Breakfast Meeting, Number 3 | Kazuko Aso

Friday, September 5, 2018
The International House of Japan

Kazuko Aso Breakfast Meeting Asia Society Japan
Kazuko Aso

[Guest Speaker]
Kazuko Aso
Director of DanDans and trustee of Asian Cultural Council Japan

Kazuko Aso is a trustee of Asian Cultural Council (ACC). ACC was established by John D. Rockefeller 3rd, and is the only organization in the world whose sole mission is to support cultural exchange between Asia and the United States as well as within the countries of Asia. Amongst 4,000 world-renowned alumni, over 300 individuals and 50 organizations from Japan have received support. These include many prominent Japanese artists, such as Yayoi Kusama and Takashi Murakami, as well as leading architects such as Fumihiko Maki and Kengo Kuma.

Ms. Aso is also the Director of Dandans, a platform showcasing emerging Japanese artists based in Tokyo, Japan. Dandans has organized seventeen exhibitions in Japan and overseas, including Washington D.C., Berlin, London, and Paris, and has helped launch and advance the careers of over 170 artists.  

In 2017, Ms. Aso was awarded the 7th Annual Tokyo Prize, a prize given to individuals for their extraordinary support of Japanese contemporary art. She has also been recognized for philanthropic support over the years, efforts including support of nonprofit organizations that focus on demining villages within Thailand and Cambodian borders, development of Catholic kindergarten schools in the Philippines, and more. Ms. Aso serves as a trustee of the Ruskin Library as of 2005 and was also a trustee of Bunka Gakuin School from 1988 to 2005.

Opening

James Kondo and Chris Wells celebrate Ms. Kazuko Aso as not only the third Breakfast Meeting guest speaker, but also as the first to hold a talk for the Arts and Culture program for Asia Society Japan Center. Mr. Kondo and Mr. Wells highlight that there is no better candidate they can think of than Ms. Aso to start the arts discussion for Asia Society, on account of her role in the Japanese contemporary art scene and her family's long history with the Rockefellers.

Upon researching the Rockefeller archives, Mr. Kondo noted that the Aso and Yoshida family (Ms. Aso’s mother-in-law’s maiden family) have a long history of friendship with the Rockefellers. From the 1950s there is a rich record of former Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida (Ms. Aso’s mother-in-law's father), visiting and staying at the Rockefeller residence in New York and the continuing relationship he had with John D. Rockefeller 3rd, who founded Asia Society. Additionally, there are records of Mr. Takakichi Aso (Ms. Aso's father-in-law and a key advisor to Prime Minister Yoshida), writing letters between the families. The friendship between the families has certainly shaped current US and Japan relations.

The friendship between the families was a core reason to Asia Society’s foundation. Asia Society’s original program was arts, specifically from the Rockefeller Art Collection; the reason that John D. Rockefeller 3rd started collecting art was through the introduction of the Aso family. Mr. Kondo asserts that on reading the Rockefeller archives, he found that the Rockefellers were not collectors of Asian Art until visiting the Aso residence, which was filled with Asian artworks; “the Rockefellers became very interested in Asian art through the eyes of the Aso and Idemitsu families, informing the art collections which led to Asia Society.”

Mr. Kondo and Mr. Wells explain that this meeting is about understanding the purpose of DanDans and ACC, so that in the near future, Asia Society can collaborate with the two organizations on projects revolving around Japanese art.

Ms. Kazuko Aso

Ms. Aso first gives gratitude to everyone attending, asserting, “it is a great honor for me to be here today to talk about my group DanDans and Asia Cultural Council.”

DanDans

Ms. Aso discusses the young artist group DanDans; a platform for young artists which started 13 years ago. One night in 2005, she hosted a dinner for her son and his friends. One of her son's friend was an artist. This fascinated her as she was unknowing about the contemporary art scene in Japan at the time. Talking to this artist, she learned the struggles of young artists, particularly due to stagnation of the economy after the burst of the bubble in 1990. After discovering the severe lack of support for young Japanese artists in Japan, she had a yearning to help the community.

