The evening was a festive red that illuminated the enthusiastic bidding by the 300-plus attendees at Japan’s first ever university-run contemporary art auction. At the Kyoto University of Art and Design (KUAD) last Saturday, 18 students and three teachers, dressed in student-designed fire-red outfits, skillfully staffed the A-CTION auction.

“Since it’s the first of its kind in Japan,” said Testuji Shibayama, a visiting professor at the university and the event’s auctioneer, “we’re really pleased with how successful it was.”

Shibayama came up with the idea for the auction from his years with Rockefeller and Company, where he helped manage the Rockefeller family’s philanthropic fortune, and from his former position as head of Sotheby’s Japan, where he sharpened his bilingual auctioneering skills. Now, as president of the art consulting company AG Holdings, he understands well the challenges facing Japanese artists.

“I think that arts and design will be the main industries for the next generation in Japan,” said Shibayama. “The aim of the auction is to provide opportunities for art students to communicate to society at large, and to art buyers, that they are actually producing great things. So far, society here has not been thinking seriously enough about contemporary art’s potential, and the students feel that the external world is not acknowledging their efforts.”

Thus the auction’s purpose was threefold: give students a taste of the real-life sales experience that is common for professional artists; create awareness of contemporary art in Kyoto and its potential in Japan’s small art market; and take a penetrating look at art’s contributions to society. Its success has proven that in Kyoto — even within city hall — there is growing interest in supporting university art education and career preparedness.

Until the auctions, the art universities had done little to ready their students for work as artists after graduation, and they’ve been criticized for producing freeters, Japanese society’s unemployed, lazy youth.

“Even the lowest-ranking medical colleges in Japan guarantee that 30 percent of their graduates will pass the national examination and become medical doctors,” says Shibayama. “The statistics say that only one to three percent of art university graduates have full-time jobs in any field after graduation.

A large part of the problem for would-be artists is demand.

“Japan is the only advanced country in the world that has such a small art market,” said Shibayama. “This needs to be changed.”

Selected by an art committee, the 40 works by KUAD students, teachers and graduates included paintings, drawings and sculpture. The proceeds from each sale were evenly split between the artists and a university fund that supports future auctions and intercity collaborative art projects.

Hiroshi Senju, president of KUAD and a famed painter of nihonga (Japanese-style paintings), offered two of his well-known waterfall-themed works along with a set of signed brushes, painter’s jacket and, oddly enough, a Sept. 11, 2001 “Ground Zero” memorial baseball cap.

Other than Senju’s work, the biggest seller was, encouragingly, a student. Senior Sachi Shigeno saw one of her paintings, titled “Fireworks,” sell for ¥300,000 to the owners of The Reicof Group hotel chain, one of the auction’s sponsors.

“I’ve never sold anything before, so this is a real surprise,” said the beaming but shy Shigeno. “I’ll probably spend the money on materials for more work.”

Reicof owners Makoto and Ayako Yamamoto bought a total of five works that they will display in their hotels. Shigeno’s painting will hang in their Atami hotel.

“We really like the firework theme,” said Ayako. “We often have firework displays in Atami — it’s kind of a symbol for the city — so this work will fit nicely in the hotel.”

Speaking for her husband, Ayako added, “It’s relaxing to look at the painting. For a very busy man, this healing aspect is really nice.”

The couple have established an annual Reicof Art Award that divides ¥3 million among artists under 35. Savvy art enthusiasts, the Yamamotos are the kind of collectors Japan needs more of.

Also at the auction as one of its sponsors was Hiroyoshi Morimoto, CEO of Morimoto Company, who made a special trip from Tokyo for the event. As one of Japan’s most successful real-estate companies, many of their clients are involved in art and design, and supporting the arts is an integral part of the company’s business and philosophy.

Morimoto bought two works: “Waterfall” by Senju for ¥680,000 and a manga drawing titled “Angel” by the student Hiromi Matsuura for ¥48,000.

“I’m betting that the manga work will appeal to foreigners, that it has some potential,” said Morimoto. “This has been such a good event. More people should know about it.”

“We’re hoping that through an event like this, we can link artists with society at large,” said Hiroto Oonogi, the dean of the university. “We want to show students that their artworks can impact, influence and contribute to society. We feel that in this unpredictable world, art can help save us.”

KUAD has organized a major art symposium on the theme of art and society called Artist’s Summit Kyoto 2007, which will be held Dec. 1-2, 2007 at the university. Artist Tatsuo Miyajima will be the chairman and an impressive lineup of speakers includes musician Ryuichi Sakamoto and visual artists Yook Keun Byung from South Korea, Gulsun Karamustafa from Turkey and Krzysztof Wodiczko from Poland. Well-known artist and KUAD professor Noboru Tsubaki will moderate. For information visit artists-summit.jp

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