A tale of two cities: Art Fair Kyoto challenges Tokyo

by Jae Lee

Staff Writer

After the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and tsunami, the art scene in Tokyo was struck by cancellations, postponements and confusion as it attempted to make sense of the disaster and worked on ways to contribute to the reconstruction of the Tohoku region of Japan.

Japan’s largest commercial international art fair, Art Fair Tokyo, was postponed as its venue, Tokyo International Forum, was earmarked as a temporary shelter for refugees. Roppongi Art Night, too, was canceled as part of a drive to conserve energy while the nation struggled to deal with the consquences of the ensuing Fukushima nuclear powerplant failure.

With Japan clearly still at its most vigilant, would it be in bad taste to hold a commercial art fair now?

Keigo Ishibashi, the organizer of Art Fair Kyoto, admits that the upcoming art fair in Kansai has garnered quite a bit of attention among other galleries because of the number of art events and exhibitions that were canceled in the Kanto region. “This might sound bit terrible,” he says, “but the earthquake worked to the advantage of the fair.”

Art Fair Kyoto, which is held at Hotel Monterey Kyoto, is in its second year. Last year, the event attracted 35 participating galleries and about 2,000 visitors, and this year the line up of participants has increased to more than 50 galleries. When the fair was first conceived, Ishibashi wrote in a publicity statement that the aim was to encourage Japan’s art market, which is currently focused in Tokyo, to move to Kyoto, where, he says, many artists hail from. In an interview just three weeks after the March 11 earthquake, he posed the city’s longevity as one of its many assets. “What if the quake was a central Tokyo earthquake? Imagine Tokyo in ruins. I am Tokyo-born (so I understand its importance) but Kyoto has more than 1,000 years of history and it has never been damaged by a natural disaster,” he explains. “That is how well the city was planned.”

According to Ishibashi, who is also the owner of Neutron Gallery in Tokyo and Kyoto, too much of Japan’s cultural significance has been centralized in Tokyo, and the difference in cultural tastes between the two major cities is extensive.

“The art markets in the Kanto and Kansai areas are quite disparate. I would say Kansai people are more difficult to sell to, but they do have great taste.What sells in Tokyo and Kyoto are totally different,” Ishibashi explains. “I want to open up a brand new art-fair business model for Kyoto.”

Shigeo Goto of Tokyo Frontline, a participant in the Art Fair Kyoto Exchange section, agrees, saying that even though there are many art universities and art students in Kyoto, there are few opportunities to see emerging contemporary art. And this is something that Goto feels may not change for some time.

“For those in Kansai, the March 11 disaster affected people in a very distant manner. Just as the Great Hanshin Earthquake in Kobe did to those who were in Tokyo,” Goto says. “It’s possible that the Kansai region may in the future experience a bubble economy effect, similar to that of the ’90s, but the cultural difference between Kanto and Kansai could grow even wider.”

Tomio Koyama of Tomio Koyama Gallery, which has exhibition spaces in Tokyo and Kyoto and is another participant in Art Fair Kyoto, seems inclined to agree. Koyama, whose galleries are famous for helping popularize Yoshitomo Nara’s works as well as several other contemporary artists, admits that he does not know the Kyoto art scene very well. “It is true that there are no fancy reception parties, as there are in Tokyo, to draw people to exhibitions, but because there are many art students, we often hold gallery talks for each exhibition we organize. And those are always packed with people,” he says.

The popularity of such community-like events is perhaps related to what Koyama describes as an “intimacy” between Kyoto customers and galleries. This, he explains, is something that doesn’t exist in Tokyo because the city is so much larger. But it is that intimacy that also makes the art market a tough one to crack. Koyama, however, is still planning on opening another commercial exhibition space in Kyoto later this year. Why? Because Kyoto is apparently still significant as a cultural “brand name.”

“Last time I went down to our Kyoto gallery, I saw a real maiko (apprentice geisha)! A customer brought a maiko to the gallery, and it was incredible! Even I am still amazed at Kyoto’s culture,” he says. “I run galleries in Kyoto not to target Kyoto citizens, but because it is a great tourist spot. Art lovers visiting Japan or even Japanese collectors traveling to Kansai always drop by Kyoto,” Koyama explains.

Proposing to change the art scene in Kyoto is an ambitious task, but Ishibashi agrees that the city’s famous history and renowned craftsmen work in its favor. What we need to remember now, he says, is that just like it has done in the past, Kyoto is still cultivating a large number of Japan’s prominent artists. To help art buyers realize this, Art Fair Kyoto, Ishibashi says, is designed to make visitors re-think the position of the commercial gallery and how they interact with art. “Go out and ask people (in Kyoto) who their favorite artists are,” he says. “Most won’t be able to answer.”

He goes on to say that he would like to see artists representing themselves rather than relying on agency-like galleries. Doing that, he explains, would be the best way to encourage the general public to get to know artists and their work. A few artists are already making this very move, such as the Kyoto-based collaboration Antenna, a brother project of Kohei Nawa’s Sandwich, another Kyoto-based collaboration. Antenna is participating in Art Fair Kyoto without being represented by a gallery.

In times of crisis, such as Japan is experiencing right now, working harder than ever to repair the damage and rescue the country’s economy is the priority, acknowledges Ishibashi. But art and culture, he emphasizes, can be just as important as a form of psychological comfort. As something that people are still willing to invest in, an art fair in difficult times is not so strange after all.

Art Fair Kyoto at Hotel Monterey Kyoto, 4F and 5F runs from May 20-May 22, open 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; admission ¥2,000 (includes a discount ticket for purchases). Other participating galleries include Mizuma Art Gallery, Misa Shin Gallery, hpgrp Gallery Tokyo, imura art Gallery, and Acte2galerie & Art~scène3 from Paris. For more information, visit www.artfairkyoto.com..