All-genre focus is the key to Art Fair Tokyo’s success

by Edan Corkill

Staff Writer

It is difficult to criticize Art Fair Tokyo, the commercial art fair that celebrates its ninth edition at Tokyo International Forum in Yurakucho this weekend. Truth be told, it’s a wonder that the event has reached nine editions at all, what with the inherent fickleness of the art market and Japan’s interminably sluggish economy — not to mention the financial crisis of 2007 and the Great East Japan Earthquake and nuclear disaster of 2011.

For evidence of how tough it must have been to keep the event going since it was first held, back in 2005, look no further than the list of pretenders that tried to pull off something similar during the same period but ultimately threw in the towel: 101 Tokyo, Art@Agnes Art Fair, Tokyo Frontline, Emerging Directors’ Art Fair: Ultra, +Plus The Art Fair and G-tokyo, the last of which announced earlier this year that it was folding for good.

It is also worth noting that AFT itself was a reboot of a bigger and brasher — but ultimately short-lived — fair called NICAF, or International Contemporary Art Fair Japan, which flamed out in 2003 after eight editions.

So why has AFT survived where so many have failed?

According to Executive Director Takahiro Kaneshima, the answer is simple. He (and his predecessor, Misa Shin) very deliberately calibrated the event to address one of the more confusing idiosyncrasies of the Japanese art world: the existence of three more-or-less parallel art “markets,” namely the forever “nascent” contemporary art market, the clubby nihonga (Japanese-style painting) market and the deep-rooted market in so-called kobijutsu (old art, or antiquities).

“NICAF was trying to be a big European-style contemporary art festival, like Art Basel, in Tokyo,” Kaneshima explained to an audience at Tokyo’s Traumaris venue last weekend. Devoted entirely to contemporary art — much of it from overseas — NICAF’s approach worked well for as long as there were institutions and individual collectors in Japan willing to fork out large sums for the big-name foreign artists that big-name foreign dealers wanted to sell here. A few years after Japan’s economic bubble burst, such buyers disappeared. Then it was just a matter of time before the organizers pulled the plug.

“A lot of people have tried to hold contemporary art fairs in Japan, but many have ended up quitting, usually because of funding problems,” Kaneshima said tactfully. The key, he continued, was to open up the fair to dealers in other types of art.

The conventional business model for art fairs involves three main forms of income: corporate sponsorship, admission fees and booth fees — the last of which are charged to participating galleries.

Corporate sponsorship — in Japan, at least — has proven to be dangerously susceptible to the whims of the economy, and hence unreliable. Admission fees are fine as long as the exhibits are popular enough to attract crowds — something that is rare with contemporary art, but more likely with old art. Booth fees are the same: Contemporary art galleries tend to exist in such a precarious state of financial health that in lean times they forgo the fairs, while dealers in old art and nihonga are more resilient.

And thus from year one, Art Fair Tokyo has been eclectic in nature. Walk down one aisle and you might find Jomon Period (12,000 B.C.-300 B.C.) clay artifacts; walk down another and you’ll be greeted by contemporary paintings by the likes of Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara.

Ironically, it was the presence of such a variety of galleries that in 2010 led to the fair’s only real near-crisis, when a dozen or so of Tokyo’s top contemporary art galleries broke away to form G-tokyo. At the time, I spoke to several of those gallerists, and the consensus was that it wasn’t appropriate to exhibit contemporary art alongside nihonga and the like.

“The lighting for those booths is completely different — it’s darker. We need bright open spaces for contemporary art,” one told me. “And there just isn’t that much overlap in collectors.”

And yet, four years later, G-tokyo has folded and Mizuma Art Gallery, Taro Nasu, Tomio Koyama Gallery and many of the other big-name bolters are now returning to AFT. In what was perhaps a concession to secure their return, Kaneshima will cordon them off in their own section. Rest assured that the lighting within the “G-plus” section, as it will be termed, will be bright and even — just like at G-tokyo.

Of course, the big winners out of all this back-and-forth will be the visitors to this year’s AFT, who now will be presented with the best that Tokyo has to offer in art, be it contemporary, old or ancient. In total, 97 galleries, the vast majority from Japan, will participate.

And so, AFT’s decision to bank on a variety of art seems to be paying off. Those who challenged the approach are now welcomed back into the fold, and Kaneshima suggests it was a fact of history that would see the AFT gamble pay off.

Asked his thoughts on the establishment last year of an Art Basel satellite fair in Hong Kong and the success of the similarly contemporary-only Singapore Art Fair, he said: “The reason you can bring something like Art Basel to Hong Kong or Singapore is that those cities don’t really have the depth of art history that Tokyo has. If you were to bring Art Basel, with its focus on globalized contemporary art, then a large part of Tokyo’s art simply wouldn’t fit in. In Tokyo, you can tap into art and art markets that predate the arrival of Western art by a long time.”

Another aspect of AFT that Kaneshima has fine-tuned for Japan is the number of exhibitions that extend beyond the regular booth format.

“Focusing on booths is appropriate if you have very well known galleries that collectors are happy to trust,” Kaneshima explained. “But I think recently, the focus of people’s attention has shifted from the galleries to the artists themselves. Hence it makes more sense to show the artists’ work so that the work itself comes to the fore.”

This year’s fair will include several curated mini-exhibitions. The “Artistic Practice” section will show a selection of work by Japanese artists who were working in the Western style in the early 20th century, such as Ryuzaburo Umehara and Sotaro Yasui.

Meanwhile, the brand new “Outlines” section of the fair will feature an exhibition called “Art, Media and I, Tokyo,” which will include contemporary artists working with new media such as Shimura Bros., Yuko Mohri and Lyota Yagi.

“With these kinds of exhibitions, collectors can actually get a feel for the historical context of the artworks before they buy them,” Kaneshima said, adding that most of the works in these shows would be available for purchase.

In passing, he also sounded a word of warning for Japan’s gallerists.

“Showing people the historical context of artworks is actually extremely important in art and in the process of fostering of an art market. Japanese galleries need to focus more on this task,” he said. “When you sell an artwork, you can’t just say that it’s pretty or cute; you have to explain why it is important. If you don’t do that, then the price of artworks will ultimately come down. Galleries in the West understand this, and that is how they have built healthy art markets.”

In another move that shows AFT’s nimble adaptation to local conditions, the timing of the fair has been brought forward by almost a month this year. Up until last year it has been held in late March or early April — to coincide with the cherry blossom season, as the event’s press materials used to trumpet — but not this year.

“A key consideration was the implementation of the sales-tax hike,” Kaneshima revealed, referring to the April 1 consumption tax increase from 5 to 8 percent. “The gallery operators were keen to give collectors a chance to buy before the tax goes up.”

One unfortunate consequence is that the event will now clash with New York’s iconic Armory Show.

“That was unavoidable,” Kaneshima said, noting that the venue was not available any other week. “There have been some galleries that have said they simply can’t do both fairs at the same time, but other than that the damage has been minimal.”

Next year, Kaneshima and his team will have to be wary of scheduling conflicts with a second large international fair, too — this one much closer to home. Earlier this week, Art Basel in Hong Kong announced that next year it will be held from March 13 to 17.

Of course, even if the two fairs do end up coinciding, the difference in their content will be stark. While one will remain essentially a European transplant the other, it seems, is genuinely homegrown and, as a result, adaptable to whatever circumstances fate throws up.

Art Fair Tokyo runs March 7-9 at Tokyo International Forum. Admission on the day is ¥2,000. For times and more information, visit www.artfairtokyo.com.