Art

Japan’s art institutions struggle to cope with the COVID-19 crisis

by John L. Tran

Contributing Writer

Since the quarantine of the Diamond Princess, Japan has gone from being one of the world’s most at-risk countries to lucky outlier, to being again fearful of COVID-19 getting out of control.

At the time of writing, the last 24 hours saw the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike strongly advising people to stay at home after a jump in recorded COVID-19 cases, and a resurgence in panic buying in the capital. Who knows what next week will bring? As far as the arts are concerned, the last month has seen various galleries and museums going from temporary closure to suspended animation, with reopening dates being put back indefinitely.

The timing of when venues closed has partly been a matter of whether they are private or public institutions. Large government-funded venues, such as The National Museum of Modern Art Tokyo, and The National Art Center Tokyo shut up shop at the end of February — that was within a few days of being asked by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), through its Agency for Cultural Affairs, to close voluntarily.

By contrast, private museums and commercial galleries, such as the Mori Art Museum, Mistubishi Ichigokan Museum Tokyo, Artizon Museum, ShugoArts, Taro Nasu and The Watari Museum of Contemporary Art, gamely struggled on into March, albeit with temporary closures and reopenings or, in some cases, reduced hours. SCAI the Bathhouse closed without prior warning on March 25.

Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, being a nonprofit organization, is one of the few venues that comes somewhere between being a public and private space. It cut short its exhibition of work by Gutai artist Kazuo Shiraga and closed on March 13. Curator Shino Nomura says that the gallery’s decision was made independently of MEXT, which, in her opinion, doesn’t want to be responsible for forcing museums to close. The gallery plans to reopen on April 11, but is not taking this for granted. In the meantime, staff are being encouraged to work from home and also take vacations, Nomura wrote in an email describing Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery’s current situation.

If it weren’t already clear from the less-crowded but still busy trains in Tokyo, the patchwork of half-open, half-closed art venues highlights the government’s loose and inconsistent policy regarding self-isolation in the past two months. Two artists, who wish to remain anonymous, recently had their exhibition at the Fujisawa City Art Space canceled mid-run, as Fujisawa local council responded to the COVID-19 crisis. They found it bizarre that other facilities in the same municipal building continued to be crowded with people.

“At most there were only three people in the gallery at the same time, and nearby there was a shopping mall full of families and young people,” one of the artists wrote in an email describing the experience. “The contrast was ironic and pretty ridiculous. Canceling the exhibition was simply to show that they were doing the ‘right’ thing. It was just PR.” Elsewhere around the globe, art has gone online in response to the pandemic. The Google Arts & Culture site has become a portal to over 2,000 museums and archives. Art Basel Hong Kong canceled its physical fair and put more than $270 million worth of work in online viewing rooms between March 20 and 25. Websites for museums such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Tate Modern in London, and the Louvre offset the depressing news that their brick-and-mortar sites are closed by designing their landing pages to positively encourage viewers to delve into their virtual tours, essays and other online resources. For a more fringe example of what an art event can be when it aims to fit the internet age, try “Well Now WTF?,” an online exhibition that starts April 4, at siliconvalet.org/exhibition. There’s also the virtual archive of internet art anthology.rhizome.org.

With some exceptions, such as the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum putting video talks and images from their most recent exhibition online, and the aforementioned Tokyo Opera City Gallery upping their Twitter and Instagram game Japanese institutions have not significantly increased or refreshed their online activity.

In the coming months, with talk of an imminent lockdown circulating as this article goes to print, this situation, like everything else, may radically change. It’s time to binge on art, not panic buy toilet paper.

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