On Thursday afternoon, the inaugural edition of Tokyo Gendai, the world’s newest art fair with aspirations of luring an international audience, will open its doors to VIPs. Bringing together 79 exhibitors to the Pacifico Yokohama convention center, the fair aims to spur the growth of Japan’s art market, both domestically and on an international scale.
When Art Assembly, the fair’s organizer, announced Tokyo Gendai last June, many cast their focus anew on the Asian art market, viewing the launches of this event, Frieze Seoul, and Art SG in Singapore (also an Art Assembly fair), all with 12 months of each other, as a sign of increased action in the region. This speculation was later buoyed by the loosening of restrictions in Hong Kong, the longtime art market center for Asia, where Art Basel’s fair there appeared to return to normal after three years of pandemic restrictions.
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Frieze Seoul seemed to prove a success, though some reports stated that Art SG didn’t see too many sales. And the strong return of a full-on Art Basel Hong Kong in March proved that Hong Kong still holds the blue-chip power in the region.
To learn more about the upcoming first edition of Tokyo Gendai and the possibilities for Japan’s art market and scene, ARTnews spoke with Magnus Renfrew in early June.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
ARTnews: When we spoke almost just over a year ago for the announcement of Tokyo Gendai, you said, “The art market across Asia is maturing and is reaching a new stage, where different constituencies around Asia deserve their own art fairs.” Do you think that’s still the case? Has anything changed, for better or for worse?
Magnus Renfrew: We haven’t even really scratched the surface of the potential of Asia. It’s home to half the world’s population and to many of the fastest growing economies in the world. It has an ever-expanding collector base and incredible potential. Historically, the strongest markets in Asia were in Taiwan and Korea, and obviously mainland China is becoming much more active. Southeast Asia has a population of about 700 million, just about the same size as Europe. So logic dictates that it should have one major art fair that can cater to those audiences.
Likewise, in Japan, I think there’s huge opportunity because there are incredible galleries. There is very rich, cultural production. There’s real respect for arts and culture. The recent tax-regulation changes make it much more possible for international galleries to engage more actively with Japan. We’re pleased that we’ve been granted bonded status, which reduces the friction for those galleries that are wanting to engage with audiences from Japan. There’s a real opportunity here. Japan is also the fourth biggest economy in the world—or third, depending on how you measure. And Tokyo, after New York, is the second wealthiest city on the planet, with a very high degree of spending on luxury goods. We’re optimistic—as has proven to be the case in other places that we’ve operated—that a fair can act as a catalyst to expand audiences and collector bases.
You mentioned recent tax-regulation change. What are those and how do you think they will affect the international art market operating in Japan, at least during the short term of the fair?
Historically, it’s been necessary to pay 10 percent GST [goods and services tax] upfront, when bringing working into the country for an art fair. In 2020 and 2021, there were reforms to the tax regulations which would allow organizers to apply for bonded status, and that would mean that galleries would only have to charge tax at the point of sale. If galleries were bringing in several million dollars’ worth of work, for example, a 10-percent deposit was a big cash flow issue. So now it’s possible for international organizers, such as ourselves, to apply for bonded status, which we’ve done successfully. I think it’s opening up the possibilities for Japan to take a greater place within the within international art market.
How do you see this fair working within the Japanese art ecosystem and how it operates? Why did you feel it so necessary to launch a fair here? Is there a void you feel you are filling?
I think there has been a great desire for the art scene in Japan to engage with international audiences, and I think the fair is going to be a great way for them to be able to achieve that. Having to pay the GST upfront has meant that it’s been difficult to organize fairs here before, but I think now we’re moving into a situation where there is a genuine need for an art fair here. Art fairs, especially high-quality art fairs where there’s a high degree of selectivity, can play a major role in helping new collectors to engage with art because there’s a sense of confidence that they have through the imprimatur of quality that such a selection process has.
