When Fukusaburo Maeda and his wife Sohaku Yamashita founded the Nihon International Contemporary Art Festival (NICAF) in 1992, they were hoping to invigorate Japan’s contemporary art scene. Perhaps they were ahead of their times, though, because while people were ready to come look at what was on show, they weren’t ready to buy.

In 2005, they relaunched the event as Art Fair Tokyo and refocused it on a combination of contemporary and traditional art. That year, galleries at AFT recorded 300 million yen in sales, modest in comparison to Art Basel Miami 2006’s $400 million — but significant for Japan’s art world.

Misa Shin came from the Mori Art Museum and fund-raising positions in New York to become AFT’s executive director. A consummate art world insider, she discussed the state of Japan’s art contemporary market with The Japan Times before next week’s fair.

Why was AFT started?

Big cities like London, New York, Paris, and even Chicago and Berlin, all have art fairs, and art there is like an industry. The Maedas wanted to have the same kind of art fair in Tokyo. There is no infrastructure here — of course, there are many museums and galleries, but the museums depend heavily on government money. When the government cuts budgets, the museums have no money to buy art. Galleries mainly work with museums, so if they don’t buy artwork, then the galleries go out of business. But now a new generation of collectors is emerging.

Where are they coming from?

People are buying nice houses and apartments, but without artwork, they feel like something is missing. People are looking for more intangible things, more spiritual things rather than more material stuff.

What is slowing the development of the contemporary market?

There is no historical connection with the past. In the Meiji and Taisho periods, people were still collecting and supporting artists. Then, sometime after World War II they forgot about it. But from the exhibition numbers, you can see that they are still going to museums and love art.

The art world consists of lots of elements, lots of people and organizations, such as museums and galleries and critics and historians — those people support the entire art world. If you look at an artist’s bio, what is most important is: where you have had an exhibition; who supports you as a critic or an art historian; what kind of publication has written about you; and who owns your artworks.

But in Japan, there is no infrastructure for these things. One of the most difficult problems is the language barrier. There are no Japanese art critics who speak English and Japanese fluently and write in English about Japanese art for an overseas audience. More than 90 percent of the information here — on the Internet or anywhere — is in Japanese. But outside of Japan, 90 percent of the information is in English. If there were a Japanese art critic who could speak very good English, they could build a strong connection between the world and contemporary Japanese art.

Has AFT changed the landscape?

At the last AFT, 30,000 people came over the three days. People wanted to buy — they were looking for artworks, that was obvious. In the ’90s with NICAF, people just came and looked because it was a “festival.” So we changed the whole direction last time. We said, “Let’s go to buy art.”

An art fair is a very good place to buy because you cannot go to 19 galleries in one day, but you can if they are in one place. And you can compare the prices next door and buy the artwork depending on your budget. If you feel it is a little above your budget, you can negotiate with the gallerist. They can introduce the artist to you because once you buy, you want to see the artist develop in the future.

The purpose of having the art fair is to open up everything because people think the art world is very vague in terms of price. You can get really high-quality works for a lower budget than you think, 10,000 yen instead of $10,000. If you go to a traditional Ginza gallery, people are hesitant about asking to see the prices — maybe they will look down on you. The contemporary art market is different.

What do think about the Chinese market?

I go to China often — Shanghai, Beijing — and the mentality of China is completely different — another world. The Chinese are very good at doing business, even as artists. Artists are selling from their studios. There is no gallery system. If one artist gets very popular, he’ll be selling out of 20 galleries.

Is it a bubble?

It is definitely a bubble, and it’s going to change after the Olympic games. Some artworks are really expensive, but it’s not because of the quality. It’s because of reputation. One artist hired almost 100 assistants, young girls who just came out of countryside villages, and they are producing artworks in huge studios. Some of the artists have restaurants or bars, they really are entrepreneurs.

I asked a Chinese artist if they thought the price of a work was high, and they said, “No, its not really high like Andy Warhol, yet.” When I responded, “But you hire many people who produce artworks for you, and the artist just signs them or touches them up,” they replied, “But Rembrandt did the same thing.”

But because of China, people are looking at Asian art — Korea, India and Japan. If they look at Japanese art and notice that there is much higher-quality work and lower prices, they will start to buy.

What do you think of artist Takashi Murakami’s Geisai?

I go to Geisai to buy artwork, because Geisai is sort of an art fair, even though there are lots of students. But when I ask them about prices, they say, “Oh, I have no idea what the price is,” or even “I’m not selling these things.” Then why did they exhibit? Geisai is for selling. They don’t know how to sell art or build up their careers as an artist because there are not any good role models nearby.

Murakami tried to develop an infrastructure, but he’s not the only one who is or should be putting his energy and money into building one. The whole art world needs to make an effort to create an infrastructure. Geisai’s role is very important — they brought foreign guests, they got a sponsor and a lot of media exposure. But Geisai shouldn’t be the only one. The museums, galleries, critics and historians, whoever is involved in the art world, they have to be aware that they are part of it — they are members who are supporting artists. In order for the art world to become an art industry, we definitely need the commercial side, as well as the artistic side.

Who do you collect?

I have some little favorites. When I go to Geisai, galleries or art fairs, I try to buy artworks to encourage young artists. Selling artworks is very important for artists because it gives them confidence as professionals.

Do you see any particular trends in Japanese contemporary art now?

The post-Murakami generation. They are not from Murakami’s school, but his children. But I can’t say this is a trend.

In art history, the ’60s are Pop Art, then after that there are Minimalists or Abstract Expressionist, but that kind of movement is not going on now. You can choose from a variety of expressions. In the ’60s everybody was influenced by Pop Art, but now those movements are gone.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.