The 11th edition of Art Fair Tokyo was its largest edition ever.

The Japanese capital’s flagship fair ushered in international galleries in a cross-border strategy to remain relevant.

View of ART FAIR TOKYO 2014. Photo : Munetoshi Iwashita. Image courtesy Art Fair Tokyo.

View of ART FAIR TOKYO 2014. Photo: Munetoshi Iwashita. Image courtesy Art Fair Tokyo.

Art Fair Tokyo (AFT) 2016 closed its doors on 14 May 2016. This year’s edition boasted the participation of a record 157 galleries, including 19 from abroad, up from 8 from the previous year.

A conservative market

With the global art economy at a seasonal dip, the market in Japan is conservative at best: Blouin Artinfo observes a migration of Japanese galleries away from their hometown to friendlier tax regimes in Hong Kong, Taipei and Singapore. Kiichi Kitajima, AFT 2016’s Managing Director, was refreshingly honest when he spoke to Blouin Artinfo ahead of the fair:

Japan is currently running a massive budget deficit, and is tackling tax reforms that are aimed at revitalizing the economy. [I]n the future, we may see measures currently being taken in the stock market to encourage market growth to also be applied to the art market.

A strategy adopted by AFT to counter the sluggish market was its “100KIN” section. A nod to the JPY100 thrift shops prevalent around Tokyo, the section showcases artworks by living artists priced under JPY1 million (USD8,830). Again, Kitajima was (painfully) honest when he explained that such works “can be declared as depreciating assets, thus offering potential tax deductions to collectors”.

Image courtesy Art Fair Tokyo.

View of ART FAIR TOKYO 2010. Image courtesy Art Fair Tokyo.

Focus on Chinese collectors

Another strategy Kitajima adopted was increased targeted promotion aimed at Chinese art circles as well as Chinese tourists in Japan. Kitajima notes in another Blouin Artinfo report that:

Last year, we saw many prominent purchases made by Chinese collectors — who are quite unique in the sense that they buy what they like, without being too concerned about artistic genres, or the opinion of others. For the contemporary art market in Japan, which has taken its cues from the US and Europe, it’s quite a refreshing shift.

The same article observes the presence of Gutai works, which have enjoyed a recent surge of interest among Chinese collectors. There were works by Tanaka Atsuko, Motonaga Sadamasa and Uemae Chiyu at Nukaga Gallery and Gallery Suchi, and drawings and paintings by Gutai founder Yoshihara Jiro at Nagoya Gallery.

Seen at Art Fair Tokyo 2016

Some highlights at AFT2016 include the revamped “Projects” section, which had a renewed focus on emerging artists. Another section, entitled “Face Up!”, invited 13 galleries to provide work centred around the motif of the human face. Curator Keisuke Ozawa explains, quoted by The Japan Times:

We want people to take their time ‘facing’ the art, while considering the artists’ vision, the material of the work itself and maybe even the amount of time taken to produce it.

Other galleries spotted by Blouin Artinfo include SCAI The Bathhouse, showing Daisuke Ohba, Lee Ufan, Mariko Mori and Anish Kapoor; ShugoArts, showing Ritsue Mishima; Mizuma Gallery, showing Koji Tanada and O-Jun; and Taka Ishii Gallery showing Tomoo Gokita, Sterling Ruby and Ushio Shinohara. As the article notes, however,

Conspicuously missing from the lineup […] were many Tokyo-based dealers who have perhaps decided that the flagship fair in their home city doesn’t have enough of a discerning — or deep-pocketed — audience to make it worth their while.

View of ART FAIR TOKYO 2014. Photo : Munetoshi Iwashita. Image courtesy Art Fair Tokyo.

View of ART FAIR TOKYO 2014. Photo: Munetoshi Iwashita. Image courtesy Art Fair Tokyo.

Looking beyond Japan

Making up for the lack of heavyweight local galleries was the increased presence of players from abroad. AFT 2016 Executive Producer Naohiko Kishi made his ambitions clear to The Japan Times as he reflects on the increase of international galleries:

We had eight galleries coming from abroad last year, and this year we have 19. […] By 2020, we want to have 50. We started out as a domestic art fair, but we realized that over the years, each of Asia’s art capitals — Hong Kong, Taipei, Beijing, Singapore, Tokyo — have all been putting out their own art and artists to the world and so we decided to expand our horizons and create an internationally inclined event.

Kishi goes on to say that his ambitions for the fair lay beyond art itself, extending to Japanese culture as a whole. “More and more tourists are making their way to Japan because of its culture and beauty […] so we want to showcase all of that to them, as well as the galleries,” he says. When asked what the difference was between art and entertainment, the former entertainment mogul replies:

For me, it’s ambition. Art has it, and entertainment doesn’t, and I think it’s my job to make that statement, so that new fans can join the art world.

Michele Chan


Related Topics: Japanese artists, fairs, round-ups, recessionmarket watchevents in Tokyo

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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