Tokyo Art Fair Revisited

Posted by: Kenji Hall on April 10, 2008

As they say, there are (at least) two sides to every story. After I wrote about the inaugural 101 Tokyo Contemporary Art Fair last week, the fair’s organizers complained about the tone of my article.

They felt that highlighting uneven sales on the first day of a five-day event was unjust. It made the event seem like a flop when it had only just begun, they said.

They also questioned my choice of profiling Peter Kilchmann, the most established of the international gallery owners. There were 28 galleries—half Japanese, half international—at 101 Tokyo. I could have picked any of the others. Instead I chose Kilchmann, of Galerie Peter Kilchmann in Zurich, who has shown his artists’ works at major art fairs in Basel, Miami and London. One of the artists he showcased at 101 Tokyo, Rita Ackermann, had work included at this year’s Whitney Biennial. He didn’t need to be at the inaugural year of a small contemporary art fair in a market that has yet to take off, they said. And his artworks, they said, were priced at least four times higher than any other galleries. Why write about him?

Now seems a good time for a postmortem.

I chose to look at the fair’s first day because the story was still fresh, but that wasn’t the only reason. Weeks before 101 Tokyo, many people who travel to other art fairs around the globe had told me that success or failure is determined within hours of the opening. The barometer: sales. Big collectors buy at the pre-opening, before the public arrives, and major fairs sell out almost immediately.

At Art Basel, in Switzerland, (the Olympics of the art world) collectors and aficionados line up at the train stations hours beforehand to get to the fair as early as possible, and when the doors to the fair open everyone sprints to the booths to get the best stuff.

Why wouldn't artwork sell? Too few collector; fair organizers picked the wrong galleries; galleries picked the wrong works to show; or all three.

I’m not trying to compare 101 Tokyo to Basel. But sales are important for 101 Tokyo’s future. One of the reasons Tokyo hasn’t had a contemporary-only art fair for years is that international gallery owners who came for NICAF in the 1990s were so disappointed by what they found that they stopped coming, which led to NICAF’s demise.

My verdict: 101 Tokyo was a moderate success. That they got galleries to fly from New York, Madrid, Melbourne, London and Zurich to participate was a huge coup. More than 600 people turned out for a packed pre-opening. That’s impressive, and the numbers kept rising in the final days. At the former junior high school where 101 Tokyo was held, the crowd was lively and youthful. It was true to its indie-art-fair billing. Ultimately, the buzz could help boost business for the galleries in town. (Art Fair Tokyo’s 108 Japanese galleries attracted older, well-dressed collectors who saw contemporary art displayed side-by-side with ceramic figurines, scrolls and antiques.)

I say “moderate” because the international gallery owners--who came from New York, Madrid, Melbourne, London and Zurich—-didn’t consistently sell much artwork. The market is still tiny--a hundredth the size of the U.S. market, according to some Tokyo gallery owners. An art fair could either galvanize the market or simply highlight that the market isn't big enough to support the amount of art being produced. It's still not clear which is the case.

The Japanese galleries did better than the internationals, but mostly thanks to longtime customers. Misako & Rosen, owned by Misako and Jeffrey Rosen, sold 90% of what they had brought; Yukari Mitsuma of Yukari Art Contemporary sold five out of eight pieces; Yuko Nagase of TKG Contemporary sold every sculpture from one of three artists; and Galeria de Muerte’s Narutoshi Sekine sold four paintings, two sculptures and several drawings. For Sekine, who was showing in his first art fair, 101 Tokyo “exceeded my expectations.” The Rosens said they would give it the thumbs-up, with some caveats, if galleries overseas asked.

Among the internationals, Dominique Perregaux, from Hong Kong, and Afronova, from Johannesburg, South Africa, were happy with their sales. Same for MTA from New York, whose owner Bill Brady has been to Tokyo before and who sold all but one piece. They said they’d be back.

Others didn’t do as well. Kilchmann sold just two out of nearly two dozen (to an official from the Tate Modern, in London). Foley Gallery from New York sold two. Galerie Alexandra Saheb sold one. David Risely Gallery sold one small drawing on paper. Workplace Gallery, from Newcastle upon Tyne, in Britain, sold none. Ditto for Neon Parc from Melbourne.

Of course, some people who reserved artwork may decide to buy weeks later. And it's not all about sales. Workplace, Neon Parc and Galerie Alexandra Saheb talked about the possibility of showcasing each others' artists in their home countries, for instance.

Why did I zero in on Kilchmann? My feeling was, if a gallery owner of Kilchmann’s stature went home thinking it had been worth his time, he would tell others. Kilchmann had never been to Japan. His reason for coming wasn’t to sell artwork; he was on a scouting trip. He would return if he saw that this market had potential. Later, he said he was surprised that Tokyo seemed to attract few international collectors despite having museums and galleries galore. Glad he came? “Yes. I had a great time,” he said. Miles Thurlow, of Workplace Gallery, seconded that.

A criticism I heard of the organizers: Gallery owners from overseas weren’t told what to expect. Some thought 101 Tokyo was a satellite fair to Art Fair Tokyo. But the only connection was that VIP guests could get in to both fairs. Others felt they should have been told that hiring a translator was a must. (Those who did early on tended to sell more work.) Many were surprised not to see many museum officials or corporate collectors. Tristian Koenig, of Neon Parc, was frustrated by the cheapness of 101 Tokyo’s venue. “When I saw Tomio Koyama’s gallery, I thought, ‘There’s a world-class gallery space in town. What are we doing in this school?’” said Koenig.

Of course, 101 Tokyo's organizers can't be held responsible for misperceptions about the local scene. Alexandra Saheb had assumed she was coming to a vibrant market, home to some of the most respected galleries in the world. "But I don't wonder any more why I haven't heard of more Japanese galleries and artists internationally," she said. “I thought the connection between Japan and the international art world was much stronger. The two fairs must work together to attract more Asian collectors. There were a few, some Chinese, mostly Korean gallerists. The more international an art fair, the more you can attract people to fly in for it. There needs to be more advertising about this event in other Asian countries if Tokyo wants to become an art capital in Asia. Right now I don’t see that happening.”

David Risely, from London, said he came after getting a call from his friend, Koyama, the biggest name in contemporary art in Tokyo. Risely said he fully supported the grass-roots idea behind 101 Tokyo. But he said he thought Koyama, a sponsor of the fair, and other local gallery owners would do more to hook him up with major corporate and private collectors in Tokyo. Risely should know how these affairs are conducted: He was a co-founder of the alternative Zoo Art Fair in London, a satellite to the main attraction, Frieze Art Fair. Unlike 101 Tokyo, which had several corporate sponsors, Zoo got funding from a group of collectors, so the kinds of introductions Risely has in mind were a no-brainer. But in Tokyo, Risely had to have one of his own artists arrange an appointment with a curator at the Mori Art Museum. "At least we know now what it’s like here,” said Risely. (For Risely, who trained at a French restaurant in London, the best part about Tokyo was the food.)

Reader Comments

Dave Wilson

June 18, 2008 6:50 PM

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