Arts Council Tokyo sets its sights high

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

“For decades, many people involved in the arts — including producers, creators, administrators and academics — were pointing to the need for an overall arts-policy body in Tokyo, and finally Arts Council Tokyo came into being in November 2012,” its program director, Yuko Ishiwata, noted with some satisfaction.

But in a recent chat in her cozy office next to the Ryogoku Sumo Hall in downtown Tokyo, Ishiwata went on to explain, “In Japan it had almost always been bureaucrats — who were obviously not art experts — who used to evaluate projects and award funds. Now, ACT is staffed by specialists hired for the job, so it’s far better than that even though we are part of the Tokyo Metropolitan Foundation for History and Culture, a public service corporation under the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.”

Though ACT isn’t the entirely independent, so-called arm’s-length body many had wished for, as far as the leading playwright and director Oriza Hirata is concerned it’s still a great leap forward.

Interviewed by phone this week, Hirata — a professor at Tokyo University of the Arts and founder of the Tokyo-based Seinendan theater company — hailed the creation of ACT, saying, “The arts have traditionally been supported privately in Japan, but since the 1990s they have been receiving more public money. Consequently, there obviously needed to be an organization to evaluate proposals with a specialist perspective and allocate tax money effectively for the public’s benefit in the way most Western countries have been doing for ages.”

For Ishiwata, though, this is just the start of ACT’s journey — one in which all those involved “are going to adjust and grope for the most suitable and effective way ahead.”

However, addressing those who had longed for an entirely arm’s-length body, she continued, “I think this new ACT system — though not in the independent, stand-alone mold of Arts Council England, for example — can still work as a great stepping stone between bureaucrats in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and all the artists and creators themselves. We can be an excellent interpreter for the arts and forge good relationships between two groups who normally hardly ever speak the same language.”

In practical terms, Ishiwata explained that ACT currently engages in support programs, pilot programs and strategic programs — while a core aim is to support young artists and art managers as a means to nurture the future of the arts in Japan.

“Already we have organized several performances and projects as pilot programs, and in Tokyo there’s such a wonderful diversity, from ancient traditional arts to the digital-era creativity characteristic of areas such as Electric Town in Akihabara. So, for example, we’ve already run an event based on geisha culture, and an open seminar about the vocaloid virtual idol Miku Hatsune. So we very much aim to involve non-regular arts participants in order to develop potential audiences.”

Meanwhile, as its other main pilot-program strand, ACT has launched an Arts Academy for talented young people — something that particularly appeals to Sho Ryuzanji, the acclaimed globe-trotting director and founder of the Tokyo-based Ryuzanji Company, who said he “especially hopes it will foster an atmosphere in which to raise the next generation of art managers and producers.”

At present, the Arts Academy is providing financial and practical support for seven upcoming artists, producers and administrators for up to two years so they can concentrate on their research or studies in their fields — including theater, traditional arts, visual arts and music.

Fostering developing talent is a key element of ACT’s support program, too. As Ishiwata explained, “We particularly want to support and subsidize young artists — even unknowns — and back them up to perform abroad. Then through them we want to make firm links with foreign organizations to build on in the future.”

In pursuing that aim, ACT is also hoping to further a strategic program to bolster Japan’s competitiveness in the burgeoning international arts market. For instance, South Korea — whose current Arts Council has its roots back in 1973 — has found a huge overseas market for K-pop and K-musicals. Singapore, too — where a National Arts Council was set up in 1991 — now notably hosts the Singapore Arts Festival, one of Asia’s biggest arts events.

In that vein, from this year ACT will oversee Japan’s biggest annual performing arts event, Festival/Tokyo in place of Tokyo Metropolitan Government. With Festival/Tokyo already having a superb cutting-edge reputation both at home and internationally under its mainly youthful leadership, the handover will surely be a litmus test of ACT’s all-round caliber.

Then there’s the 2020 Summer Olympics, which could be Tokyo’s biggest-ever boost for the arts, and which offer an unparalleled opportunity for ACT to promote Japan’s capital to the top global league of cultural hubs. Hence as one of its strategic programs, in February ACT held an open forum with the British Council titled “Sharing the legacy — from London 2012 to Tokyo 2020,” with speakers including Ruth Mackenzie, director of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad and London 2012 Festival.

Though Ishiwata repeated there that the structure ACT and its English sister, ACE, are currently so different, she was adamant this would not impinge on ACT’s Olympian task. And with Osaka and Okinawa having also recently set up arts bodies akin to ACT, the dramatist and academic Hirata echoed Ishiwata’s positive outlook, saying, “By its nature art has an invisible future and artists are used to starting from zero and bringing forth something nobody has ever seen before. So the possibilities now are enormous if we all give our wholehearted, positive support.”

That way, Tokyo’s, Osaka’s and Okinawa’s arts bodies, and others yet to emerge, may one day morph into a wondrous national organization — one with lavish public finance but its own arm’s-length arts policy.