Papers big players in the canvas game

by Edan Corkill

Japan’s largest Pablo Picasso exhibition ever opens in Tokyo next month. It’s so big it occupies not one but two venues — the National Art Center, Tokyo, and the Suntory Museum of Art in Roppongi.

The idea that an exhibition could monopolize two museums will seem odd to observers in the West, where institutions compete for exhibitions and audiences alike.

The fact that such an arrangement was possible points to the importance of a rarely discussed stakeholder in Japan’s art business: media companies.

In this case, the key player is Asahi Shimbun, and it is fair to say that without its involvement, the closest we would be getting to so many Picassos this autumn would be via Narita airport.

“There are several ways we can get involved,” explains Akio Obigane, a 24-year veteran of Asahi Shimbun’s Cultural Projects Department.

The first is when Asahi does everything itself — from planning to paying for the shipping, insurance and rental of a venue. “That’s the high-risk, high-return model,” explains Obigane. More common is the organizing-committee approach, in which a group of organizations — usually several museums and media companies — divvies up the costs and the profits.

The third approach is similar, except Asahi pays everything upfront and sells museums an exhibition package (they can take a portion of ticket sales). And the fourth way is where Asahi lends itsname to the show and publicizes it.

The Picasso shows are a mixture of the first and second approaches, while Asahi’s involvement in the Yokohama Triennale falls into the fourth. Other media companies, including Yomiuri Shimbun and NHK, conduct their art exhibition businesses in similar ways.

“Media involvement in art exhibitions began in Japan in the 1920s, when the country didn’t really have so many museums,” explains Obigane.

The newspaper companies would send people overseas, where they would liaise with foreign salons and institutions, borrow works and bring them back for shows in venues ranging from department stores to private halls.

By the time dedicated public museums appeared here — mostly after World War II — the newspaper companies had a monopoly on the networks and knowhow.

“Bringing an exhibition to Japan also required a large outlay of money,” says Obigane, and newspapers were better equipped to pay than fledgling museums.

By the mid-’80s, when Obigane moved from Fukuoka Art Museum, where he was a curator, to the Asahi Shimbun, it was “the newspapers that were putting on the major blockbusters” — a term that encompasses both touring shows from overseas and large-scale shows of classical Japanese art. By jumping from museum to newspaper, Obigane hoped to “improve coordination between the two.”

Still, he thought museums would grow strong enough for the contribution of newspapers to be unnecessary. The bursting of the bubble ended any possibility of that happening. “When the economy nosedived, and public funding of museums was decreased, we became more necessary than ever,” he says.

That lopsided dynamic continues today. Japan’s 10 best-attended shows last year all involved media companies — such as Asahi and NHK’s work on “The Mind of Leonardo” at Tokyo National Museum. All of which confounds overseas professionals. “It’s difficult to explain my job overseas,” laughs Obigane.

One of the issues that confuse foreign skeptics is potential conflict of interest. For example, would Asahi review a show by a competitor media company?

“Of course,” says Obigane, pointing out that the editorial department, where decisions on coverage are made, maintains independence. More to the point is that media companies are not likely to give their own shows bad reviews — but, then again, they’re unlikely to give a bad review to any exhibition.

Obigane believes Japan’s media companies will continue their arts involvement for the foreseeable future. “But,” he says, “times are tough” — newspaper subscriptions are falling almost across the board.

Asahi’s Cultural Projects Department doesn’t lose money, but it doesn’t make consistently large profits either — a fact that could be a bad omen for the art world.

As Obigane says, “If newspapers do end up pulling out of the exhibition business, there will be no one to take their place.”