G-tokyo: The ’boutique’ art fair

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Although its contemporary art market is considered small in relation to the country’s overall economy, Japan has no shortage of commercial art fairs.

Events held in the past year including Art@Agnes (since discontinued), Art Fair Tokyo, 101Tokyo Contemporary Art Fair, Tokyo Photo and Ultra: Emerging Directors Art Fair have all sought to tap into a limited collector base, all to varying degrees of success. Some fairs focus exclusively on local art galleries and others attempt to attract international participants while Art Fair Tokyo, notably, presents contemporary art alongside antiquities and other genres.

The latest fair to join the crowded art calendar is G-tokyo, which launched on Jan. 29 with a VIP preview and concluded Jan. 31. Organized by a committee of five leading galleries and fair director Toshiko Ferrier, G-tokyo was designed with the limitations of the domestic market in mind. It featured only 15 participants, with boxlike booths arranged along a single connecting corridor in the Mori Arts Center Gallery on the 52nd floor of the Mori Tower overlooking Roppongi.

The no-nonsense layout and the venue’s wood flooring, high ceilings and crisp lighting resulted in a clean, easy viewing experience. All 15 participating galleries recorded sales by the end of the fair’s run, and collectors expressed satisfaction with the wares on offer.

Dealers who spoke with The Japan Times said that they conducted most of their business during the preview. Sueo Mizuma of Mizuma Art Gallery devoted his booth to artist Akira Yamaguchi’s “The Art of Electric Pole Arrangement,” comprising drawings, paintings and sculptures imagining a fictional society dedicated to the aesthetic presentation of electric poles in the urban environment. Mizuma said that he sold almost all of the works, starting from ¥500,000, within the first 10 minutes of opening, and eventually sold out his entire booth.

Hidenori Ota of Ota Fine Arts was also busy, selling works by gallery artists Tomoko Kashiki, Yayoi Kusama and Yee Sookyung. A Korean collector beat out an Indonesian competitor for Kusama’s colorful self-portrait, quoted by a gallery staff member as being between ¥20 million and ¥30 million. Wako Works of Art found numerous buyers for its installation of Gerhard Richter’s mixed-media “Overpainted Photographs,” which ranged from ¥2.9 million to ¥3.6 million although there were no takers for a ¥240 million large-scale painting by the German blue chip artist.

Works that remained unsold by the third day underscored the limitations of the local market. Measuring over two meters high, Tamotsu Ikeya’s handsome canvas covered in a patchwork of thick, colored paint scored with concentric lines was a steal at ¥450,000 at Kodama Art Gallery, but remained unclaimed. Gallery staff said that potential buyers were hesitant about the size of the work, which would not fit into most Japanese homes.

Still, Tokyo’s leading collectors all turned up for the preview, including Toshio Hara, founder of the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art; Eijiro Imafuku, publisher of the online art publication ART-iT; and Takeo Obayashi, whose nonprofit Backers Foundation sponsors international artist and curator residencies in Tokyo. Additionally, snatches of Mandarin, Korean, French and English could be heard throughout the venue.

Imafuku said that he was impressed with the professional look of the fair.

“With only 15 galleries, there’s a limitation on what you can see, but the booths with new works are very interesting,” he said. “I think the concern going forward is how to expand the fair without losing quality.”

Obayashi was also positive, saying, “In the current economic climate, if you have clients coming from overseas and have dealers making sales, then that’s a success.”

Shinwa Art Auction President Yoichiro Kurata, launching a new joint venture in Hong Kong, the Asian Art Auction Alliance Company, brought collectors’ groups from China and Taiwan to visit the fair. He explained that although the Chinese collectors were not so active on this trip, he expected them to return. “They are not very familiar with international contemporary art, so this time their focus was on looking and studying,” he said. “They are very interested and I think they will be back.”

While visitors generally said all the right things, fair participants themselves took the initiative in offering suggestions for improvement. Dealer Ota jokingly compared the fair to the Liberal Democratic Party, the conservative party that has run Japan for most of its postwar history.

Similarly, Junko Shimada of Gallery Side 2 said that while she felt G-tokyo’s central location had provided incredible visibility, one aspect to improve upon with future editions would be to allow room for more project-based participation.

Galleries not included in the fair, which did not have an application process, organized their own counter activities. Wada Fine Arts spearheaded Mancy’s Tokyo Art Nights on Jan. 30 and 31 at the Azabu-Juban venue Mancy’s Tokyo, a deluxe karaoke and nightlife parlor where exhibitors were each given private rooms. Wada played video art on the karaoke monitors, while Mori Yu Gallery spread paintings, drawings and other works across a king-size bed.

Taking a long-term approach, the young galleries association New Tokyo Contemporaries has organized a series of monthlong events and collaborations between artists and emerging creators from fields including architecture, design and fashion, which kicked off with a party at the still unopened Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum in Marunouchi on Jan. 30.

Prior to the launch of G-tokyo, director Ferrier, who has a background as a collector and art consultant, said that she would seriously consider expanding participation to other local and international galleries, although she stressed that producing a navigable, “boutique” experience was core to the fair’s identity.

“Collectors want good works; they don’t want events,” she said. “They want to be assured that if they go to a fair then they can find good works, and that’s what G-tokyo offers.”

Later, she acknowledged the bottom line in the fair business. “If you don’t create a hierarchy,” she said, “the market can’t develop.”