Global Economics

Contemporary Art Tries Out Tokyo


The market is still relatively tiny, but those involved in the city's new art fair hope they can awaken a new—and profitable—trend

At about 9 a.m. on Apr. 1, Peter Kilchmann had just arrived at a former elementary school in Tokyo with two suitcases in tow. The 40-year-old Swiss gallery owner had flown halfway around the world to take part in 101 Tokyo, a small art fair that claimed to be Japan's first truly international contemporary-only event. In his luggage he had brought the works of three European artists whose international careers are on an upward trajectory.

Kilchmann had never really thought about traveling to Tokyo. The Japanese market just wasn't big enough for him to bother. He was plenty busy participating in the world's largest fairs in Basel, Miami, and London, where jet-setting collectors and luminaries such as Steven Spielberg and Michael Eisner go to keep up with art trends and add to their collections.

So why was he coming for a fair that nobody had heard of until six months ago? "To explore if there's a market here, I'll go to the museums, the galleries, see everything I can while I'm here," says Kilchmann.

Post-Bubble Quiet

He's likely to find Tokyo is still a backwater for contemporary art. Gallery owners in the Japanese capital say the market is a fraction—perhaps even one-hundredth—of the size of New York or London or Paris. That might be hard to fathom, given Tokyo's high concentration of wealth and the fabled multimillion-dollar purchases of Impressionist art by Japanese collectors in the 1980s and '90s. But after the bubble economy collapsed in the '90s, Japan Inc. faded from the scene, and companies quietly unloaded the art they had amassed. It's been quiet since then. It didn't help that studios amid Japan's cramped dwellings were virtually impossible. There was no tax break for art collectors, and the city's art galleries are scattered and never stay in one location for long.

Yet Kilchmann may have made a good investment by coming to Japan. For there are signs that Tokyo's contemporary art market is experiencing an awakening of sorts. Tomio Koyama, the dealer who launched the careers of international Japanese star artists like Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara, says he's getting more first-time art collectors in Japan than ever before. Others agree. "We're seeing Japanese in the financial and other industries who have returned after spending years overseas and are interested in building their own collections," says Taka Ishii of Taka Ishii Gallery. And in the past four years, a new generation of galleries has opened, selling the work of young, no-name artists.

It's partly thanks to the recognition that artists such as Murakami and Nara have gained in the West, where their works fetch millions of dollars. Their fame has helped raise contemporary art's profile at home. China's emergence as a powerhouse has helped, too. In Hong Kong, Christie's auctions have combined popular Chinese artists such as Zhang Xiaogang, Ai Weiwei, Yue Minjin, and Cai Guo-Qiang with young Japanese artists such as Ryuki Yamamoto and Makoto Aida, whose works have subsequently risen in value.

That's the sort of momentum 101 Tokyo's organizers hoped to tap into. "We wanted to bring international recognition to the Tokyo art scene because the content is there," says 101 Tokyo curator and co-founder Agatha Wara.

Wara had more personal reasons for getting involved. After moving to Japan three years ago, she began to feel that the local scene was missing something. "With my Japanese friends, there's this sense that they have to go abroad to experience something big in terms of art," says the 27-year-old artist from Miami. Tokyo's art scene also seemed too fragmented. In New York, Miami, and Los Angeles, "you go to an art event, you see exciting work, you meet people, they tell you to go to another—it's like this chain," she says.

Building a Fair

Last spring, she met Nakaochiai Gallery owner Julia Barnes, who had the same experience. So the two decided to put on an art fair that might be small but that would have the same international vibe as prestigious events in Europe and the U.S. There had been similar fairs before, but their offerings tended to be a confusing mix of traditional works and some contemporary art. 101—named after the postal code of the venue, an elementary school turned art school—aimed to be more sophisticated and contemporary. Wara and Barnes assembled a staff of three: a music curator, the head of a Web-based Tokyo art guide, and a recent graduate from an art management program in France. By October, 2007, they were scouting for sites and trying to recruit 800 Asian and Western galleries they had short-listed. Of the 70 that responded, 101 Tokyo's organizers chose 28, half from Japan, half from overseas.

They're hoping the effort will pay off, and 101 might become an institution, though the international galleries at the fair didn't consistently do a lot of business. The first day, more than 600 people packed into the small event space to see what 101 had on offer. Kilchmann sold nothing on the first day, though he later managed to sell a couple of works on paper, to an official from the Tate Modern in London. Others fared slightly better, and one international gallery even sold everything shortly after the doors opened, perhaps because they weren't charging anywhere near the $10,000 to $20,000 apiece that Kilchmann was.

But it shouldn't be only about selling art, says gallery owner Hiromi Yoshii. "Art fairs in Japan shouldn't focus only on attracting collectors," says Yoshii. "They also have a role in educating the public about what contemporary art is."

For Kilchmann, the 101 Tokyo organizers were charging him so little—$2,000, vs. the $40,000 he usually pays to participate in major art fairs—he saw it as an excuse to vacation in Japan during cherry blossom season. "If I don't sell a single piece," says Kilchmann, "I won't be happy but it won't be a disaster."

Hall is BusinessWeek's technology correspondent in Tokyo .

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