The parallel world of art associations

by Edan Corkill

What are the most famous exhibitions of contemporary art in the world? The Venice Biennale? Art Basel Miami Beach?

Japan’s art is well represented in each: by artists selected by curators (chosen by the Japan Foundation) in the former; and in the latter by a handful of energetic commercial galleries — some of which have lead the likes of Takashi Murakami to worldwide acclaim. And yet the majority of artists working in Japan devote their time to a system of exhibitions that bring almost no chance of such fame.

“I guess if I had wanted to be famous — like Murakami — I would have courted the commercial galleries when I was young,” says 34-year-old artist Atsuhito Bamba (aka Bamba Atsumdo).

Instead, Bamba began entering one of the many competitive exhibitions organized by Japan’s private art associations. The catch? Those exhibitions are essentially ignored by curators and gallerists. “I don’t really go to the art association competition shows,” says Fumio Nanjo, director of the Mori Art Museum and a one-time commissioner of Japan’s Venice Biennale pavilion. Other curators echo his statement.

Japan has hundreds of art associations, each with their own annual or biannual competitive exhibitions that anyone can enter — anyone and everyone, it would seem. For its annual show last year, Nitten received 14,678 entries, each setting its creator back ¥10,000. Nitten is typical of association shows in that entries are judged by a group of artists, who, in virtue of previous success in Nitten shows, have been granted the status of “member.” Last year, Nitten’s judges whittled its thousands of entries down to 2,377 works for exhibit.

Since high school, Bamba has entered exhibitions held by the Issen Bijutsu Kai, a Tokyo-based group for paintings and prints. His work has been selected for exhibition many times, and he hopes to gain member status within five years. Artists tend to enter their first competitions after recommendations from a teacher, and they are gradually nudged up through a series of ranks by those teachers and other senior members. The system echoes those in the arts of tea ceremony and ikebana.

The clarity and familiarity of their ranking system might explain the art associations’ popularity with the Japanese public, which is strong. Nitten’s show last year welcomed 188,112 visitors — an average of about 5,500 per day. If it were considered worthy of inclusion in the British Art Newspaper’s list of top drawing exhibitions in the world in 2006, Nitten would have been in the top 10.

All the more reason to wonder at their snubbing by Japan’s artistic envoys.

Nanjo explained his own reticence by saying that the art associations rarely make good hunting for avant-garde art. “The associations are basically societies of like-minded artists who give each other moral support,” he says. “Being creative is about making something new, so it entails criticism of what has come before. I think people who think like that are unlikely to be part of such a group.”

He qualifies that, though, saying that for artists outside big cities, association shows are often their only option.

Another artist, who experienced such exhibitions as a student, went further, saying that because Japanese curators and gallerists rarely visit graduation shows or artists’ studios — as their colleagues do in the West — city artists’ use of associations is understandable.

Bamba might have found the ideal solution. Frustrated with Issen’s restrictions (which favor landscapes over abstract work), he said he would like to make his own competitive exhibition, open to “any size work, in any medium and on any subject.”

If Bamba realized his dream Nanjo would likely applaud his innovative spirit, and he would be in illustrious company too. Taikan Yokoyama, who is now being feted in a retrospective at the National Art Center, Tokyo, is famous for having made a breakaway association when he left Bunten (Nitten’s precursor) — and that was in 1914.

This is the first in a new series — “Inside Art” — in which Edan Corkill investigates the unique workings of the Japanese art world.