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Friday, Dec. 25, 2009

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Dream team: The mid-decade upturn in the economy gave artist Takashi Murakami the chance to engage in several corporate collaborations, incuding one with Mori Building Co., Ltd., for whom he made "Planet 66" and other artworks to commmemorate the opening of their Roppongi Hills project. © 2003 TAKASHI MURAKAMI/KAIKAI KIKI CO., LTD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Art world fortunes linked to the 'noughty' economy

Staff writer

Visual arts, theater, dance, classical music, craft — for all those cultural pursuits that are, for better or worse, largely dependent on the beneficence of public funding bodies, the end of the decade arrived about as suddenly and cataclysmically as a train crash.

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Two steps forward: Two positive developments to emerge from the past decade were Arts Initiative Tokyo, which added practicality to Japan's art education (above), and Tokyo Art Beat, the Web site that gave the city its first comprehensive bilingual exhibition guide and archive. KEIZO KIOKU PHOTO (above) / YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO
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For visual arts in Japan, the train finally ground to a halt on Nov. 25, although it had been wobbling since the government of Yukio Hatoyama and his Democratic Party of Japan was inaugurated on Sept. 16.

It was on the 11th and 25th of last month that the new Government Revitalization Unit turned its attention to several of the visual-arts support programs of the Agency for Cultural Affairs and the Japan Foundation.

Both received stinging rebukes. Comments directed at the former went as far as to suggest that the government should not be involved in supporting the creation of art at all ("Art is the responsibility of the maker.") and, at the latter, that "there is such a lack of objective evaluation that current programs should be investigated with consideration given to their scrapping."

Although the criticisms were directed at particular programs — the Cultural Agency's scholarship system for sending young Japanese artists abroad, for example — the underlying theme of the two days' hearings was the perfectly valid question of why there was a need for two, apparently competing, arts bodies in the first place.

In some ways the visual-arts community had it coming. For, rather than trying to combat what they knew was a piecemeal and inefficient cobweb of visual-arts policy that had been built up by the Liberal Democratic Party over the last half century, they instead ignored it or tried to work within it.

Almost nothing positive happened policywise during this decade. In fact, if it weren't for the uptick in the local and international economies that occurred mid-decade — sufficient to reconnect the private sector with the art world — then it would have been a very barren 10 years indeed.

The Japanese art world at the outset of the 21st century resembled a kind of post-apocalyptic wasteland — with the "apocalypse" being the bursting of the bubble economy that occurred in the early 1990s.

And yet an interesting thing happened this decade as the economy recovered (the Nikkei went from 7,600 points in 2003 to over 18,000 by 2007). Almost everything that had disappeared as the money had dried up in the nineties came back as the money returned in the noughties.

Consider the case of private art museums. In 1999, what had for decades been the premier private venue for modern and avant-garde art, the Sezon Museum of Art, closed its doors for good, as the fortunes of its parent, the Seibu department store, declined.

Come 2003, however, and a brand new type of private museum arrived on the scene. The Mori Art Museum, which opened within Mori Building's Roppongi Hills project, demonstrated how an art museum could both bestow cultural street-cred and add value to a retail/office/residential development.

The inclusion of the Suntory Museum of Art and 21_21 Design Sight within Mitsui Fudosan's Midtown development at Roppongi repeated the pattern, and Mitsubishi Estate's addition of the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum within their new development at Marunouchi, Tokyo, which opens early next year, will be the third prominent example.

Crunch time for all these facilities will come in fiscal 2010 — when the aftershocks of the global financial crisis are likely to reverberate through to their annual operating allowances.

Public museums went through a similar process — although instead of being closed down altogether, they merely spent a few years in a hibernation-like state.

By 2000, the annual operating budget of the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, for example, was half of the ¥2.1 billion it had been when the facility opened in 1995.

Funding did edge up in some public museums mid-decade, but there were other developments that helped revive them from their slumber. Among the more significant were limited regulatory reforms that allowed regional public museums to make multi-year budgets (and thus save profits from one year for use in the next) and made it easier for them to procure financial support from private companies. Thus the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, for example, has been able to establish a public art project with Bloomberg.

