Recent art-school graduate Yuzo Shimomura was looking as uncomfortable as the collar of his shirt, which had flared up above his jacket lapel. It was clear they both wanted to be somewhere else.

But that was not to be. The Aichi Prefecture-native had made the trip to Tokyo to watch as one of his paintings was auctioned in the Mitsubishi Corporation Art Gate Program, the latest CSR (corporate social responsibility) program at the giant trading company.

“Yes, I’m very nervous,” Shimomura admitted, as he explained his painting of dandelions to potential bidders.

About 50 works by around 40 art students and recent graduates had been selected via an open competition and then purchased for ¥100,000 a piece by Mitsubishi. After being displayed at the company’s offices in Marunouchi for a few of months, they were being auctioned.

“The first ¥100,000 raised by each work will go to a scholarship fund, which will be made available to young artists. If the hammer price goes above that, the proceeds will be split — half to the artist and half to the scholarship,” explained Shinji Shimada, general manager of Mitsubishi’s CSR and Environmental Affairs Office.

Shimada’s office is running the program in collaboration with Tetsuji Shibayama, a former Mitsubishi Corp. employee and 10-year veteran at Sotheby’s auction house in Japan.

“As far as I know, this is the first time a major corporation has done something like this in Japan,” explained Shibayama. “Generally, corporate-art support activities involve simply showing works of art. Here we actually sell them.”

Thus the program not only provides a means for artists to generate income from their artistic endeavors, it also familiarizes them with the workings of the art market in which they will eventually have to make a living.

Chie Shibata, a second-year student at the Tokyo University of the Arts, said she appreciates the commercial element of the program.

“Trying to ascertain the value people place on your paintings is so difficult. In an exhibition, people compliment you, but you ultimately don’t know their real estimation of your work,” she said.

Auctions make those values very clear, and Shibata was speaking in the knowledge that her own paintings — a neat triptych of tropical fish on backgrounds echoing their own markings — had been given the ultimate stamp of approval: the astounding auction price of ¥520,000.

Not all the artists were so lucky. Shibayama, who conducted the auction with humorous flair (“Don’t forget there is a bar at the back. Have a drink, loosen up,” he reminded bidders), made the artists explain their works and then stand alongside them as they were auctioned. The bidding for each work started at ¥10,000, and, while lucky artists such as Shibata could watch in delight as bidders competed for their works, others had to gaze over a motionless floor until someone, probably out of sympathy, bid them up to ¥14,000 or ¥15,000.

Still, even such artists were not put off. “It was a good experience,” said Megumi Ando, whose painting of roses fetched ¥22,000. “It’s my first time in Tokyo, and it was great to meet all the other artists and speak to the auctioneer,” she said.

After the auction, Shimomura’s shirt collar still hadn’t settled down, but his painting’s ¥65,000 hammer price had made him more philosophical. “You just have to keep doing what you believe in. It is so difficult to guess what the buyers will react to. They are thinking from very different criteria to ours as artists.”

Another important part of the program is to educate potential art collectors. One of the first questions Shibayama posed to the 170 assembled buyers — the auction was open to the public — was whether they had been to an art auction before. Only a third had.

“Each year, Japanese art universities and schools send about 60,000 budding artists out into the world,” Shibayama explained. “They can’t just join a company and become salarymen; the art market must support them.”

One of the unsuccessful bidders for Shibata’s triptych was a 39-year-old lawyer from Tokyo. “I’ve never really been interested in art,” he admitted. “But, I’m happy to support the young artists. I really liked the fish work, and it was a shame that I missed out on it.”

Mitsubishi plans to hold such auctions four times a year. The selection for the second auction — to be held on Dec. 13 — has already been made. Luckily for the lawyer, Shibata had already been chosen for the second auction too.

“I will be back next time,” the lawyer promised. “The experience today has definitely got me more interested in collecting art.”

If artists and collectors are satisfied, so were the folks at Mitsubishi. They had better be — to put on four similarly sized auctions a year, with each artwork costing them ¥100,000, they’ll be burning through ¥20 million annually.

“We’re very happy with the project,” said Shimada. “One of the aims of our CSR work is to address social inequality.” With art students having few options to generate income, the program was successfully redistributing wealth, he thought.

“Then there are the benefits for employee education,” he continued. “Before the auctions, we exhibit the works in our meeting rooms, so our employees have to explain the paintings to their own guests. Some said they might even bid for a work.”

The next Mitsubishi Corporation Art Gate auction is scheduled for Dec. 13 at the Mitsubishi Club in Marunouchi. For more information call (03) 3210-2306 or visit www.mitsubishicorp.com

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