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Hélène Nguyen-Ban Portrait

Hélène Nguyen-Ban on Docent, a Curated Mobile App for Discovering Art 

Erica Silverman

11 January 2023

Docent is the first mobile app that combines art and science, thanks to the power of machine learning, to offer collectors personalized recommendations. It is the result of a collaboration between the collector, patron, and former gallerist Helene Nguyen-Ban connecting with the applied mathematics professor and scientist Mathieu Rosenbaum. In a world of algorithms that keep you in an echo chamber of your own taste and worldview, Docent delivers something different with a curated selection of discoveries, perspectives, and chances to expand their collection and eye.

As the CEO & Founder of Docent, Nguyen-Ban spoke with Whitewall about her vision for the potential of art and technology, and the benefits it can offer to emerging and established collectors alike. 

Hélène Nguyen-Ban Portrait

Helene Nguyen-Ban, photo by Karl Hab.

WHITEWALL: What sparked your interest in contemporary art early on?

HELENE NGUYEN-BAN: Informed by my upbringing between Europe and Africa, as well as my Vietnamese-Alsatian roots, I have always been naturally interested in works that reflect the complexity of forming one’s identity.

In the beginning, I felt overwhelmed and confused about how to navigate the contemporary art scene. I started accumulating objects, artefacts, and antiquities relating to ancient civilizations and cultures, such as Tang terra cotta figures and Chinese ceramics. Collecting art was a way to reunite my fragmented identity, with these art pieces representing the assorted totems of my own upbringing. Later, I began to see contemporary art as a universal language through which to communicate the intricacies of our varied cultures and societies.

WW: What was the first piece in your collection?

HNB: When walking around Paris, I was struck by the portraits of Zhang Xiaogang behind the gallery window of Enrico Navarra. Fascinated by these faces with their fixed gazes concealing all emotions, they echoed my own Asian childhood, where showing feelings is almost vulgar. I was lucky enough to have this encounter completely at random, and so my collection began by chance.

Oscar Murillo,

Oscar Murillo, “_surge (social cataracts)_,” 2019, 102 3/4 x 114 5/8 x 4 7/8 in., oil stick on velvet and linen, stainless steel rails, grommets, and brackets; photo by Jack Hems, courtesy of the artist.

WW: How did you identify a vital connection between art and technology?

HNB: Initially through art. I have always been interested in artists who either use or reflect on technology through their practice. Technology is omnipresent, it intervenes in all aspects of our daily lives, and the works of artists like Wade Guyton, Christopher Wool, and Lee Bull offer multifaceted reflections on this prevalence.

Additionally, I have always felt that technology could have a major impact within the art ecosystem and that it isn’t leveraged enough. Indeed, within the art world, finding what you like and gaining access to artworks is often a long and tedious process. Aspiring collectors often find themselves lost and confused, while existing collectors feel overwhelmed by the abundance of artists and artworks available to them. It is also hard to find data-led and trustworthy guidance when navigating the physical and digital spaces, and this is why I saw a real opportunity to build Docent.

WW: How did your collaboration with CSO Mathieu Rosenbaum begin?

HNB: Since handing over my gallery to David Zwirner, I nurtured this wish of seeing how the art world could be better served by technology. With this in mind, I initiated a quest to find the best partner. I met Mathieu Rosenbaum, award-winning scientist and professor in applied mathematics at École Polytechnique. From fruitful initial conversations, we gathered a team, drawing the best from the intersection of art and science. We combined the visionary research of leading scientists in the realm of machine learning with experts in contemporary art.

The constant dialogue at Docent, where art experts work hand in hand with scientists, has proven to create a compelling tool relevant both to the art world and the scientific community. Our team of art historians manually tagged thousands of artworks to train our proprietary algorithms up to the standards of our community of galleries and collectors. We created the first personalized algorithmic recommendations for art.

Oscar Murillo,

Oscar Murillo, “_surge (social cataracts)_,” 2019, 102 3/4 x 114 5/8 x 4 7/8 in., oil stick on velvet and linen, stainless steel rails, grommets, and brackets; photo by Jack Hems, courtesy of the artist.

WW: How has your personal art collection, your eye, been influenced by your work at Docent?

HNB: I am surprised every day by the discoveries I make on Docent. For example, in my Daily Dose, because I liked a “Body Print” by David Hammons, I have been recommended the series of used makeup wipes of Sin Wai Kin, an artist represented by Soft Opening. I wouldn’t have thought of it at first, but Sin Wai Kin’s practice echoes the work of David Hammons in this particular series in the way they create what can be called a trace or a relic of a particular body at a specific time (in their case after a performance). This instantaneous effect of presence is quite similar but is used in different approaches. Docent helps me to envision these interrelationships between different artists and practices that I would not have thought of at first, expanding my horizons and giving me a deeper understanding of art.

WW: How do you envision the future of the platform?

HNB: Our goal is to carve out the go-to digital space for contemporary art, while keeping a consciously curated community of galleries and institutions. Docent will empower existing collectors and help a new generation of collectors to rise, bringing more revenue to galleries and artists.

Hélène Nguyen-Ban Portrait

Helene Nguyen-Ban, photo by Karl Hab.

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