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Thursday, Feb. 28, 2008


A corporate collection . . . for whom?

At a symposium early this month in Tokyo, Jean-Christophe Ammann, a former director of the Museum fur Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt and an adviser to financial service provider UBS on their art collection, said, "It is important to know that the works of a corporate art collection belong to the shareholders."

News photo
Gerhard Richter's "Helen" (1963) from the UBS collection THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK

Sounds obvious enough, but is it true in Japan?

Ammann was getting at the idea that if a publicly listed company is to collect art, then it has a responsibility to its shareholders to demonstrate how that art is contributing to the success — and share price — of the company.

UBS assures its shareholders that their 900-work collection of postwar art (some of which is showing at the Mori Art Museum till April 6), "builds key brand-personality characteristics, raises awareness of the UBS brand and helps us acquire targeted clients," explains Petra Arends, the collection's director.

Japan's long and illustrious history of collecting is of a slightly different nature. Here, each generation of industrial leaders has thrown up its share of collectors, such as Kawasaki dockyard owner Kojiro Matsukata and Bridgestone Corp. founder Shojiro Ishibashi, who from the 1920s collected everything from modern Japanese masters such as Seiki Kuroda to prominent Western Impressionists.

"With the industrialists it wasn't so much that the company bought art; it was more for the owners' enjoyment," explains Toshio Shimizu, a prominent curator and art consultant.

Ishibashi's collection was for a time kept in his private residence in Tokyo's Azabu-Nakasaka-cho, where it was brought out to impress such visiting luminaries as John D. Rockefeller. Bridgestone was not publicly listed then, meaning there was a distinct blurring between the interests of the company and those of its owner. Ishibashi's collection, it would seem, contributed to Bridgestone's success simply by bolstering the owner's status.

In Japan, the decidedly private nature of these "corporate" collections meant they tended to undergo major ructions when their art-enamored sponsor resigned or passed away. Matsukata's collection was split and, in 1959, part of it became the core of the National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo. Ishibashi divested himself and his company of his treasures by creating in 1956 the independent and private Ishibashi Foundation, which has owned — and expanded — the collection ever since.

During Japan's bubble economy, a new generation of corporate leaders embarked on their own art splurges. Still, shareholder patience with such ostentation lasted only as long as the bubble itself. Many purchases were sold or, as in the case of the notorious 1987 purchase of van Gogh's "Sunflowers" by the Japanese insurance company Yasuda Fire & Marine Insurance, were removed from the accounting books by the creation of independent foundations.

Of the companies that have gone through stages of art acquisition, few have gone on to adopt long-term policies of art collection. One is cosmetics-maker Shiseido, which has continued a tradition of purchasing artworks exhibited at its Shiseido Gallery since 1919.

"We buy works by younger Japanese artists; we don't buy international masterpieces," says a company PR rep. The relatively modest financial outlay, he says, explains why the public company has no problems justifying their activities to shareholders.

Another, Dainippon Ink and Chemicals, collects artworks — albeit at a slow pace — thereby continuing a tradition set in motion by three generations of the founding family, the Kawamuras. Those works are now exhibited at the Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art in Chiba, which is operated not by an independent foundation but by the company itself. That means they need to win over their shareholders, like UBS.

And sure enough, that similarity leads to a coincidence of policy, too, albeit of a slightly different scale. As the museum's manager, Etsuro Hashiguchi, explains: "We send our shareholders complimentary tickets every year, so they can come and enjoy the art too."

Next month, Edan Corkill talks to curator Mami Kataoka about critics in Japan after facing down London's best.

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