Contemporary artists who are not represented by a gallery usually have to pay galleries to exhibit their works, which is “nearly impossible,” as they are unable to afford it. Ms. Aso used her network and borrowed spaces from friends, and soon after, started to host curated exhibitions free for artists. The first exhibition was held in a space in Ginza, and later in exhibition spaces, galleries and model houses in Roppongi. For the third show she was able to organize an exhibition using five model houses. Other successful exhibitions include collaborations with Chanel and Bvlgari. DanDans asked artists to arrange everything from invitations, ads, postcards etc. Artworks were sold by silent auctions operated by the artists.

After the success of several exhibitions in Japan, DanDans was able to host shows overseas, bringing artists to exhibit abroad in places such as, England, France, Germany, and the US, along with additional trips to China and Korea. Many artists that DanDans worked with were initially hesitant to go abroad, but Ms. Aso encouraged them to exhibit outside.

The first exhibition to be held overseas was in 2011. After the Tohoku Great Earthquake, Ms. Aso organized a workshop for artists to work at a children school's gymnasium. With the help of the Japanese ambassador at the time, and his spouse, DanDans hosted an exhibition with twenty artists that were commissioned to make artwork in relation to the earthquake and tsunami. The exhibition was a huge success, resulting in an article covered by The Washington Post.

Ms. Aso signifies that the exhibitions hosted abroad were exceptionally memorable to her. Living, working, and traveling with the artists around the world, visiting and introducing the artists to old friends and creating new bonds with collectors, gallerists, and other art advocates, has encouraged her, as well as the artists to familiarize the world with Japanese art. She states, every city they visited, artists were able to sell their works and were able to make enough funds to afford their own travel costs. She believes the biggest success was exposing not only foreign art admirers to the Japanese arts, but also broadening a world of opportunities for the artists themselves.

Asian Cultural Council

Another topic that Ms. Aso covered was her work with Asian Cultural Council (ACC). ACC was founded by John D. Rockefeller 3rd, soon after Asia Society was established. Ms. Aso was asked to join the board and also be responsible for establishing the ACC Japan Foundation. ACC focuses on supporting living Asian artists from a wide range of practices, such as fine arts, performing arts, music, architecture, and academia. Prominent figures have emerged from the program, including contemporary artists, Makoto Aida, Yayoi Kusama, Takashi Murakami, and Kohei Nawa; architects, Fumihiko Maki and Kengo Kuma; and scholars, Yuko Hasegawa and Shuji Takashina, to name a few. Ms. Aso claims that graduates from ACC have greatly contributed to and shaped the Japanese contemporary culture after WWII.

ACC has gradually broadened their network as Hong Kong, Manila, and Taipei have opened their ACC HK, Taipei and Philippines Foundation. ACC Japan Office was opened 35 years ago, credited by the support of Mr. Seiji Tsutsumi. ACC’s core purpose is to fund artist grants, but the objectives for ACC Japan Foundation have advanced to a platform not only for funding grantees but also to promote cultural exchange within Asia and the impact art holds for understanding humanities.

Ms. Aso observes, “now, there are so many Asian artists and curators who are active internationally.” The art scene has historically been led by the West due to their leading auction houses and art fairs, she believes it is time to aid and advance art awareness and education within Asia. Ms. Aso suggests that in Asia, “we should have more of a message on arts for the general public; individuals, artists, and curators are mostly focusing on the specialized art world.” For ACC, Ms. Aso would like to work on liberalizing this mindset and achieve a cultural exchange and appreciation between Asians. She stresses the importance of the Asian region coming together through the message of the arts. Currently within ACC, Ms. Aso is planning to work on a number of programs that will connect Asian artists, curators, and gallerists to deepen their knowledge in art, intra-Asia.

Kazuko Aso Breakfast Meeting Asia Society Japan
[L-R] Tsutomu Horiuchi, Christopher P. Wells, Kazuko Aso, and James Kondo

Questions and Answers

Q: Many of the artists from DanDans that you have helped flourish are internationally known, but what is it like for the current young artist community in Japan?
A: Fortunately, the international art scene has grown significantly recently. Although it is still a struggle for many contemporary Japanese artists, many of them are able to exhibit and are quite active in art scenes abroad, particularly Europe and the United States. I think many young Japanese artists are starting to emerge.

