Nissan award echoes a maturing art world

by Cameron Allan Mckean

Staff Writer

The biennial Nissan Art Award isn’t new now, and it wasn’t really new when it began in 2013, either — something Nissan President and CEO Carlos Ghosn is fully aware of.

“I don’t think it’s a unique approach from our side,” he tells me, “but I think we are probably more focused.”

Sitting in a leather chair on the second floor of a palazzo beside a Venice canal in Italy — on the opening night of the Venice Biennale — Ghosn is switching gears as he moves into the role of an art patron and focuses his attention on emerging contemporary artists from Japan. He has traveled to Venice to show both his commitment to the world of contemporary art and to promote the second edition of the Nissan award, which will soon release the list of finalists for 2015.

Unlike many of the other deep-pocketed corporate arts-funding bodies in Japan — which typically make safe investments by awarding established artists — Ghosn says Nissan is awarding only “the next generation of Japanese talent. That’s it.”

But it’s not just about handing over “a cheque” says Ghosn.

“We show the work; we are embracing the artist,” he says. “We offer them space and support their fame and let the public know them — I think it’s a start.”

Rather than pooling resources into a single grand prize, Nissan offers ¥1 million to all finalists and provides a further ¥1 million for each of them to produce an artwork that will be exhibited in Yokohama’s BankART Studio NYK. From these works, a Grand Prix winner is awarded a further ¥2 million and a trophy. (Installation artist Aiko Miyanaga won in 2013 for her naphthalene suitcase sculptures.)

“You have a lot of names, and many unknown or little-known talents (in Japan),” Ghosn says. “We want to support these artists being known in Japan and also certainly more known outside Japan, too. … We concentrate on contemporary art because this is where we can make the biggest difference.”

Fumio Nanjo, director of Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum and chairman of the Nissan Art Award, feels the award fills an arts-funding hole.

“Compared to the U.S. there are still very few companies who support contemporary art events in Japan,” he says. “The importance of supporting culture is something that needs to be understood by Japanese corporations.”

But discovering the country’s “little-known talents” is difficult enough without having to then put their work into established categories of art — these days, it’s a little more complicated than labels of “painting” or “sculpture.”

“It is not easy to summarize. There is no one trend,” Nanjo says. He views this complexity as evidence of contemporary art in Japan “maturing.”

To ensure the award captures the current state of art in Japan, Nissan appointed Nanjo and four other directors of leading art institutions from around the world as jury members. This team is also supported by 10 committee members who select and search for the “little-knowns.” Collectively, they form a respected group of curators and directors.

Although the Nissan Art Award stands out in a confusing milieu — a mature corporate award for Japan’s “maturing” art world — it is still a PR tool.

Describing the relationship between art and business as “it’s complicated” is a understatement. Even my trip here has been assisted by Nissan. It’s notable that the much of the art around us at the current Venice Biennale addresses this relationship, with festival curator Okwui Enwezor critically — and didactically — addressing the complexities of “capital” in relation to the art world and beyond.

The truth is that the Nissan Art Award is a more subtle version of the models of corporate arts patronage that took shape in the 1980s. This was the era when the domain of individual collectors and public-funding bodies began to be eroded by companies under the rubric of corporate responsibility. It was the moment when, according to Chin-tao Wu, author of “Privatising Culture: Corporate Art Intervention Since the 1980s,” business became deeply involved in the “production, dissemination and reception” of contemporary art, weakening art’s efficacy and freedom of artistic expression.

Yes, corporate sponsorship of the arts has been around long before people were making sculptures out of naphthalene. And it will likely be around long after the current “post-whatever” art styles have become irrelevant. But, despite Nissan’s further blurring of the lines — those demarcating corporate social responsibility, public relations and art patronage — its award is evidence of a faith in emerging contemporary artists (and, importantly, the curators and directors who support them) that was lacking in corporate sponsorship in Japan.

“Contemporary art is somehow a precursor of what is going to come,” Ghosn says. “(Artists) can contribute in a way which is more intuitive, more imaginative. Ours (at Nissan) is much more deductive, rational, so we are trying to combine the two to get a better focus on what will come.”

But how far will they allow this combination to go? Could nominated artists move beyond being “recipients” and be allowed to affect change in Nissan itself?

“We are not doing it today,” Ghosn says. “But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen in the future.”

Cameron Allan McKean attended the 56th Venice Biennale with assistance from Nissan Motor Co., Ltd.

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