The ins and outs of competitive art shows

by Edan Corkill

Michiyo Yamanaka probably devoted several weeks to creating the three abstract paintings she entered in this year’s Nikaten, one of Japan’s oldest and largest competitive art exhibitions. Heaven forbid she ever finds out how long it took the judges to condemn her efforts to oblivion: 18 seconds.

“How about these? In? Out? The outs have it,” announced the MC of the judging session, with ruthless efficiency. Neither he nor the official adjudicator standing at his side felt the need to actually count the number of hands that constituted the majority — it seemed almost all of the 140 or so judges who had gathered on this late August morning in a small concert hall-like room in the bowels of the National Art Center, Tokyo, were in agreement.

“Michiyo Yamanaka: out,” confirmed a note-taker sitting at the side of the room. And that was that. As three bored-looking handlers exited with Yamanaka’s paintings at stage right, another three entered from stage left with the next batch. Conveyer-belt sushi sprung to mind.

Since its inception in 1914, Nikaten has been held 93 times. As far as anyone can remember, the 94th competitive exhibition, which is being held this month, is the first in which journalists have been invited to witness the judging sessions.

Like Japan’s dozens of other competitive art shows, such as the slightly larger Nitten, Nikaten is a private association. It makes money by charging members of the public between ¥4,000 and ¥8,000 to enter its shows. If entries are judged to be “in,” it means they are included in the exhibition (which this year started on Sept. 2).

Particularly impressive works attract cries of “kaiyu koho” from the judges, which means a second show of hands is held to determine whether the artist should be considered for kaiyu, or “friend” status. And when an artist with friend status comes back in subsequent years and impresses again, they become eligible for promotion to the next rung on the Nikaten ladder: kaiin (member). It is the members who get to pronounce judgment on the likes of Yamanaka.

Judging from the calls of “in” and “out” and “kaiyu koho” at the recent session, it seems the Nikaten judges are looking for technical competence (poorly executed human figures are a big no-no), classical compositions (a painting of an island in the middle of the canvas won out over one of an island perched awkwardly at the top of the canvas) and some kind of “creative flair” (Marc Chagall-esque “floating people” seem to do the trick here).

Susumu Ishizuki, a trustee of Nikakai, the group that operates Nikaten, explained the criteria slightly differently. “It comes down to heart,” he said. “Judges look for works that speak to them.”

It’s understandable, then, that a lot of the judges speak back. “Oh, that’s nice,” said one judge, getting to his feet to peer down at one entry. “Bah!” grunted another when an artist he had voted for was dropped. It was art by democracy, and it was easy to get caught up in the jovial participatory rhythm of it all.

“In? Out? OK, they’re in,” the MC commentated during voting on Mitsuo Motohashi’s works. (All artist names have been changed.) “What? Kaiyu koho? Say it earlier next time, please. OK, who supports making him kaiyu? Hmm? Oh. Looks like that’s a few short. Too bad. Next!”

Nikakai trustee Kuniko Matsutoya explained that the speed of the judging sessions is necessitated by the sheer volume of entries — over 3,000 from members of the public. “The judges have all been painting for a long time, so they can make their decisions quickly,” she said. “At the end we give special prizes to some of the works, and the judges get to take more time over those decisions.”

Still, most of the initial judgments are made in less than 30 seconds. It seems callous at first. But on second thought, a trip to any Tokyo art museum will reveal that most museum goers spend about that much time in front of each artwork — and presumably they think they’ve been able to form an opinion on its merits. Experienced painters can obviously do the same.

Trustee Ishizuki explained that the decision to open up the judging process to journalists is part of a general movement within the group to maintain its relevance and broaden its appeal.

“A lot of our members are getting old,” he said. “We need to reach out to young people.”

To that end, the group recently reduced the price of entry for artists under 30 years of age and also began flagging such entries at the judging stage. “We want to give them a little leg-up,” Ishizuki said.

Nikaten received a significant leg-up itself in 2007, when the National Art Center opened in Roppongi. The new venue, designed specifically for art associations (it has dedicated judging rooms and extra-large loading docks), is more centrally located than the association’s old home at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum in Ueno.

Visitor numbers at the annual Nikaten exhibitions doubled to over 100,000 after the Roppongi move, and the new venue’s more spacious galleries made it possible to exhibit paintings in far more respectful single rows, rather than the three-row sandwiches that were the norm at Ueno.

Japan’s art world has always suffered from a case of split personality — between the private associations such as Nikaten that have their origins in the European art salons of the early 20th century, and the postwar model dominated by commercial galleries and curator-led museums. Proponents of the latter have tended to look down on the art of the former, which they see as hopelessly derivative (witness the Chagall-like figures).

But Nikaten’s recent attempts at transparency have shown that change is possible from the inside. As younger members are brought into the fold, opinions will shift and so too will the outcomes of the votes, which in this surprisingly democratic world are the things that matter the most.

The 94th Nikaten exhibition continues at the National Art Center, Tokyo, until Sept. 14. See for details.