Surviving Japanese Art Market Takes Strength and Dedication – the Japanese art market is currently described as not great, but okay

Surviving Japanese Art Market Takes Strength and Dedication – the Japanese art market is currently described as not great, but okay – Statistical Data Included

Jessica Lyons

Though economic crises in Japan have caused a crunch in the market for U.S. art there, publishers give advice for gaining a foothold in the island country’s art world.

Even more so than the U.S., Japan has felt the market spiraling downward lately. But while the market continues to head south, U.S. publishers say Japanese art sales are holding steady, and Japan remains a lucrative additional market for fine art publishers and their artists.

“Right now, the market it is not great, but it’s okay,” explained Axelle Fine Art’s Bertrand Delacroix. “To accommodate, we have to make concessions and come up with ideas and creative ways to make it possible for them to work with us.”

According to John Szoke, president and owner of John Szoke Editions, however, it’s all relative. “The market for a while was so bad that comparatively, it is not so difficult to be good. And we have been in Japan a long time and are established enough that we are not influenced by fluctuation.”

In fact, “good but not great,” seems to be a common sentiment among U.S.-based companies. The ones that have already cultivated strong relationships with Japanese art buyers and galleries say business is strong and steady–but certainly not booming. They offer two words of advice for novice U.S. galleries or publishers trying to make a name for themselves in the current Japanese art market: Good luck.

“The Japanese are not taking any chances right now,” Delacroix said. Economically speaking, times are tight, and “people are only interested in buying art of artists they recognize.” He added that licensing is a good way to introduce an artist’s work, however, particularly through calendars.

Kay Lawrence, Beverly Hills, Calif.-based Art Brillant’s international director, said the market flux is a way to let nature take its course.

“As in any industry, when an economic crisis hits, there is a certain amount of self-cleansing or survival of the fittest which narrows the market,” she said. “Those strong enough to survive this adapt in many different ways, such as cutting overhead.”

Lawrence added that Art Brillant trims its overhead costs in Japan by closing its galleries located in high-rent districts there and replacing them with galleries in less-expensive locations, other cities, up-and-coming districts and high-end shopping centers and malls, which are popular and more high-end than those in the states. The department store market is huge and becoming an increasingly strong player, as well, according to several publishers. Most department stores have their own art galleries and are more upscale than American department stores. “They’re big players in the art market,” Julie Maner of Museum Editions said.

`Good Taste’

Some suggest, on the other hand, that there is a more simple explanation for the steady Japanese art market–plain ‘ol good taste.

“Japanese collectors have very good taste. If they see something they like, they will buy it,” Szoke said.

“They love precision and meticulous detail,” added Lawrence. “I’m not saying they don’t like free-form and abstracts, as there is a level of interest in that–but not to a great degree, and when there is interest, it must be colorful. One thing I have noticed is that Japanese buyers appreciate anything where there is an obvious level of skill required and the artist took a lot of time with the execution of the art.”

Oftentimes, `good taste’ is synonymous with exclusive and expensive, and indeed the art scene is no different. In the Japanese market, this translates to an affinity for limited editions and originals, as opposed to open editions. It also means expensive, high-quality frames are popular, as well.

“In Japan, everything is framed and placed behind glass or plexi, whether it is a print or an original,” Delacroix said. While in the U.S., the frame is intended primarily to compliment the artwork, in Japan it’s intended to compliment the buyer’s individual decor and to protect the art from pollution, the elements and human damage. For that reason, the back of the piece is encased in a wooden box. And while U.S. art is packaged and shipped in bubble wrap and cardboard, Japanese galleries delicately wrap the art in soft linen and package it in a custom-made portfolio box.

“That’s because the art isn’t always purchased to be hung on the wall,” Maner explained. “Because of space constraints, gallery owners sometimes buy the work and store it in a closet, only taking it out when they want to look at it or show it to someone else.”

Fame and Fanfare

Similar to U.S. art buyers, Japanese art enthusiasts tend to be upper-middle to upper-class professionals. But they tend to be younger than their counterparts in the U.S. and Europe.

Delacroix said it’s common to see buyers in their early 20s at art shows in Japan. “I am always surprised to see young kids taking out large loans to buy art,” he said. “I rarely see older couples at a show buying art.”

Art buyers and collectors also tend to be more enamored with the artists themselves. Publishers say their artists get rockstar treatment in Japan. Also, the Japanese people are more impressed with American and European artists compared to Japanese artists.

“I think the people are a bit more impressed with meeting the artists [in Japan] than they are here,” Lawrence said. “The artists are flown to Japan, and there is a lot of fanfare when they are presented to the clientele in a ceremony. Then the artists meet the patrons and sign dedications for purchased pieces. The shows are very festive with invitations going out to clients and prospects all over Japan. We make it a real media event.”

Selling Dreams

Companies who have found success in the Japanese market say their popular images have two common denominators. “The most popular images either feature the presence of water or are `where-you-want-to-be’-type locations,” Lawrence said.

Images of Hawaii, Florida, California, Mexico and the Mediterranean fall in the first category. Big cities and bright lights, such as New York and San Francisco, fit into the second, as do European hot spots such as London, Paris and Rome.

Purchasing art is also about buying a dream, explained Delacroix. “The Japanese love to hear stories. They buy a dream–that is what they want. They live in a very hectic society. It’s overpopulated, they work 16-hour days, and they don’t have much time for leisure or relaxation. So the art allows them to travel. It allows them to relax.”

This interest in the art’s story carries over to the brochures and catalogs as well.

“One gallery called us and said `What does your father [Michel Delacroix] know about this place, and why did he paint it? What does it mean to him?’ They want to know `the story.’ Whenever they print brochures or catalogs, they like to have a letter from the artist to the collector.”

But as in any long-distance relationship, there are hurdles to overcome, and distance and language are at the top of the list.

Translators are key, say U.S. publishers, so choose carefully.

“The main reason for problems is when you have a translator who is translating word for word like a parrot and doesn’t personally understand the situation,” Lawrence said. And while she said her current translator is a “Godsend,” her prior translator “was a nightmare.”

“I mentioned to one of the secretaries that I was going to `show’ an artist’s work in Paris. Another day I mentioned `exhibiting’ the work. Later she asked when I was going to have a big show, a big exhibition and would there be press, advertising, etc. What I meant was I was going to have a few pieces in the gallery and she interpreted it to be plans for a big event.”

Some artists, however, have turned the language barrier into an attribute. Museum Editions’ Charles Fazzino says he has appeared on Japanese television several times and he still can’t say exactly what he was asked. But it adds to the “mysticism” at his shows because he can’t communicate verbally with his fans.

“Even though we can’t speak to each other, we communicate just fine,” he said. “They show an appreciation for me and my work that always surprises me. I draw, and they point and gesture. We get along fine.”

Cultural differences present another challenge. And a cultural faux pas can kill a publisher faster than you can say Sayonara.

“Once, for example, I called on a gallery in Kyoto when I was visiting, and [the gallery owner] was appalled I actually called on him without making an appointment,” Szoke said. “Also, one has to be more formal and more observant of customs than in America. I try to perfect little modes of protocol, such as how to hand a business card, how to greet people, etc.”

Face to face meetings are also an absolute must, Lawrence said. Strong relationships must be forged and nurtured–they aren’t created overnight.

“It’s certainly filled with challenges,” Maner admitted. “But its nice to build multiple markets for an artist’s work The Japanese do appreciate fine art and are willing to pay for it.”

COPYRIGHT 2001 Pfingsten Publishing, LLC

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group