This past June, Art Assembly, a company known for running major art fairs across Asia-Pacific, announced ambitious plans to launch a whole new international fair in Japan. Known as Tokyo Gendai, it is set to kick off in July 2023 with 80 to 100 international art galleries.
Tokyo Gendai is hardly the only new art fair to launch in the region since the start of the pandemic. With the hope of reaching some of the world’s most rapidly expanding economies, Frieze Seoul held its inaugural edition in September. ART SG, another fair by Art Assembly, has planned its long-awaited first edition in Singapore for January 2023.
But Tokyo Gendai is being closely watched, given Japan’s global status as an arbiter of taste, its storied history as an international art market hub, the government’s recent tax deregulations, and, most importantly, the rise of a whole new generation of Japanese art collectors.
Speaking to ARTnews, Magnus Renfrew, cofounder of Art Assembly and the Taipei Dangdai art fair, said that the momentum from young collectors is being felt across Asia.
“This has accelerated over the past few years,” Renfrew said. “Japan is no exception to this. A younger generation of new collectors is adding to the existing highly sophisticated collector base in the country.”
Kyoko Hattori, a Japan-based regional director at Phillips, agreed, observing that this emerging trend is rooted in the Japanese cultural tradition of collecting, whether in crafts, tea ceremony tools, or art.
“We have seen a growth of young collectors in recent years, and most of them are entrepreneurs who resonate with contemporary artists and their artworks,” Hattori said. “And there is another group of new collectors whose family have a tradition of collecting art for decades, with the new generation collecting contemporary art.”
“The difference from the ’80s,” she continued, “is that technology makes it easier for collectors to access information on international art and artists.”
As the second-wealthiest city in the world after New York, Tokyo makes for an ideal fertile ground for art fairs. There have been many fairs in the greater Tokyo area over the years, including Nippon International Contemporary Art Fair (NICAF), which launched in Yokohama in 1992 as the first major art fair in Asia.
Galleries such as Pace, Thaddaeus Ropac, and Lisson were among the first foreign exhibitors to come to Japan during NICAF. However, the sales were not as good as expected, due to the burst of the bubble economy, according to Kiichi Kitajima, the owner of aTokyo, the company which manages Art Fair Tokyo.
Kitajima said that “NICAF struggled in Japan’s then inhospitable economic climate.” The fair folded in 2003.
Yasuaki Ishizaka, Sotheby’s chairman and managing director of Japan, recalled that in the ’90s, the concept of international art fairs failed in Japan as the Japanese viewed such events as being similar to car shows: “a place to enjoy artworks, but not a place to trade.”
Fast forward to 2005, when NICAF relaunched as Art Fair Tokyo, which that year included not only contemporary galleries, but also antiquities. By 2008, the fair enjoyed a certain level of popularity, but the recession as well as the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011 caused a significant shrinkage in the Japanese market.
More recently, Art Fair Tokyo has showed signs of profitability. Kitajima shared that in 2021 the total number of fair visitors actually decreased because of the pandemic, but the amount of sales has increased, meaning that the number of purchases per person has increased. “This trend was particularly noticeable among younger collectors, who had more interest in contemporary art than in antiquities,” he said.
As a result, most local industry insiders are optimistic about the arrival of Tokyo Gendai.
Ishizaka believes there is business opportunity for artworks from $5 million to $10 million, or perhaps even more. Sales within that range tend to only occur at the world’s biggest fairs, like Art Basel in Switzerland and Frieze London, but Ishizaka said this could happen at Tokyo Gendai because most Japanese art fairs are focused more on selling at an affordable price range, leaving domestic collectors with an appetite for high-end artworks.
He said Japanese collectors did have that desire—one bought an $18.7 million Warhol self-portrait at Sotheby’s 2022 sale of the Macklowe Collection. And there are several Tokyo-based collectors who rank on the ARTnews Top 200 Collectors list: Takeo Obayashi, Hiroshi Taguchi and Miwa Taguchi-Sugiyawa, and Tadashi Yanai.
However, Satoru Arai, a director at Gallery COMMON, which is known for engendering contemporary art and street culture in the Harajuku scene, has concerns.
“There is a certain segment of the art audience that is motivated by the prospect of gaining profit through fast-paced resale,” he said. “In terms of expanding the market, welcoming a new clientele is not a bad thing, but the repetition of speed reselling and secondary market price inflation will only lead to short-lived artist careers.”
Atsuko Ninagawa is the owner and director of Take Ninagawa gallery and founding director of Art Week Tokyo, a recently formed initiative supported by Art Basel that introduces audiences to galleries across the city. She also pointed out that every art fair in the country faces the challenge of balancing a focus on international art and efforts to reach the local scene.
“How do you integrate the sheer diversity of the Japanese gallery scene, which covers everything from international blue-chip art to emerging outsider artists, into the bottom-line driven art fair model?” she asked.
Some of Japan’s more notable fairs have been smaller, more community-focused events, such as the hotel fair Art@Agnes, which ran for about a decade starting in the early 2000s with a limited group of 30 odd local galleries. There are also newer initiatives Art Collaboration Kyoto, which is specifically dedicated to contemporary art.
Yet one of the reasons Tokyo Gendai is so hotly anticipated is the possibility that it could bring international galleries to the local scene. This would be a marked shift, given that the number of international gallery outposts in Tokyo is low, compared to other key art hubs in Asia.
The reluctance of foreign galleries to enter Japan’s art market could likely be attributed to art dealers having to pay exorbitant taxes when displaying or selling imported artworks at galleries and auction sites in the country, due to severe restrictions on existing customs areas.
However, early last year, the government announced deregulations on import procedures as well as duties and taxes on art galleries, auction companies and art fairs in custom areas. This could potentially have a huge impact on high value artworks.
About a year after this change in tax rules, Tokyo Gendai announced its launch. Additionally, Kitajima, of Art Fair Tokyo, also wants to invite new foreign galleries to join his fair next year.
“The Japanese art market has not been the easiest one to work with for foreign galleries. However, now in 2022, unlike in 1992, we have a new generation of young art collectors who travel, who are curious about new art trends,” he said.
This fall, Art Fair Tokyo launched M5 Gallery, an initiative intended to engage the world’s leading galleries which do not have a physical space in Tokyo but want to hold short-term exhibitions in the capital. M5 hopes to encourage collaboration between a network of participating galleries, with a calendar of exhibitions featuring diverse works and collections in the space.
This push to engage the global scene seems to stem from a very exigent need in today’s Japanese society for external influence to create real change within.
Kotaro Nukaga, who runs an eponymous gallery in Roppongi, pointed out that people in Japan are often aware of what is going on internationally, but they can do little to change their own scene because they are stuck in old systems.
“When they do try to change, it’s not fast enough,” Nukaga said. “The result is that our system is regressing in comparison to overseas countries. The top players go abroad, and the country is further hollowed out.”
He continued, “If some shock or stimulation from the outside can bring about change and speed up the pace of transformation, we should welcome it with open arms.”