Although Tokyo is a major world city, its contemporary art scene lacks the allure of its peers. Japanese interest in contemporary art is growing, though, as evidenced by the record 50,000 visitors at last year’s Art Fair Tokyo. However, sales remained at the 2009 level, a fraction of what big art fairs abroad rake in.
Part of the problem — along with conservative sponsors and high costs — has been the fair’s formula, which is based on the original Armory art fair in New York City. That fair mixed antiques, modern and contemporary art all under one roof. Organizers there eventually set up separate venues after contemporary art saw an increase in demand in the early 2000s. Now, along with Art Basel in Switzerland and the Frieze Art Fair in London, The Armory Show is considered one of the world’s top contemporary art fairs.
In Tokyo, where such fairs have come and gone with mixed results, G-tokyo has emerged to fill the void. Its exclusive-boutique appeal and prime Roppongi Hills setting proved to be a winning combination when the inaugural fair was held last year. Most of the 15 top Tokyo galleries that took part recorded vibrant sales.
Anticipation is mounting for G-tokyo 2011, which opens to the public Feb. 19. It could prove to be another success.
“Last year’s results were much more than we expected for our first time,” says G-tokyo director Toshiko Ferrier. “We didn’t do any aggressive promotion and faced a very difficult economic environment, but sales were very good.”
About 5,000 visitors came during the three-day event. “It was more than some art fairs that feature 40 to 50 galleries, and the visitor split was about 70 percent Japanese and 30 percent foreign,” adds Ferrier. “We were especially surprised at the large number from Asia — Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong.”
G-tokyo attributes its successful strategy to quality and exclusivity — with a statement.
“We knew people were tired of bazaar-style art fairs with artwork displayed on booth walls like a commodity for purchase,” explains Ferrier. “We wanted to offer a beautiful presentation with an attractive and appealing setting where visitors could have an enjoyable experience.”
Ferrier, along with the G-tokyo committee members — directors from five of Tokyo’s major contemporary galleries — put their bets on solo shows or curated shows with a theme. Each of the chosen galleries had to offer new works by one Japanese artist. The result was a compelling combination of curated mini-exhibitions.
“We wanted the art to have a message; a statement by the galleries or artists. I think that’s what people really liked,” says Ferrier.
The concept is unique. “As far as we know, there’s no other art fair doing this,” she continues. “At first we considered doing something similar to the Hong Kong Art Fair, but Japan’s art market is small. So we decided it was best to keep the fair small and create something original that would attract collectors and a significant audience.”
For 2011, G-tokyo’s strategy has expanded. Feb. 19-20 will be the actual art fair with works on sale, followed by a weeklong exhibition until Feb. 27. The galleries are not restricted to solo shows and, like last year, will display the works in individual rooms rather than the usual cramped booths.
“About one third will be artists from abroad, which I really like,” says Ferrier. “The galleries are all working in a global market, so they should be showing artists from other countries.”
Foreign artists include the celebrated German photographer/artist Wolfgang Tillmans who will have a solo show at Wako Works of Art. Kenji Taki Gallery is featuring New York-based Chilean artistarchitect/filmmaker Alfredo Jaar with works from his two most important series — “Vietnamese exiles in Hong Kong” (1990) and “The Rwanda Project” (1994-2000). Taka Ishii Gallery has a solo show of works by Mexican artist Mario Garcia Torres, titled “The Variable Dimensions of Art” (2010), while gallery Scai the Bathhouse offers a lineup including Anish Kapoor. Showing among Gallery Koyanagi’s stable of high-profile artists are Sophie Calle and Marlene Dumas.
The Japanese artists on view are also an impressive group. Tomio Koyama Gallery (TKG) is taking a bold step with veteran conceptual artist Kishio Suga, that could be the impetus for a revival. Rising young artists are the gallery’s successful calling card, but this sculptural display will highlight Suga’s Mono-ha roots — an art movement mainly from the 1970s. “I’m changing my thinking,” says gallery director Tomio Koyama. “Other Mono-ha artists such as Lee Ufan have been widely collected so I’d like to offer a fresh historical perspective.”
TKG shows regularly at major overseas art fairs and has a steady clientele that is split evenly between Japanese and non-Japanese.
“Foreigners will buy a few big expensive things, while Japanese buy more but smaller, less expensive works,” explains Koyama. However, he has been seeing a growing interest in more expensive contemporary works among Japanese art dealers in their 60s and 70s. “There’s a big tradition in Japan of buying ceramics, but now even older collectors are considering contemporary art.”
Koyama adds that he sees young dealers also emerging and says it may be partly due to more media coverage. “Now we’re seeing articles and news about contemporary art in popular, widely read publications; not just art magazines,” he says. “There’s more synergy happening.”
Mizuma Art Gallery’s G-tokyo 2010 show of works by Akira Yamaguchi sold out in the first 30 minutes of the collectors’ preview.
“Yamaguchi is really popular among Japanese, but we also had a lot of interest from Asian collectors who have become very active. So this year we’ll be concentrating on them as well,” says director Sueo Mizuma. On display for 2011 are works by neo-nihonga (new Japanese-style) painter Hisashi Tenmyouya. “He’s very popular among Asian collectors,” adds Mizuma. Small “lovely size” works will go for about ¥1 million ($12,000) and the large pieces upwards of ¥8.3 million ($100,000.)
For many galleries, art fairs here are more about strengthening the Japanese art market than hitting jackpot sales. Wider education appear to be the key. “We’ve been saying the art market here is small but we’ve only been concentrating on Tokyo,” says Mizuma. “There are many wealthy Japanese living in areas outside of Tokyo who buy classic Western art because they don’t know about contemporary art, or its potential. We need to get out of this city with gallery and museum shows in places like Sendai, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku.”
To reach those untapped corners, Mizuma has even started approaching department stores to collaborate with.
“Collaboration” is a well-recited mantra for Mori Art Museum Director Fumio Nanjo. “The Japanese art market is weak because of the economy and a lack of collaboration,” says Nanjo. “Art fairs, museums, galleries, art insurance companies and other art business sectors should work hand in hand.”
In tandem with G-tokyo, efforts are now underway to achieve such collaboration and there will be a series of contemporary art events — including the new art fair “Tokyo Frontline” held at 3331 Chiyoda Arts in Akihabara from February 17-20. The Yebisu International Festival for Art & Alternative Visions will be held Feb. 18-27. And, New Tokyo Contemporaries, a cooperative of seven “second generation” galleries, will be offering talks and a musical performance at G-tokyo on Feb. 19. The fair’s main sponsor, Bombay Sapphire, has created a special cocktail lounge and exhibition space designed by the young, promising architect Hiroshi Nakamura.
With its exclusivity and high-level of pure contemporary art, the fair will likely produce another success. But director Ferrier has struggled with a bare bones staff. The VIP program for instance — a vital part of major art fairs — is minimal, due to limited organizational help. In the spirit of collaboration, it might make sense for G-tokyo and Art Fair Tokyo to combine forces and take place at the same time in different venues. Tokyo could then boast an international art fair with the dynamic synergy of The Armory Show.
G-tokyo 2011 takes place 11 a.m. till 9 p.m. Feb. 19-20 (exhibition week takes place Feb. 21-27) at various locations. For more information, visit www.gtokyo-art.com.