Miky Lee, the Newest Member of Otis College’s Board of Governors, on Creativity, Diversity, and Being a Bridge for New Talent
“Otis students come from all over the world, so I would like to help establish a more global curriculum [at Otis] that intersects fashion, visual, and digital arts.”
When Miky Lee (Mie Kyung Lee) burst onto the Hollywood scene at the 2019 Oscars—speaking as an executive producer when Parasite won that year’s Best Picture award—many in the entertainment industry were already aware of her immense influence as vice-chairwoman of one of South Korea’s international conglomerates, CJ Group. The Hollywood Reporter has called Lee the “most important mogul in South Korean entertainment,” crediting her with building Korea’s first multiplex theater complex, being a founding investor in Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks SKG studio, and helping to popularize K-Pop and Korean culture internationally, including in the United States. Lee has a hand in film, television, theater, and music, and has received numerous accolades as a result. Just last year, she was named International Media Women of the Year by Variety, nominated into BBC's 100 Women, and received the Pillar Award at the Academy Museum gala in October (Lee is vice-chair of the museum’s board).
Education has always been at the heart of her work, and not just because of her own background, which includes a bachelor’s from Seoul National University and a master’s in Asian Studies from Harvard, where she was a teaching fellow in Korean language for three years. Lee also studied Chinese and linguistics at Taiwan National University, Japanese at Japan’s Keio University, and Chinese literature and history at Fudan University in China, and is fluent in Korean, English, Mandarin, and Japanese. “I think that the most impactful period in a person’s life is during school, when your job is to be a student and absorb all you can about the world,” Lee says, adding that it’s an honor to be part of this process as a new member of Otis College’s Board of Governors and this year’s commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient. We recently spoke with Lee about what she loves about working with the College and supporting the next generation of artists and designers.
In a 2020 interview, you told Variety that your company, CJ Group, is “all about supporting the next generation, nurturing the talent, and supporting the creators.” How did this philosophy impact your decision to get involved with Otis College of Art and Design?
Through President Charles Hirschhorn I learned that Otis College has been a leader in art and design education for over 100 years. I want to support talented artists who are able to share their voice with the world. I always want to say to people, “Here is the bridge I have built, use it, and reach the other side!”
When I first started working in the entertainment industry, mentors were there to guide me in the right direction. Steven Spielberg told me, “Miky, it’s a people business! It’s all about understanding and respecting everyone working in it!” He often told me stories about how studio executives like Sid Sheinberg, Lou Wasserman, and Steve Ross supported him when he was a young director.
This philosophy of nurturing talent has translated into our relationship with some of Korea’s most prominent directors. Director Bong Joon-ho’s first movie wasn’t a success in the theaters, but we recognized that his movie was filled with his unique brand of humor. We continued to work with him over the next 20 years, including his masterpiece, Parasite, which won four Oscars.
“I think that the most impactful period in a person’s life is during school, when your job is to be a student and absorb all you can about the world.”
What do you personally find most rewarding about supporting artists and creators?
One of the most rewarding things is seeing an artist realize their full potential, finding their own unique voice, and having them contribute something deeply meaningful to the world. It’s even better when the artist is able to connect the world and bring it together.
You have long been involved in educational initiatives. What inspires you to remain engaged with higher education?
I grew up in a Buddhist and Confucian environment and was taught that enlightenment comes through self-cultivation. You can say “higher” education but really it’s continuing education. We are supposed to learn until the day we die.
This is especially true in the entertainment world, where trends are ever-changing. Even now, I listen to all the latest hits and watch countless films and TV series. Culture and art are continuously merging and evolving and it is my job to catch up.
I think that the most impactful period in a person’s life is during school, when your job is to be a student and absorb all you can about the world. It’s a great honor to be part of this process.
What do you hope to help Otis College achieve in working with President Hirschhorn and your fellow members of the Board of Governors?
Otis students come from all over the world, so I would like to help establish a more global curriculum that intersects fashion, visual, and digital arts. I think it’s important to keep the curriculum evolving and in a responsive conversation with the world at large.
Also, I want to make the wealth of these different global cultures available to the students at Otis College. I want to support an environment where global students are able to speak in their own voice and are able to express their unique cultures.
Congratulations on your upcoming Honorary Degree from Otis College. What message about your accomplishments and experiences do you hope will resonate most with Otis students?
Always evolve and be passionate about your pursuit of art, that is when it will be most rewarding and allow you to push the boundaries. Even when nobody notices you at the moment, continue to pursue your passion and walk on your path.
“Art and creativity is all about diversity. You can’t have art without that. Diversity brings different angles into the equation.”
Otis College is proud of its rich history of supporting students from a diversity of backgrounds. How important is it to the art and entertainment worlds to have creatives come from all walks of life and experiences?
It’s not only important, but it is also essential. I think art and creativity is all about diversity. You can’t have art without that. Diversity brings different angles into the equation. I’ve mentioned being a bridge, and I also want to be the bridge between different cultures. Genuine art should bring together different cultures and transcend them.
You have a proven ability to discover and work with new talent. What skill sets and viewpoints do you look for in up-and-coming talent? What can Otis College students learn from this?
Compassion. Discipline. Humility. Tenacity. These are the four words that I have found to be important.
Compassion because we need to help each other.
Discipline because hardships are inevitable and you need the strength to persevere.
Humility because it helps you grow and because arrogance can take away everything in a moment’s notice.
Tenacity because going all the way to the end is very important.
I hope all of us can stay true to ourselves in the journey toward our goals. Each time I face obstacles or a dead end, I make a conscientious effort to find inspiration and motivation from my surroundings, by talking to a mentor, reading a book, or watching a great movie.
You have to remind yourself that there are many paths to reaching the top of Mount Everest.
“Each time I face obstacles or a dead end, I make a conscientious effort to find inspiration and motivation from my surroundings.”
Who are some artists you’re most excited about right now, and why?
I find myself gravitating towards powerful young women’s voices! Some of them are Korean and Korean American, but all of them are fearless.
Celine Song has made a phenomenal debut film with us and A24 called Past Lives that bravely focuses on a simple love story.
Music-wise, Audrey Nuna creates an authentic cross-section of R&B and Rap. Her self-directed music videos are also incredibly refreshing with their dream-like visuals.
Anna Park and Cindy Kim are two younger artists who both happen to be known for charcoal-based monochromatic work, which sounds quiet and serious, but they create work of amazing intensity! But the thing is, I love color and I am captivated by the work from Ariana Papademetropoulos, who blurs hyperrealism with fantasy.
The common thread here are artists taking genres or subjects that might be considered well-worn, and accomplishing the incredibly difficult feat of surprising and emotionally moving us with new perspectives.
What advice would you share with young creatives just starting their artistic careers?
Keep the passion alive, constantly evolve and push boundaries. Think outside the box with determination.
We’ve come a long way with the popularity of Korean content and culture, but it wasn’t always the case. Not many people knew about BTS 10 years ago, and no one knew about director Bong 20 years ago.
But one thing they all had in common was passion. Regardless of what the world thought of them, these artists and creators persevered, and they continued to push the boundaries.
Now, works like Parasite and Decision to Leave are being recognized for their value, and Korean content is more popular than ever, frequently ranking at the top of well-known streaming platforms. Most importantly, they are recognized for having a uniquely Korean appeal while also having universal themes that audiences can relate to.
Stay true to yourself, live your passion, and evolve.