Japan promotes the ambitions of a global arts center
TOKYO – Even from a distance, the collection of golden and black horn-shaped objects immediately catches the eye. Something about the arrangement of the horns, the color scheme and the size of the display that towers in the cave-like hall screams “art”.
Those curious enough to get closer are rewarded with the sounds of mysterious whispers emanating from a multitude of speakers. The inappropriateness of encountering such a spectacle in a pristine airport terminal invites you to smile and even marvel. Because “Crowd Cloud” is located at Tokyo’s Haneda International Airport, which is hardly known for its artistic offerings.
“Crowd Cloud” was created by Yuri Suzuki, an artist and designer, and Miyu Hosoi, a music and sound artist, and is part of the Japanese government’s ambitious new project to transform Tokyo into a global arts center.
“As an entry point in Japan, airports like Haneda can convey what Japan has in terms of culture and art, and that is very meaningful,” says Tetsuya Kawabe, Senior Managing Director of the Haneda Future Research Institute, a subsidiary of the Haneda operating company. “Japan has enormous cultural and artistic resources that are underestimated.”
Airports are an ideal place to exhibit art because when people arrive it is “a moment of absolute receptivity,” says Paola Antonelli, senior curator for architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and curator of the exhibition at Haneda Airport, known as the “Vision Gate”.
The project to turn Haneda and other airports into art destinations is part of a long-term goal of the cultural authority to use Japan’s cultural assets, especially its contemporary art, to generate new wealth and international attention. If everything goes according to plan, “we believe a new industry is about to emerge. Culture will be a big industry for Japan,” says Kawabe.
The idea of turning an airport into an arts hub may seem whimsical, but Japan has found creative ways over the years to use art to boost trade.
Department stores, for example, have been an important pillar of the art market, accounting for nearly 35% of domestic art sales in recent years, according to the Japanese art industry market research study 2020.
Last year, department stores that have teams of customer service representatives who know their customers’ tastes sold 67.3 billion yen [$612 million] Art value, a little more than the amount sold in local art galleries, according to the same survey.
Works of art are also used to stimulate the regional economy and the occupancy of hotels and resorts.
The Setouchi Triennial, which takes place on 12 islands in the Seto Inland Sea, attracted nearly 1.2 million visitors during its three sessions in 2019 and, according to the organizers, had a turnover of 18 billion yen.
Despite these efforts, the Japanese art market remains tiny compared to the three major art centers in the world – the US, UK, and China.
Japan is the third largest economy in the world, but its share of the global art market of $ 64.1 billion was only 3.2% in 2019, compared with 44% for the US, 20% for the UK and 18% for China, according to the Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report.
This has not always been the case. In the late 1980s, during the “bubble economy” when Japanese asset prices soared, Japanese collectors drove art prices soaring by buying great works such as Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” owned by Yasuda Fire and Marine Insurance (now Sompo Japan) for a record price of 39.9 million US dollars.
However, since the Japanese asset bubble burst in the early 1990s, interest in buying art has been subdued and only five Japanese collectors made it into the “Top 200 Collectors” list compiled by ARTnews last year.
One problem is that Japan’s tax system does not provide compelling incentives to invest in art, as is the case in the US, where collectors can receive substantial tax deductions for donating art to cultural institutions.
“In Japan there are no financial incentives to encourage people to buy art,” say Misako and Jeffrey Rosen, owners of the Misako & Rosen gallery in Tokyo.
Japan also lacks enough sophisticated, affluent people to support art investments, says Naohiko Kishi, assistant director of the Art Tokyo Association and executive producer of Art Fair Tokyo, Japan’s largest art fair.
For most Japanese, the standard of living is so demanding and their everyday life is already filled with so many beautiful objects that “it begs the question: What do you need art for?” according to the gallery owner the Rosens.
However, steps are being taken to stimulate the Japanese art market, particularly by encouraging international collectors to view Japan as a major art destination and building an industry that can generate new wealth to support an aging society.
In the past year, the regulations were relaxed to mark neighborhoods or even individual buildings as customs zones, in which art can be sold tax-free in galleries, auctions or art fairs, as long as the art is not brought into Japan outside the customs zones.
“We need to encourage the world’s galleries that have been reluctant to come to Japan due to strict regulations to do business here,” Taro Kono, Minister of Administrative Affairs who urged the development of the Japanese art market, told the media last year.
Haneda Airport recently received government approval to become a customs area, and on October 1, one of its halls will host a major auction of contemporary Japanese art, including works by Yayoi Kusama, Yoshitomo Nara and Takashi Murakami.
The idea is that when international galleries and art fairs come to Tokyo, collectors and wealthy travelers will be enticed to visit Japan and “shed light on new, young artists in Japan,” Kono said.
In March, the Agency for Cultural Affairs launched Art Platform Japan, an online resource for information on contemporary Japanese art, much of which is being made available in English for the first time.
At the beginning of November, a new city-wide initiative, Art Week Tokyo, will take place with 50 participating galleries and museums, including the international galleries Blum & Poe and Perrotin, to highlight Tokyo’s potential as an art destination.
“I think Tokyo definitely has a lot of potential,” says Adeline Ooi, Asia Director of Art Basel, the international art fair that advises Art Week Tokyo. “The infrastructure is there, Japan has some of the greatest institutions in the world, a huge taste for culture – and who doesn’t want to go to Tokyo?”
Despite the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, the time is right for Tokyo, says Kishi. With the tough crackdown on the Chinese government in Hong Kong, “people will want to keep their art in a safer place and Tokyo will be respected as a safe place,” he explains.
But in order to develop a large, international art market, the government has to do a lot more, gallery owners say. Coordinated action, including a range of incentives, is needed to make it easier for international galleries to do business in Japan, says Sundaram Tagore, whose New York gallery of the same name represents Hiroshi Senju, a contemporary master of the traditional Nihonga Painting.
In addition to low or no taxes on art sales, Japan could offer rent subsidies and help overcome the language barrier, he says. Efficient logistics, an inviting atmosphere and skilled employees who can work in these galleries are also important.
The Rosens suggest that Japanese collectors with significant tax breaks should be encouraged to purchase art. But educating the public about the “value” in art is also vital, as Japanese viewers tend to focus on the visual aspects of a work of art rather than the concept behind the images. Especially with contemporary art, which may require specialist knowledge, this leads to confusion about the value of certain works.
It is also important to cultivate a community of internationally minded critics and collectors who can stimulate discussions about art and culture because “people in the art world want to live in a liberal atmosphere where they can thrive and engage in discourse,” notes Tagore.
Even if Japan succeeds in revitalizing its domestic art market and setting new impulses, it will be crucial to project this image abroad, say critics. In this regard, the role of the media in portraying the vibrant arts scene in Japan is vital. If Japan cannot deliver on multiple fronts, it risks losing to other cities if it becomes an international arts center.
“If you want to build a cosmopolitan city in a post-industrial society, you have to create a world culture,” says Tagore. “Not only Japan, but also other countries have learned that.”