The Japanese galleries were instrumental in the early success of Art HK [the predecessor fair to Art Basel Hong Kong that was cofounded by Renfrew], and I’ve had a very good relationship with them over the last 15 years or so. They’ve also been very active in our fairs elsewhere in Taipei and Singapore. So, we have a very strong support base among the Japanese galleries, and we’ve been working on this for about five years now, consulting extensively with with collectors, curators, and galleries who’ve been incredibly generous with their support and advice. There’s a lot of excitement here. In May, we had an event in Tokyo with our lead sponsor SMBC [Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation], where we were able to introduce the wealth managers to the Japanese galleries. We’ve also been organizing tours of galleries for SMBC to help introduce them to the gallery programs. We very much see this as a collaborative process. This year is definitely the first step on a longer journey, but I think galleries really see the point of what we’re trying to achieve and we’ll be building it together.
In the lead up to the launch of Frieze Seoul, all eyes seemed to be on Seoul. Every few weeks, it seemed another international Western gallery was announcing an outpost there or expanding their existing presence in the city. And that’s continued in the year since. That hasn’t been the case for Tokyo as much.
There’s a lot of interest. You do have Blum & Poe and Perrotin here, who are very active. And there are a number of other major galleries that have been exploring the possibilities. the change in the tax regulations is something that’s is going to potentially be a game-changer. In some ways, the galleries are doing their due diligence now. Many galleries that aren’t participating in the fair for the first edition will be attending with an eye to future participation. I think those sorts of opportunities will develop as the scene develops, as the fair develops, and people have greater interactivity with Japan.
The past nine months have been characterized, definitely in the US and Europe but also globally, by the specter of a looming recession. In May, there was talk of some slowing down in the New York auctions. Is that a concern for the fair?
Obviously, the art market isn’t immune to greater global economic trends. I look back to our launch period for Art Hong Kong in 2008 with Lehman Brothers as its lead sponsor. What we saw during the global financial crisis was that, in some ways, these things accelerate trends that are already happening. In some respects, the global financial crisis accelerated the tipping of the balance of economic power to Asia. And I think in this post-pandemic moment over the next few years, that’s going to there’s going to be another further move in that respect. I think people are increasingly going to be looking to explore new markets and expand their collector bases. In Europe and the US, the markets are already at a certain degree of maturity, whereas there’s a huge scope for development for the markets in Asia. When I first started trying to persuade galleries to do the fair in Hong Kong, they were saying: Why Asia? Nobody’s saying that now.
How did you settle on the first week July for the fair, about three weeks after Art Basel in Switzerland?
There is never a perfect time on the calendar. There’s no doubt that the global art calendar is packed already. There is a sense that that moment is post-Basel but pre- the close-down for the summer in mid-July, where everybody is still very active. There’s an opportunity to make the most of that particular moment in Asia. Historically, the Japanese holiday period is in August. But, by the strength of the response we’re getting in terms of VIP registrations, which is a bit above where we have been anticipating for this stage of things, that the timing is okay.
What numbers are you anticipating them for VIP registrations and overall audience?
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We don’t really divulge VIP numbers, but in terms of overall audience that we’d be hoping to welcome, around 25,000 visitors over the four days of the event. We’ll see how that pans out. We were very pleasantly surprised by the strength of the attendance in Singapore where we exceeded our expectations. We will never know until the doors open, but early indications are looking promising.
How do you see Tokyo Gendai comparing to the other Asia fairs in Art Assembly’s portfolio, like Art SG in Singapore or Taipei Dangdai, particularly in terms of how galleries expect to do? We’ve definitely heard that galleries didn’t make a significant number of sales in Singapore, and they weren’t pleased with that. How would you respond to that?
I don’t fully accept that characterization. As with any fair, particularly a first-year fairs, there’s a full range of experiences. We’ve had many galleries who have expressed that they did well. There’s also been a lot of activity reported to us in the weeks and months since the fair took place. Increasingly, art fairs are a touch point on the calendar to help you to engage with collectors that can translate into business in the weeks and months post-fair as well. We’ve had exceptionally strong interest from galleries wanting to return. We’ve also got some great applications coming in from new galleries. Many of the galleries are taking bigger stand sizes than last year.
