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Art Fair Tokyo draws crowds, paints encouraging picture for art market

Courtesy of Art Tokyo Association
A birds-eye view of Art Fair Tokyo 2021, which was held over four days this month in Tokyo.

Art Fair Tokyo 2021, one of the largest art fairs in Japan, attracted nearly 41,000 visitors during its four-day run this month and gave the domestic art industry a much-needed boost following a tough year amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Last year’s fair was canceled due to the virus, but comprehensive infection prevention measures were implemented this year to ensure the annual event went ahead.

A total of 140 galleries and other exhibitors, including three from overseas, showcased their art at booths at the Tokyo International Forum in Tokyo’s Marunouchi district. About 3,000 pieces that included antiques, crafts and contemporary art were exhibited and available for sale at the fair that ran from March 18 to 21.

According to Art Tokyo Association, the fair’s organizer, this year’s theme of “by Art” signified that people’s daily lives, culture and art felt even more close by during the pandemic. This year’s event was the 15th edition and attended by 40,963 visitors.

To help prevent coronavirus infections, visitors purchasing tickets were required to register details that could accelerate contact tracing. Shoe disinfectant mats were placed near the entrance, where automatic temperature checks also were conducted.

Booths were made larger than previous years to avoid the “Three Cs” of closed spaces with poor ventilation, crowded places and close-contact settings. For example, Yumekoubou, a gallery in Kyoto, displayed a huge bamboo installation by bamboo artist Tanabe Chikuunsai IV in its about 160-square-meter space.

The first Art Fair Tokyo in 2005 drew about 28,000 visitors overall, and chalked up sales of about ¥200 million. The fair steadily grew over the years, and the 2019 event attracted about 60,000 visitors and booked record-high sales of about ¥2.97 billion. According to survey results the association released this month, the domestic art market was estimated to be worth about ¥236.3 billion in 2020, a drop of about 8.4% from 2019, partly due to the state of emergency declared last spring.

“Clients from overseas and regional areas couldn’t come to Tokyo because of the pandemic, which dented art purchases and sales,” said Mitsuru Uragami, founder of Uragami Sokyu-do, an antique dealer in Nihombashi, Tokyo. “Antiques and other expensive articles require detailed checks, so selling them online is difficult. Holding an art fair where sales can be conducted in-person was hugely important.”

The situation for contemporary art is somewhat different — online sales are booming. “There are more collectors than there were eight years ago,” said Taro Nasu, head of his own contemporary art gallery in Tokyo’s Roppongi district. In 2020, international art fairs in Hong Kong; Basel, Switzerland; and elsewhere were canceled across the board. Amid rising expectations that domestic demand will grow, Nasu, 54, joined the exhibitors at this year’s Art Fair Tokyo for the first time in eight years.

This year’s event widely showcased the work of young artists through the “Future Artists Tokyo” exhibition. This project started in 2018, was canceled last year, and returned for its third edition in 2021 with exhibitions by 25 rising artists. This year’s artworks showed these artists continued to hone their skills even during the pandemic.

Naohiko Kishi, the fair’s executive producer, was proud of what had been accomplished. “We implemented extensive infection prevention measures at the fair, and we could hold such an event before anywhere else in the world,” said Kishi, 59. “I want to share information about the event, including the processes and procedures we went through.”