Market dreams of glory


Tokyo art collectors were out in force as the first-annual Tokyo Art Fair (TAF) debuted this past weekend (Aug. 6-8) at the Tokyo International Forum in Yurakucho. The fair saw participation from 81 galleries and art-related companies.

The demise of Nippon Contemporary Art Fair (NICAF) in the ’90s left the world’s largest city without an art fair — a sad fact cited in promotional materials for the TAF. The world’s largest art fairs — New York City’s Armory Show and Art Basel in Switzerland — have rigid selection criteria and last year attracted 30,000 and 60,000 visitors respectively. While certainly not in this class, on the whole, and especially for a fledgling show, the TAF came off pretty well, establishing itself as a comprehensive Japanese art event and positioning itself to challenge the Melbourne Art Fair as a leading Asia-Pacific art showcase.

Many of the TAF organizers were previously involved with NICAF, and the major changes this time round are the institution of a selection committee to weed out would-be exhibitors who were not up to standards and the dropping of the “contemporary” prerequisite for participation. And so we had a higher level of quality than at the NICAF, and we saw a more varied selection of art as well.

A large painting on traditional Japanese byobu (folding screens) by Tenkei Tachibana, executed in mineral pigment paint on washi paper, greeted visitors at the entranceway from the booth of Tokyo’s Aya Gallery, and set the tone for what was a very viewable and surprisingly busy fair.

The ten art magazines participating were grouped together, but otherwise there was no classification, or distinctions made, in the placement of individual gallery booths — traditional and contemporary art sat side-by-side, as did originals and editions. The 11 overseas exhibitors (about half from Asia) were similarly spread throughout the hall. I, for one, enjoyed the randomness of it all at this size — but if the fair grows in the future, implementing some sort of themed or media-based layout may be wise.

Many galleries showed art priced for impulse buying, with editions as low as 8,000 yen; elsewhere works were tagged up into the millions of yen. The popular Japanese artists were all here — Takashi Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara, and so on — and a number of pleasant surprises as well, such as Atsushi Suwa’s large monochrome figure paintings, which were a delight to discover in the intimate Saihodo Gallery booth.

There are many reasons to participate in an art fair — Ahoud Partouche of Gallery Quadra in Israel was here looking for galleries to represent his artists; while Junko Shimada of Gallery Side 2 in Tokyo focused on making direct sales to the emerging class of Japanese collectors, as she already reaches foreign markets through her participation in overseas fairs such as Basel.

“The fact that this fair is showing traditional art and antiques can be good,” said Shimada, “because traditional art like tea sets used to be considered very avant-garde. So people who collect it can be introduced to contemporary art here, and that creates possibilities in a contemporary market that has always been tiny.”

Tiny market or not, the mood at the TAF was upbeat, as artists and gallerists, critics, curators and collectors rubbed shoulders with beautiful people, illuminati and celebrities such as Tatsumi Takuro and Ken Ogata. And from early reports, business was good. As the fair was winding down on Monday, gallerist Kara Besher told me she had experienced a much better-than-expected reaction to her Japanese contemporary art, selling eight pieces to private collectors, among them a Kenya Kotake oil on canvas which went for 400,000 yen.

“About half my buyers were foreign residents,” said Besher, who runs the Maru Gallery in Tokyo. “They came to the fair to buy art, whereas I think many Japanese still consider art as something just to look at, not collect. Hopefully that is starting to change.”

“Our main purpose was to introduce people to art, as our slogan says, to ‘Change the situation and open the art market,”‘ said TAF’s Tazlu Endo. “We are very happy with the results, and hopefully next time round we can schedule the fair so we avoid the summer heat.”