Malcolm McNeill - Chinese Painting Specialist at Christie's


Malcolm McNeill

Malcolm McNeill - Chinese Painting Specialist.

Dr McNeill is a Chinese painting specialist at Christie’s Auction House. He studied Chinese language at the University of Cambridge for his undergraduate degree before going on to work for the Taipei representative office. He studied for his Masters at SOAS and went to work for a cultural organisation called Asia House. Malcolm explained that it was the AHRC that made it possible for him to consider doctoral research. He added: “I wouldn’t have been able to take on the doctorate without their support. It was financially not viable for me to do that, so that made all the difference”.

Whist studying his doctorate at SOAS, Malcolm was working as a researcher one day a week for the AHRC funded exhibition at the British Museum, ‘Ming: 50 years that changed China’. He said: “Through the combination of hands on museum experience and the academic training on the doctorate, I got a huge amount of exposure to both the theoretical and practical sides of art history and museum curation”.

After completing his PhD (Buddhist painting in 13th and 14th Century China and text/image relationships), he went to work for the V&A as Assistant Curator for Asian Collections with a Special Interest in China. He was in that role for two years before taking a job in the private sector, working for Christie’s as a Chinese Painting Specialist. Malcolm went onto explain about the nature of his role and the impact of his research and employment background “It has given me a breadth of knowledge that now has a very direct commercial application for my current employer, and also still has an academic contribution. In that, it makes me a different kind of auction house specialist to some of my colleagues who came up through a purely art market background.”

Malcolm mentioned how AHRC funding was vital to both his study and future career.  He said:  “I couldn’t have done the PhD, in the way that I did, without the AHRC. Without the funding they offered for conferences, that allowed me to connect with people from other universities and other institutions across the world, I couldn’t have done it. It gave me an international perspective on how my research could be relevant, how it could be used, how it could be deployed in different contexts. It built and broadened out my network in ways that enabled me to write a more compelling and more interesting thesis, as well as giving me a more generic, general experience of building a network in art history across the US, Taiwan, China and Japan, and Europe. Through that, it gave a really solid foundation to, first of all, make more interesting use out of my job at the V&A, and still now, in linking people up and connecting them to arts-related events globally for Christie’s and for other programmes”.

Malcolm spoke briefly about why he chose to apply for an AHRC studentship. He commented that one of the key reasons was the additional opportunities that came with being an AHRC scholar, for example being eligible to apply to AHRC’s International Placement Scheme.  “I was one of the International Placement Scheme recipients in 2014. I had three months in the National Institute for the Humanities in Kyoto, which was fundamental to allowing me to access more material, to build an academic network, to see collections I physically couldn’t have got to see otherwise. It was a really broadening experience in a number of ways”. He also believes that holding an AHRC studentship is helpful when looking for employment. He added: “The prestige of the AHRC award, once you have it on your CV, gives gravity to your later career. That made a difference, I think, in a number of the jobs that I applied for”.

Malcolm mentioned some of the more transferable skills he learnt during his PhD. “They gave me a solid grounding in all the research skills that I needed for various jobs I’ve done since, the publications that I’ve worked on with the V&A, the conferences I’ve attended, the broader reach outside of the curatorial job”. He continued to say “It was the training that gave me the chance to get a complete, holistic picture of the objects in national collections I was looking after. To identify what was important about them and to really focus down on those.  Also to communicate them through public access, through articles in a blog, and through everything from research projects and publications to twitter tours that the V&A organised for their several hundreds of thousands of followers: just giving people a different insight to works that are held in perpetuity for the nation.”

Malcolm spoke about some of the subject specific skills he learnt and how he is utilising them: “Last year we were looking for a title for the sale of an 18th century jade boulder that contained a sculpture of a Buddhist saint. My colleagues asked for an appropriately lyrical Chinese title. I went to the collected writings of a 13th century Buddhist abbot from the southern Song capital of Lin’an and found a poem that he’d written on a very similar subject. We chose that line of poetry as the title for this commercial sale. The object eventually sold for £728,750.” 

When asked whether he would do anything differently, Malcolm finished with: “No, I don’t think I would. It has given me an exceptional range of opportunities that have given me the chance to do jobs and to go to places and see things that I would not otherwise been able to see, that have reshaped what the world can be for me”.

You can find Dr McNeill on Instagram - @malcolmmcneillmoyouke

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