T he Bank of Japan has come under a lot of fire of late, but there’s at least one thing it can be proud of: the work of former employee Rasa Tsuda.
The 30-year-old, who spent three and a half years at the bank before quitting in 2006 to launch a career in the art world, has displayed the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that would surely please the nation’s economic czars.
After 18 months cutting her teeth at Gallery Tagboat, a large dealer with an online sales component, Tsuda and a colleague quit to launch an online art dealership called Azito. The site opened just over a year ago.
At a time when sales of contemporary art are contracting — the nation’s largest auction house, Shinwa Art Auction, moved their contemporary art sales to Hong Kong this spring — Azito represents one of Japan’s first full-fledged attempts to combine the highbrow world of art with the low-cost world of online trading.
Tsuda reasons that the Internet is a natural fit for art.
“In comparison with film and music, which people were always able to enjoy on television or radio, opportunities to encounter art have been limited,” Tsuda told The Japan Times last week. “You had to go to a museum or buy an art book, but now the Internet makes art available at any time.”
And so visitors to www.azito-art.com can browse and purchase from a selection of around 70 artworks — mostly photographs, prints or multiples — by artists ranging from domestic big names such as Takashi Homma to young groups such as Paramodel.
The site features Japanese artists only — a policy that reflects Tsuda’s motivation for making the site.
“I spent some time in New York a few years ago and was surprised how little exposure Japanese artists had over there,” she explained. “Sure, if you are showing with the big international galleries, then you get shows in New York, but if you are outside of those, it is difficult to be seen.”
Tsuda decided that a Japan-based online commercial gallery was the answer. The site is aimed firmly at the international audience — a point that distinguishes it from Tagboat, the only other company doing anything similar here. Azito is available only in English, and it offers the kind of detailed background information on each artist that is difficult to access from abroad.
Nevertheless, when it comes to buying art, collectors are an understandably finicky bunch. Would you pay hundreds of thousands of yen for an artwork you have only seen on the Internet?
Tsuda has made a lot of effort to allay any apprehension. First, she adopted an “agent-model” of sales. No artwork ever comes into Tsuda’s own possession. Instead, she has partnered with several established galleries, who supply her with photographs of artworks that she then uploads to her site. When someone chooses to make a purchase, the artwork is delivered directly from the gallery to the buyer.
“People know the galleries that we work with — Gallery 360°, Yamamoto Gendai, Nanzuka Underground, MA2 Gallery, Mori Yu Gallery — so they feel more comfortable,” Tsuda said.
Tsuda keeps a percentage of the value of each sale — the remainder goes to the gallery and the artist. She is also careful to keep the prices down — to an average of around ¥200,000, although some can be bought for less than ¥50,000.
“I’ve found that people will buy online if the artist is well known,” Tsuda said. “If the artist isn’t well known, they will buy if the price is cheap.”
Tsuda sells “a few” works per month on the site, which is not enough to support any paid full-time staff, including herself. She has three interns helping her with translation and production. The former colleague with whom she initially launched the site, Takahiro Maki, has left to set up his own gallery.
One of Tsuda’s partner galleries is Mori Yu Gallery, which has outlets in Kyoto and Tokyo. The owner, Yuichi Mori, explained that he signed up for the service because he felt it complemented his gallery’s work.
“Online sales are fundamentally different to what we do, which is to run a gallery where people can come and actually see real artworks for themselves,” he said. “But, we recognize there are people willing to buy online and Azito allows us to tap that market.”
Mori is satisfied with the “three or four” works that have sold via Azito in the two months since he started working with the Web site.
Tsuda and Maki coined the name Azito from the English words “agitating point.” While the site might not be as confrontational as that English suggests, it has the potential to shake up the local art world. Never before has a dealer so deftly harnessed the reputations of brand-name galleries, the convenience of the Internet, a good understanding of English-language sales and the undisputed quality of Japanese contemporary art.