Meanwhile, the turn-of-the-millennium funding cuts meted out to public museums had wider ramifications. Several commercial galleries, for example, who had made a business out of stocking the museums' collections, took the opportunity to bow out of the game.

Such retirees included Tokiwa Gallery and Satani Gallery, which closed shop in 1998 and 2000 respectively. Come the noughties, however, and they were quickly replaced by a younger generation of gallerists who could supplant domestic income with that from the soon-to-burgeon international art market.

Shugo Satani, who is the son of Satani Gallery owner, the late Kazuhiko Satani, and who opened his ShugoArts gallery in 2003, is the most symbolically important here. There were many others, including Tomio Koyama, Taka Ishii and Kenji Taki.

For several years around the turn of the millennium, Japan had also been without a major annual art fair. The International Contemporary Art Festival (NICAF) managed to survive the downturn by going biannual between 1995 and 2003, and it was eventually replaced by Art Fair Tokyo, which adopted a once-yearly format in 2007.

By then, local dealers were keen to show off the pleasures of art-collecting to a local populace that was for the first time in a decade sufficiently cashed up to consider buying art. They were also wary that their country was being left behind by China, which was rapidly emerging as the key player in the regional art market.

Even the Yokohama Triennale, which emerged in 2001 as the nation's preeminent international art event, can be seen as a rebirth of sorts. It essentially took off where the erstwhile Tokyo Biennale had signed off in 1990, when it was discontinued by its operator, the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper group. The Yokohama Triennale's future is of course by no means assured — and the DPJ's attacks on the Japan Foundation, one of its chief sponsors, do not bode well.

If there are two areas in which Japan's art world can be said to have actually progressed beyond where it had already been in the past, then they are education and information provision.

It was a group of young curators under the banner of Arts Initiative Tokyo who realized that there were gaping holes in Japan's art-education system. Their "Making Art Different" program, which commenced in 2001, gave budding artists and curators the practical skills to function in the art market.

For artists, the courses covered everything from how to photograph their artworks to how to explain the concepts behind them. Meanwhile, budding curators, who generally emerge from university art-history courses, were given training in the logistics of organizing exhibitions. To date, MAD has sent over 1,000 young arts professionals into the market.

Takashi Murakami's Geisai series of events had a similar effect, in that they too forced young artists to learn the skills of selling their work directly to potential customers and dealers.

Meanwhile, in the field of information provision, the Web site Tokyo Art Beat has managed to achieve what none had done before it. Combining technological savvy with heavy-lift translation duties, the young Japanese and non-Japanese staff behind the venture have created a bilingual art guide that is actually capable of keeping up with Tokyo's hundreds of venues. Launched in 2004, the site now has an archive of over 30,000 events, making it an extraordinary store of information equally accessible in English and Japanese.

Nevertheless, the two gains from this decade need to be set against government policy decisions that went backward.

The key blunder was the establishment of the so-called "appointed administrator system," by which regional governments were authorized to outsource the management of their museums to private companies. The companies, in turn, would be able to keep whatever profits they could wring from the facilities.

Although this new policy did give venues such as MOT the freedom to save money from one year to the next, it has been damaging otherwise.

For a start, private enterprises just haven't jumped at the opportunity to run art museums. Furthermore, even in the rare cases where an administrator has been found, the results have been mixed. The government of Ashikaga City, Tochigi Prefecture, for example, concluded that the new system was resulting in lower- quality exhibitions and so ultimately decided to revert their museum to direct government control.

So much for one of the key pieces of arts policy to emerge from the first decade of the 21st century.

The "appointed administrator system" wasn't a focus of investigation in the Government Revitalization Unit's November hearings. It was, however, a product of the exact same kind of bureaucratic bungling that the Unit has signaled it is their resolve to curtail. If they succeed, then, in terms of arts policy at least, the next 10 years will end up looking very different from the 10 just passed.

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