Yizan He tells Business Leader about art and cultural IP and how innovation can help the cultural sector recover post-pandemic

Yizan He

In an exclusive interview, Business Leader chatted with Yizan He, CEO and Founder of ARTiSTORY, about his company, the importance of global licensing rights, and how innovation can help the arts and cultural sector to recover from the pandemic.

What is your background and how did you get into the world of art and cultural IP?

I am from Singapore – a small island state with very limited natural resources, even our tap water is imported. Despite the odds, Singapore has successfully developed as an international hub for finance, aviation, trading, and shipping. However, with rising levels of competition from China and India, Singapore consistently explores new strategic directions for Singapore to develop and maintain its competitiveness.

That quest led to intellectual property (IP) and the birth of my first business in IP licensing. What is IP? Simply put, patents, trademarks, and copyrights. IP does not require a vast amount of land or natural resources to develop. IP is essentially the fruits of human intelligence, but surprisingly, most IPs are under-utilised. In 2003, I started my first business, Eivio Pte Limited to work on IP licensing and commercialisation. Without any prior knowledge in licensing, I tumbled through the early years.

Before I started ARTiSTORY in 2020, I worked on various IPs, including patents from technology giants such as Honeywell, entertainment IP such as those from Paramount Pictures and corporate brands such as Westinghouse, and finally, I found a sweet spot– art and cultural IP.

The opportunity came in 2016 when my company secured an exclusive master licence agreement with the British Museum for China. Blessed with over eight million artefacts at the British Museum, we have developed a unique process of transforming artefacts into licensed merchandise, and the business took off rapidly and became one of the largest licensing companies in China.

Since then, in addition to the British Museum, I am proud to have developed comprehensive licensing programs for many of the world’s top heritage institutions like National Gallery, London, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, V&A, Brooklyn Museum in New York, National Palace Museum in Taipei and Dunhuang.

Can you tell us more about ARTiSTORY and your role at the company?

Prior to ARTiSTORY, my licensing business was all about bringing Western IPs into the Chinese market.

From its start in 2020, ARTiSTORY intends to be a global player. ARTiSTORY is a specialist art and cultural IP company with offices in Barcelona, London, Boston, Shanghai, Beijing, and Singapore. We partner with some of the world’s leading museums to create contemporary designs and artwork inspired by their collections, which is then licensed to brands and retailers for use on a diverse range of products, from apparel, homeware and décor, cosmetics, gifts and games to food and drink products, as well as NFTs/digital collectibles, touring exhibitions and pop-up stores in shopping malls.

In my role at the company as Founder and CEO, I am responsible for developing new business and driving forward partnerships with the world’s top museums and cultural organisations to develop licensing programmes with global retailers and international consumer brands.

How important are global licensing rights to major art institutions like the British Museum or the Brooklyn Museum?

The competition for funding from art and cultural institutions is fiercer than ever before and they all need to find ways to find new revenue streams to remain open and also spread the enriching effect that arts and culture has on people’s lives. Global licensing rights are very important for major art institutions to generate more income to continue keeping the museum open and accessible to the public.

Cultural institutions also benefit from global licensing programmes to raise their brand awareness and thus reach a much broader and diverse audience. Through fashion wear, digital products and immersive experiences implemented via licensing, more younger generations have become museum-goers and art lovers.

Is the arts and cultural sector doing enough to remain attractive in the modern world?

Like any sector, there is always more that the arts and cultural sector can do to remain appealing to consumers who have many choices about how they want to spend their leisure time.

The key to remaining appealing to a broader range of demographics is to reach these audiences on the channels that they use and in the ways that they are most interested in engaging with content and culture.

In general, I am increasingly seeing more organisations in the sector making use of digital tools and social media to make sure that they are creating a dialogue with them that is sustainable and spreads the love of arts and culture globally.

How can enterprise and innovation allow the cultural sector to recover from the pandemic and then thrive?

In the post-pandemic era, the cultural sector needs to reach out proactively to global audiences instead of waiting for visitors to show up at their doorsteps. They must respond to an increased demand and appetite for digital content. Some emerging technologies that museums are exploring to meet this demand, and create more sustainable revenue streams include immersive exhibitions and digital collectibles.

Some recent successes involving digital collectibles that ARTiSTORY has experienced include the creation of 8,000 limited digital collectibles featuring Dunhuang’s famous mural art. Following high customer demand, over 60,000 people reserved them for pre-sale and they all sold out immediately at the official launch.

What effect will virtual galleries and the metaverse have on the art and cultural IP sector?

Some see the metaverse as the final frontier for the art and cultural IP sector to embrace, bringing together all of these innovations into one completely digitally-immersive experience. Museums, for instance, will launch virtual galleries in the metaverse that allow visitors to view and buy NFTs, interact with artworks in new and novel ways and attend paid-for virtual tours, live-events, exhibition launches, and NFT stores. Naturally, there is still huge caution from the cultural sector about the best ways to enter this realm, but we are already seeing some lead the way.

Musee Dezentral, for example, is the world’s first decentralised NFT museum, where people can buy ‘frames’ to display their NFTs – at various cryptocurrency price points – or rent them out to other NFT owners and digital artists to display their works.

What advice would you give to someone who is looking to protect their intellectual property?

Many countries such as China adopt First-to-File doctrine, which means cultural organisations must register their trademarks first before launching their licensing programs in China to avoid becoming victims of trademark squatters.

What trends are you currently seeing in your sector?

One of the key trends that we are seeing in the sector is the rise of in-home experiences.

In 2020, the global virtual events market was valued at $94.04 billion, and is predicted to grow by 24% a year until 2028, according to Grand View Research. Museums around the world have already been upping their digital and virtual content – and there is appetite for it too.

Official figures by the British Museum show that they saw a 280% increase in YouTube views and a 60% increase in views of its virtual collection in 2021, versus the previous year. Similarly, the National Gallery in London saw a 1,125% leap in traffic to its webpage for new digital content.

How is 2022 shaping up for yourself and ARTiSTORY?

2022 is shaping up to be a very exciting time for myself and ARTiSTORY as we develop our plans to strengthen our global presence, tap into new markets and reach new audiences.

We have a number of major projects in the pipeline, all with innovation and collaboration in mind, which include creating digitised immersive retail experiences.

ARTiSTORY works closely with global fashion trend analysis firms to identify upcoming trends and match them with relevant museum artifacts, integrating into six to eight themes every year. Each theme is divided into different collections with its own narrative providing diverse and rich stories and creatives.

In May, we added multiple new licensing deals under the theme Gathering of the Greats, with products launching later this year. These deals include Ruggable – the first patented machine-washable rug, to work with National Gallery London; and gourmet food and beverage company Jade Food City, to launch a collection of hot sauces in partnership with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and National Gallery London.

It is worth mentioning that this past April, ARTiSTORY has just launched the 2023 SS art and cultural IP trends and themes with creative assets available for licensing across the global market.