emerging artists which we can’t wait to share with our community and the public from May 27-29th at Soho, NYC!
JL: Yes! A few of our collaborations will also be presented during Stilllife Art & Design Fair’s after-hour programming. We are very thrilled to continue collaborating with The Here and There Collective, a non-profit organization uplifting and connecting art practitioners from the Asian diaspora. They have connected us with Civil Art, a platform co-founded by the artist Ho Jae Kim and advocates cultural awareness of Asian / Pacific Islanders (API) through social engagement programs that utilize art and literature. It is our pleasure to continue building our influences in the Fine Arts community by uplifting and working with galleries, artists, and like-minded organizations.
KW: What excites me most this year in our collaboration efforts is our initiative to combine resources, amplify strengths, and explore various combinations. We are approaching collaborations with a sincere mindset, seeking win-win partnerships with organizations of diverse backgrounds. The prospect of merging different perspectives and resources to create something unique and impactful fosters greater inclusivity and diversity within the art world.
AF: Thank you, Azure, Jeffrey, Kat, and Shu, for participating in Frank Talks, it has been such a pleasure chatting with you! To finish off, we would love to know: if you could work with any five artists/craftspeople, who would you choose and why?
AZ: Such a dreamy question to answer. First, I would like to be in the presence of Wolfgang Tillmans, I love his observation and creativity! Harley Weir, my favorite photographer who approach medium of body, nature, and material with such tenderness. Beyonce, thank you Jeffrey for bringing me to her world. Oh Hyuk!! My favorite artist and musician.
JL: Thank you for this wonderful interview!! We are so happy to share Stilllife with Art Frankly’s special community. To answer this fun question, I would love to live and write with David Wojnarowicz, a figure that, for me, epitomizes the power of creative expression; work on absolutely anything with Beyonce, needless to say more; observe 郭熙 (Guo Xi) paint and write in the mountains; travel to Iceland with Roni Horn and discuss her incredible thinking and spirit; Curate a gathering with Felix Gonzalez-Torres. These artists might feel unreachable, but they are constantly popping up in my conversations with collaborators, artists, and friends at Stilllife. As the next generation, it is really exciting to be building upon and with such inspiring creatives who have opened the doors for so many of us – Stilllife hopes to do the same!
KW: Thank you for this insightful conversation! As for your question, narrowing it down to five artists or craftspeople is indeed a tough task. However, I would honestly choose to work with all the artists who are participating in this year’s Stilllife Art & Design Fair. Their creativity, passion, and unique perspectives make them an invaluable part of our artistic journey!