Vietnamese American, 24, builds Brooklyn art collective from scratch

By Ziqi Lin

Donning a mini black slit dress and six inch heels, the petite Asian lady deftly balanced on a ledge the size of the tightrope to step onto the other side of her rooftop. “Don’t worry, I’ve done it before,” she said with nonchalance, “This is very Brooklyn.” Even in my jeans and boots, I decided to take a safer route of clambering around a short wall instead of risking my life teetering on the edge of the five-storey building.


Sáng Huynh is the 24-year-old founder and director of fledgling Brooklyn arts collective, The Art Vacancy (TAV), which held its first exhibition Passion vs. Pragmatism in September. In March 2017, Huynh gathered a team of six and founded TAV alongside co-founder Lindsey Puccio. Their first exhibition held on Sep. 16, 2017 titled Passion vs. Pragmatism showcased the works of 15 emerging artists who epitomized the talent and resilience of the modern day creative.  The collective raised over $5,000 for the first exhibition through crowdfunding from personal relationships. So far, none of the members of the collective have been paid, essentially contributing their time and expertise as a volunteer. All of the team members have full-time jobs in areas such as advertising and fashion, and Huynh herself works on marketing at a design firm.

Opening reception of Passion vs. Pragmatism, photo by Ryan Desrosiers

Huynh shares that she has learned much about her management style and is still growing as a young director of a budding arts collective. Huynh admits to being a micromanager and “a dictator” early on. “There were so many times that I had to step back… You have to know when to let someone else lead… You have to have the willingness to collaborate and willingness to compromise,” she reflected. Ultimately, she learnt that trust for her team members was the most important element to leading the collective. Eventually, Huynh hopes to register her collective as a non-profit organization so that it can receive grants and major donations. When that happens, Huynh said she would be able to compensate her team for their time and commitment to the collective.

Huynh’s team is made up of her personal friends, including Jah-Leah Ellis who oversees the marketing aspects of TAV. Ellis emphasized that being understanding towards one another formed a huge part of the team dynamics and that their friendships did not get in the way of making sure things were completed. While Ellis may have disagreements at times with other team members with regards to fundraising matters, Ellis says she is on the same page with Huynh. Ellis knows Huynh’s commitment to make art her life, where it is both passionate and profitable such that it never feels like work.

A more experienced gallery organizer in the Brooklyn art collective scene, Stephen Lipuma is the co-founder of Court Tree Collective, an established art gallery consisting of artists and chefs who provides cultural events in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. After three years and nearly 30 shows, Lipuma said that one of the major challenges that he has met with running his gallery is finding a market of buyers to support the gallery. “It takes times, but as any gallery owner will tell you it’s the foundation of keeping the dream alive,” Lipuma said as advise to new art collectives.

Huynh is the eldest of three daughters to Vietnamese-Chinese-Cambodian parents who went from zero to building a thriving nail salon in Maryland. She tells a harrowing rags-to-riches tale of her parents’ difficult immigration from Vietnam to the United States in the 1980s. Huynh’s father sold lottery tickets back in Vietnam, which she described as “the equivalent of being dirt poor.” Tempted by the American dream, her father left for the United States in search of better opportunities.  According to Huynh, her mother tried to sneak onto a boat illegally to reunite with her father in the U.S. because her paper was taking too long to be processed. Huynh’s mother was caught and forced into labor camp, where she built brick houses for nine months. She eventually reunited with Huynh’s father in Maryland, where he worked as a carpenter and she worked in a nail salon. Now, they own a successful nail salon in Maryland and have three daughters who are all set to graduate from universities.

Huynh’s first love in the realm of art was film. “Coming of age, I always had a thing for independent filmmakers who did things out of the norm,” Huynh said. She admitted to a horror movie phase, citing polarizing French film “Martyrs” by Pascal Laugier as one of her favorites. While a sophomore in college back in Maryland, she went through difficult personal tribulations. Her personal affinity with the visual arts developed as it became an emotional outlet. “I basically hit rock bottom… I would just paint so much – hours on end – in my living room, which was my studio at that time,” Huynh said. The entrepreneurial streak in the Huynh’s family instilled in her a strong work ethic and persistent drive. “I [have] never had it that hard because my parents worked so hard, but they have always taught me that you need to work for what you want,” Huynh said. “Perseverance and having that resilience is integral to building anything substantial.”

Apart from being driven by her passion in the visual arts, Huynh’s background in non-profit work has framed the advocacy aspect of her arts organization. “It has always been difficult for artists to break that barrier, because there is so much politics that goes on in the art world and there’s elitism,” Huynh said. She believes in supporting talented, emerging artists and hopes to empower them with opportunities and resources to break barriers within the art world.

Ultimately, Huynh hopes to expand the services of her arts organization to include arts management and consultancy, providing artists concrete support in the form of portfolio courses and artist residencies. Even though they may not have official schooling or the perfect resume, that doesn’t mean that that artist may not make a profound impact on the arts community, said Huynh.

“I really believe in us,” Huynh emphasized to me repeatedly on her collective, perhaps in an attempt to motivate herself as much to convince me. “I’ve never felt so sure of anything in my entire life, and I’m going to see it through.”


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