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You can always buy your way in

by Edan Corkill

Art changes with the times, so why shouldn’t art galleries? Some say that Japan’s unique “rental gallery” system, where young artists pay hundreds of thousands of yen per week to show their work, is on its last legs. If so, is it a case of good riddance? Or does this represent the retreat of a perfectly good Japanese system in the face of a Western one?

What, exactly, does the rental in rental gallery mean?

“Forty-thousand yen per day, ¥240,000 for six days, Monday through Saturday,” reels off Mitsuko Makura, who has directed Nabis Gallery in Ginza for almost a quarter of a century. Makura says that the Nabis rental fee hasn’t changed since 1985, when the gallery, which has an area of about 50 sq. meters, first opened.

“We break even,” she reports proudly, explaining that the rental income covers all costs, including her own and one assistant’s salaries. The sale of the art is not factored into the equation because, as far as the gallery is concerned, that is not their objective.

“The rental galleries are for young artists to show new works,” Makura says, distinguishing them from what she called gasho, or art dealers, whose job she sees as being to “buy art works from artists and then sell them.”

Makura says that there were just three types of galleries in Japan when Nabis opened: art dealers, art-association galleries (where private artist associations would hold members’ only exhibitions) and rental spaces.

The rental venues were “the avant- garde,” she says. “Young artists could do anything in them.”

Generally housed in underutilized basements or pokey, windowless rooms of decades-old buildings in Ginza, the galleries allowed almost any form of creativity that could be cleaned with just a new coat of paint. Likewise, they also welcomed lively gatherings of slovenly, alcohol-drinking art students at opening parties.

“Drinking in bars was expensive then,” recalls Makura. Thus in the ’60s, when the rental galleries first emerged, spaces like Tokiwa Gallery would turn into full- fledged drinking dens where students could chat with artists.

But, just as the relocation of many art universities out to the suburbs made it nearly impossible for students to drop by Ginza for a drink, so too have other social changes dulled the gloss of these rental venues.

“Twenty years ago, young artists had no way of knowing art critics, and they didn’t have a press list,” says Makura. “They didn’t know how to make a postcard to publicize their shows. We would do those things for them.”

E-mail, desktop publishing and the Internet, she notes, have changed all that.

A wave of redevelopments in Ginza has also seen many of the area’s old buildings demolished and redeveloped. Many galleries moved out, and others closed shop completely, as Tokiwa did in ’98.

“Of course, the more galleries disappear from Ginza, the more difficult it is to attract people,” Makura laments, concluding that “the age of the rental galleries is probably coming to an end.”

If it does, artists like Tsuyoshi Ozawa and Masato Nakamura, who came of age in the ’90s, will not be among the mourners. They thought the system unfairly put the financial burden of a social good (showing art) on the people least capable of bearing it: the artists.

Spurred on in part by their knowledge of the alternative Western model, where galleries tended to show artists’ work for free, Ozawa lampooned his country’s native system by stringing a wooden milk box to a tree outside Nabis and calling it a gallery. He even invited friends to hold minuscule exhibitions in what he cheekily dubbed “Nasubi Gallery” (an anagram of Nabisu — the Japanese pronunciation of Nabis).

“People would come to the gallery asking about Ozawa’s work,” recalls the good-humored Makura. “I’d direct them to the cherry tree out front.”

Other artists set up their own exhibit spaces, and at the same time the emergence of corporate-funded venues further undermined the rental model.

Perhaps more important, however, was the arrival of what Makura called “American-style” art dealers, or what are now called “commercial galleries” (Tomio Koyama Gallery being an iconic example). These galleries, Makura said, changed the system because they did not necessarily buy the work they showed — as the old dealers had. Neither gallerist nor artist would see a penny unless sales were made.

It is this model that has proven most popular with a new generation of internationally connected gallery operators. Yukari Mitsuma, who opened the Yukari Art Contemporary space in October 2007, explains she chose a commercial model because it allowed her to develop longer-term relationships with artists.

Mitsuma is in the unusual position of having experienced both worlds — she managed the half-rental, half- commercial Gallery Es in Aoyama for a number of years prior to 2007.

Mitsuma says she adopted a hybrid format for Es because it was in the cultural hot-spot of Aoyama, where it made sense to display “not only art, but also design, craft, fashion, music or literature.” Relieved of having to generate income by selling works shown in the exhibitions, she could, essentially, show anything.

Still, rental galleries are proving resilient. Far from disappearing, a new batch has emerged, mimicking what might be dubbed the “Gallery Es model.”

Helio Kotomizu, who for over 10 years has published (sometimes erratically) a gallery guide called “etc.,” says there are more and more cafes, bookshops, and offices even (like his, in Jimbocho), where exhibitions are held for all types of creative output, at times for a fee.

Artdish, for example, a cafe-cum- gallery in Kagurazaka, charges ¥120,000 per week for any kind of creative output. That’s half the price of Nabis.

Still, according to the artists themselves, this affordability comes at a price. Mie Hara, an artist in her 30s, says, “the cafe-galleries tend not to have the resources to promote the exhibitions properly.”

If so, then where does this leave the artists? Are they benefiting from the new commercial galleries, or are rental galleries still their staple?

“You have to be lucky or connected somehow to get picked up by a commercial gallery,” says Hara.

And the rental spaces? “They’re too expensive,” she says. Then, displaying the kind of adaptability that has perhaps best characterized artists’ relationships with galleries over the years, she makes a quick qualification: “Unless they have a late cancellation and a slot is offered at a discount. Then the rental galleries are OK.”

Nabis Gallery and nine other rental or hybrid galleries in Ginza and neighboring Kyobashi are holding a series of concurrent exhibitions through Aug. 9 for up-and-coming artists called “Statements from Galleries: Focusing on a new generation in Tokyo 2008.” For more information visit, www.nabis-g.com