Art Fair Tokyo searches for new breed of buyer

by and

Staff Writer

Occupying almost twice the area of last year’s event, and with more galleries set up and side-events being staged than ever before in its Tokyo International Forum venue, this year’s Art Fair Tokyo will almost be unrecognizable to regular visitors — let alone anyone returning for the first time since its first iteration back in 1992.

Back then, the event was known as International Contemporary Art Festival, Japan (NiCAF), and, as that name suggests, it focused on contemporary art. These days the fair is characterized by its inclusion of everything from antiquities and antiques to 20th-century masters to work by the youngest and brightest in the local scene.

But perhaps the biggest change to occur since 1992 lies in the event’s purpose. As Hozu Yamamoto, a director at Tokyo Gallery and a long-time participant in the fair, explained at a press conference recently, “In the mid-’90s, art was considered a hobby, so the objective was simply to give people the opportunity to see all sorts of artworks.” Now, he continued, it is all about getting people to “buy art, to take the artworks home with them.”

Of course, when Yamamoto said art was a hobby, he was talking about its reception among the general public, and it’s true that few of the dozens of gallery operators who participated in the event back then expected to sell works to individuals.

What Yamamoto didn’t mention was that in the ’90s this was pretty much the norm for the industry. In those days, galleries didn’t have to think about individuals because their main clients were institutions. NiCAF’s primary purpose was to sell works to the many Japanese public art museums that had sprung up during the postwar period of rapid economic development. That’s why exhibits at NiCAF tended to be large and expensive, and why many foreign commercial galleries from the United States and Europe were willing to come to try to sell their wares.

In the late ’90s, however, the reverberations of that decade’s economic decline finally reached the nation’s art museums, and acquisition budgets were slashed. The museums stopped buying, Western galleries stopped turning up at NiCAF, and local galleries had no choice but to start building up a new market for themselves. In other words, they had to start educating the Japanese public on how to buy art.

This shift occurred in the early ’00s, and coincided with a broadening of the fair’s scope to include old art, the name change to Art Fair Tokyo (AFT) and a concerted effort on the part of the organizers to encourage the public to “take the artworks home.” (Tours for “first-time” buyers have been held at each event since 2005.)

However, it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, and hope for the creation of a broad class of art collectors in Japan now lies largely in the younger generation, whose prioritization of quality of life over material wealth it is hoped will eventually prompt them to buy more art than their parents. In the meantime, as Japan’s galleries struggle on, AFT’s organizers have had to shift their attention elsewhere in search of both operational funds and a market.

Last year, for the first time ever, AFT had a main sponsor: Deutsche Bank Group. For the German financial behemoth, which has one of the largest corporate collections of art in the world (56,000 pieces and counting), it was an easy decision.

“Japanese companies do all sorts of corporate social responsibility, but Deutsche Bank Group is really enthusiastic about support of both art and music,” explained Deutsche Securities Chairman Norimichi Kanari. For the fair this was a breakthrough. Now, as a direct result of that sponsorship, AFT will occupy almost double the space it did last year, taking over the entire second basement floor of Tokyo International Forum. The move will also allow it to welcome many more exhibitors than it has in the past: 163, as opposed to last year’s 133.

It’s worth noting that just as AFT gained its first “main sponsor” last year, Japan Fashion Week also gained its first “title sponsor,” Mercedes-Benz. And it’s no coincidence that both sponsors are foreign-based. Corporate Japan has never had much interest in the kind of high-end, precision marketing opportunities that these events have always offered, and so years of frustration on the part of event organizers is now translating into a reliance on foreign funds.

Then there’s the market. Takahiro Kaneshima has only been director of AFT since last year’s fair, but he’s making his presence felt. This year he and his staff continue their attempts to bolster ties with Asia and — ultimately — its legions of nouveaux riches.

The increased venue space this year has allowed for the creation of a brand new section called Discover Asia, in which eight art galleries and art museums from throughout the region have been specially invited to put on installations of work by young and upcoming artists. AFT had always managed to attract a handful of galleries from around Asia, but the participation of key galleries in the Asian contemporary art market, such as PKM Gallery of Seoul and Arario Gallery of Beijing, will significantly bolster its international standing — particularly as it tries to compete with much larger art fairs in Hong Kong and Singapore. Discover Asia was also made possible by the support of Deutsche Bank Group.

By attracting galleries from the rest of Asia, AFT is also keen to attract those galleries’ clients — the increasingly wealthy and increasingly mobile art collectors of China, Taiwan, South Korea and elsewhere. Prick up your ears at AFT and it’s likely you’ll hear the languages of each of those countries and regions spoken. And this move of course suits global brands such as Deutsche Bank Group, which see sponsorship of AFT within the context of global marketing strategies aimed at the kinds of people who are just as likely to be in Japan this weekend as they are New York next (something that Japanese brands have perhaps been unable, or unwilling to do).

Increased funding and space have allowed for other new developments at AFT this year. Meiji Gakuin University art historian Yuji Yamashita will present a mini-exhibition titled Shuffle II, a series-in-the-making that he started last year at a different venue and in which he brings together art from different periods. Holding that show within the AFT venue is a wise move, as it will help viewers understand the connections between the many types of art they move among the large and diverse number of exhibitors’ booths at AFT.

Another important addition is that of contemporary, or “art” jewelry [see a related story on our Arts page] and a special exhibit by Tamae Hirokawa, the designer from the hip fashion label Somarta, whose “skin series” of tights is worn by U.S. pop diva Lady Gaga. Collaborations with fashion designers have been encouraged and facilitated by the efforts of the Ministry for Economy, Trade and Industry, which has been bringing together representatives of “creative industries” and attempting to coordinate publicity campaigns. (AFT and the recent Japan Fashion Week are part of their “Tokyo Spring” campaign.)

With these connections to other creative industries, and with a huge variety of art suited to different budgets — and coming from different historical periods and geographical regions — Art Fair Tokyo is changing to suit the times. And the key benefactor of all this change is you — the potential collector.

Art Fair Tokyo runs March 30 till April 1 at Tokyo International Forum. Admission is ¥2,000 (free for children below elementary school age). For precise times and more information, visit