Q: Where is the art scene in Tokyo?
A: The art scene in Tokyo is very scarce. It is difficult to pinpoint the major art scene here after the bubble economy. Previous collectors and galleries were terribly affected after the burst of the bubble, and now are rather timid to invest in arts. The price of Japanese young artists are much lower compared to that of other countries. It is a disappointment, as the quality is mostly very high. This is the main reason I started DanDans, to help Japanese artists flourish abroad, where they can.

Q: Do Japanese young artists take commissions for works? Is there any central network for commissions, online or in walk in galleries?
A: Few people are interested in commission works in Japan. However, if you are interested, I am happy to connect you with young artists.

Q: I believe it is essential to develop artists in Asia , also it is important for Asians to be curious and actively promoting Asian art around the world; it is as critical for individuals to be promoting art as it is to produce. Is there some mechanism to push curators and others who have a global experience to promote Asian arts?
A: Recently there are many Asian curators abroad heavily aiming to promote Asian art. For example, this summer in Paris, Yuko Hasegawa (chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo) curated a beautiful exhibition, Japonismes 2018 at the Paris’s Hôtel Salomon de Rothschild. There was great recognition. People worldwide are more interested in Japan now, so I believe curators and artists have more of a chance to show their works.

Q: As you mentioned before, Japanese artworks are significantly cheaper than that compared to other artists abroad. Do you agree that this is because of the language barrier? Are they unable to promote their artworks themselves due to their lack of English knowledge? Is there anyway besides language skills to better promote Japanese artists, perhaps produce art fairs in Tokyo to increase status, such as done in the EU and America?
A: I agree, unfortunately, Japanese artists are unable to promote themselves mainly because of the language barrier. I always encourage the artists I work with to study English.
Contemporary art is largely controlled by blue chip galleries such as Gagosian, and auction houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s. To increase the space for Asian artists, I believe we should focus on networking within Asia and then promote our efforts to the rest of the world. This is already happening, for example, we have art spaces and fairs such as, The Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale, and Naoshima project; a space where local artists along with international artists can exhibit together. The Chinese are also doing local-centric fairs where they can promote culture and help promote artists from the inland part of the country.

Q: Within the art market today, to be a profitable artist, it is necessary to have a skill set for marketing, presentation, and negotiation. I believe contemporary artists around the world today are like businessmen. As for Japanese artists, many lack in not only their English ability but also the dynamism that artists need today to market themselves; this is probably due to the Japanese social culture and environment. Do you think there is a possibility to create Asia Society as a platform where artists can connect with patrons and business people, who may be able to encourage or even mentor artists to be less timid with buyers?
A: Yes, that would be a great opportunity to connect patrons and artists on a more personal level, it is a win-win situation. Compared to that of foreign artists, Japanese artists are poor in promoting themselves, as many of them, with my experience, are extremely shy. With my work in DanDans I forced each artist to individually deliver their works to their buyers so that they can adapt to this kind of environment. Particularly in the contemporary art world, the person with a bigger articulate voice is more successful.

 

Kazuko Aso Breakfast Meeting Asia Society Japan 2
[L-R]   Daniel Fujii, Richard Reitknecht, and Minako Suematsu


Q: After living in Japan for the past twenty years, it is obvious that the world now has awakened to Japan. Friends from around the world are eager to visit and experience the culture here. Hotels and tourism have exploded, along with the food industry in Japan. I am interested in how the art scene can capture attention from abroad. Especially with the Olympics coming up, there must be ways to promote art. Possibly, there is a way to combine artists with world-renowned chefs, to exhibit Japanese artworks in restaurants. Are there any specific programs that are currently being produced in relation to arts and the Olympics?
A: I believe most museums are thinking about programs that could help contemporary Japanese artists. For the Olympics in London and Rio, there was an art olympics parallel to the sports olympics, completely self funded by galleries and museums inviting international artists. Unfortunately, for Japan there is still a lack of support for the arts. Possibly Asia Society, ACC, and the International House of Japan can collaborate to create a platform.