Undoubtably, it’s a building game. People recognize the incredible potential for the Southeast Asia market and also Singapore’s increasingly relevant position in every aspect. In some places, it is truly regarded as neutral territory in Asia. English is commonly spoken. Chinese is commonly spoken. There’s has been a huge influx of wealth into Singapore. In 2016, there were, I think, 70 family offices. Now there’s over a thousand. There’s been a huge influx of mainland Chinese. Property prices have been going up considerably. There’s a real recognition of the increasingly important role that Singapore has to play. The case for Southeast Asia and the case for Singapore is very strong. We laid some great foundations in the first year, and the galleries that are committed for the long-term understanding that potential. For example, when we first started in Hong Kong, in almost every meeting that we had, people said, “Hong Kong is a cultural desert. It will never work.” So, we’ve been here before.
Can you talk more about your approach to this building game? Is it about converting wealth that might be spending on other kinds of high-value items—cars, wine, watches, luxury fashion—into buying contemporary art?
With the different fairs, they each have their own natural catchment area to them. With Singapore, it is Southeast Asia and a bit of Australia and India, and how you can bring those communities together in Singapore and connect them with the rest of Asia. We have an extensive network of VIP relations representatives, with people on the ground in Jakarta, Manila, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Seoul, and we have our existing fares in Shanghai, New Delhi, Taipei, Tokyo, Singapore, and Sydney.
In the autumn, ahead of Art SG, we are having a roadshow of VIP events around Southeast Asia—Sydney, Jakarta, Bangkok, Manila, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur—that we’re also inviting the galleries to be a part of that process. The reason why we do those events is to get collectors to come to the fair, and we decided that we should bring the galleries in at an earlier stage of the process so that they can lay the groundwork and establish connections with galleries that they can then re-engage with at the fair. We also have an active new-to-buying-art program of seminars to engage with aspiring collectors to reduce the intimidation factor. That’s one of the key objectives for us is to reduce the intimidation factor in terms of engaging with art and culture. I think sometimes the art world is not particularly good at that. We see that as being very important for expanding the audiences in Asia.
With regards to Tokyo and Singapore both launching this year, how do you determine the success of a fair? How do you make decisions about the likelihood of a second edition, or perhaps five years down the road?
What we’re doing is the results of a huge amounts of research, due diligence, and consultation with galleries, stakeholders, collectors, and the local communities, so we take a long-term approach. It’s not something that’s done lightly. We have a multi-year plan and outlook for all of the fairs that we organize. In terms of what success looks like, it’s whether or not the galleries want to come back. That’s primarily measured by their benchmarks for success: the opportunity to make sales, to provide a platform for their artists to gain greater exposure, to engage with existing collectors, to engage with new collectors that they haven’t met before, and to establish contacts that can then be built on if that immediately does not result in a sale. that has some leads that can be worked on over a period of time.
What should visitors expect to see in Tokyo, both in and out of the fair?
Within the fair, I think the quality of the work is going to be really high. That’s a testament to the seriousness with which the galleries are taking this opportunity. At the fair, we have a great talks program and, in addition to the different sectors, we also have an exhibition of female Japanese artists. It’s also a great opportunity for Japanese collectors to see work from elsewhere in Asia and also from major galleries from the US and Europe.
For international visitors, there’s going to be a very strong presentation of the best Japanese galleries and the work of Japanese artists at the fair, but also an opportunity to discover Japan. One thing that’s been interesting for us is that while we’ve been saying that we want to help to build the market in Japan, I think that Japan’s got probably the widest psychological catchment area of anywhere in Asia. Most people want to go to Japan to experience Japan. And for those people who do know Japan within the region, there’s a huge affection for Japan and people are looking for an excuse to come. Post-pandemic, there’s a real appetite for the people to reengage with Japan. This is an exciting moment.
Prior to the fair, we have excursions to different parts of Japan, which has been partially supported by the tourism board. There are trips to the Odawara Art Foundation’s Enoura Observatory, Naoshima Island, Kyoto. The night prior to the fair opening, we’ve got Yukata Night in Roppongi, where galleries are coordinating openings, and a gallery night at the Terrada Art Complex on Friday. We’re very grateful to Mr. Obayashi who’s opening up his guest house, designed by Tadao Ando, to showcase his private collection.
That does sound robust.
It’s really the team has been working extremely hard on the ground here. It’s a testament to their hard work and the support of the local scene that we’ve managed to get such a robust program together. There’s a real appetite for this to work. It is the first, and these things can take time, but we see the incredible potential here. We want to be a part of the process. Whenever something like this is launched, it will take some time for it to fully set in.