Q: It is surprising that most Japanese people are unfamiliar with Naoshima, while a number of people from abroad come to Japan and have Naoshima on their top list of things to do. It is not just Naoshima that Japanese people are oblivious to, most art museums, galleries, or projects that are accredited abroad are not acknowledged within the local community. Asia Society should create a platform to gather a group of both foreign and local art lovers, active in the art scene, who can bring awareness to the general public on arts within Japan, in addition to Asia. It is frustrating to see the lack of knowledge Japanese have for their own country’s art. We have many wonderful museums and the majority of Japanese people are not interested in visiting.
A: The main reason why Japanese people are oblivious to or are uninterested in arts is mainly due to the education system. A large number of national museums abroad offer educational programs, teaching young children on how art should be appreciated. Japan does not have this educational system. While Western people are accustomed to enjoying and learning from a variety of arts, most Japanese people only have the desire to just ‘see’ art that is famous. Whether it is famous or not, art should be a part of everybody’s life and should be appreciated.

Q: Over recent years there have been collectors emerging in Japan, especially young businessmen. The elder generation is timid from the bubble economy, but do you believe younger people are more open to buying arts?
A: Yes, to tell you the truth, contemporary art has become a tool for investment. I believe the number of buyers, investors, are growing, but unfortunately, in most cases they are buying artworks for investment returns, not for their love of art. I would like to change this mindset and introduce arts not just for financial purposes, but for them to enjoy the works they are willing to purchase.
Another reason why Japanese are not in tune with the art scene here may be due to the social culture. The Japanese art world is hierarchical. We should bring upon a spirit where arts can be open to everyone, both globally and locally, for younger collectors and for locals.

Jesper Koll
Jesper Koll


Closing

Co-head of Arts and Culture committee, Mr. Tsutomu Horiuchi suggested four types of projects that the Arts and Culture committee would like to develop in the coming years with member engagement:
1. Education of arts and culture
2. Uncover national treasures to current Asia Society members
3. Host events to connect artists and collectors
4. Produce exhibitions for arts and performances at the International House of Japan.

James Kondo shared, “When Charles Rockefeller, who is on the board of both ACC and Asia Society, came to visit in March, he explained the difference between ACC and Asia Society arts committee. He explained that ACC is for aiding artists and the arts, while Asia Society recognizes the power of how art can gather people to address societal issues. That to me can be a great form of collaboration. ACC has so many great artists that they have been supporting. With Asia Society, we can convene people around the artists to bring about social change.”

For example, Asia Society New York organized an Iranian film festival in 2013, which greatly advanced US- Iranian relationships. Asia Society was also the earliest proponent of dialogue with Myanmar, showcasing Buddhist art in 2015. For the Olympics, which celebrates not only sports but also culture, ACC, Asia Society, and the International House, can create an agenda for people to discuss arts, and engage the general public who may not be so familiar with the art scene. “We should aim to create a friendly discussion between Japan and the international community for the arts. If you have any ideas, we would be happy to hear them.”

 

Attendees

[Asia Society Japan Founding Members]

Ms. Rika Beppu, Partner, Squire Patton Boggs
Mr.  Daniel Fujii, CEO, Trust Capital Co., Ltd.
Mr.  Glen S. Fukushima, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress
Mr.  Kenji Govaers, Partner, Bain & Company Japan
Mr.  Harry A. Hill, Chairman, Japan-United States Friendship Commission
Mr.  Tsutomu Horiuchi, Professor, Tama University Center for Social Investment
Mr.  Jesper Koll, CEO, WisdomTree Japan
Mr.  James Kondo, Co-Chair, Silicon Valley Japan Platform
Mr.  Richard Reitknecht, Executive Vice President, Asia Pacific Land Ltd.
Mr.  Christopher P. Wells, Partner, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP

and other guests