Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

The Sorry State of Public Art Policy in Japan
HABU Shuichi / Journalist

March 31, 2012
Tokyo is a city of culture where the world's greatest paintings are always on display. This year alone, the scheduled lineup includes exhibitions featuring the works of famous painters such as Vermeer, Gogh, Cezanne, Matisse and Pollock, borrowed from top art museums around the world. Japan's five national art galleries serve as the venue of such large-scale exhibitions. The galleries draw enthusiastic art fans, with annual visitors to the five museums reaching a combined 4.6 million in 2009. Yet, an inside look at exhibition management reveals a gloomy picture.
One thing that surprised me after being transferred from my reporting job to the art exhibition division was the extent to which newspaper companies were responsible for these exhibitions. When I was a reporter, I had thought that when a newspaper company collaborated with a national art gallery to hold these events, the gallery did the actual work and the newspapers were only involved in advertising. However, in reality it is the business division of the newspaper company that does most of the actual work, from consulting on the selection of the artwork, arranging transportation and negotiating insurance policies to making security arrangements during the exhibition and deciding the order of the opening ceremony. Not only that, but the entire cost is being paid by the newspaper company.

Meanwhile, national art galleries collect approximately 30% of admission revenues from a joint exhibition. As a result, if the number of visitors falls short of the projected breakeven point, the newspaper sponsor loses money while the gallery makes a profit from its share of the admission revenue. In one actual case, the same exhibition resulted in a 60 million yen loss for the newspaper company while the art gallery made a 60 million yen profit.

Naturally, over the years the newspaper companies have continued to demand the museums to share the costs, and have been continuously turned down. The reason lies in the distressing circumstances under which national art galleries are forced to operate.

Ten years' ago, Japan's national art galleries were transformed into independent administrative institutions. But they are "independent" in name only, and are completely dependent on operational subsidies handed out by the government for their expenses. Lately, they have also been feeling the effects of fiscal austerity as the amount of subsidies gets smaller each year.

In addition, the government applies a quota of 1% year-on-year growth on exhibition revenues, and art galleries that fail to meet that target face cuts in the amount of subsidies they receive. Moreover, regardless of whether the quota was met or not, revenues are entirely absorbed by the national treasury, leaving the galleries with not a penny they can use at their discretion. And if they happen to generate revenues exceeding the quota, their quota for the next fiscal year will be that much higher.

I once witnessed a curator of a national art gallery moan at the sight of the long line of visitors that had formed around the gallery for a popular exhibition. He said: "Oh, no. This is going to raise our quota next year. I wish they didn't show up in such great numbers." This sounds incredible to a newspaper company that is sweating it out to attract as many visitors to the exhibition as possible. Joint sponsors they may be, but an art gallery and a newspaper company couldn't be further apart in terms of their respective position.

The root cause lies in the way the government continues to ignore the individual characteristics of each national gallery in pursuing its public art policy.

Art galleries belong to the category of independent administrative institutions along with organizations with operations that are completely alien to each other, such as the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization, the National Livestock Breeding Center, the National Printing Bureau and the Civil Aviation College. Independent administrative institutions have been criticized for serving as a hotbed for Amakudari (landing retired bureaucrats with cushy jobs) and for their operational inefficiency. They are being targeted for cost-cuts as one big group, and art galleries are no exception.

A revision of the status of individual administrative institutions is presently underway. However, the discussion is moving in the direction of integrating national institutions such as art galleries, museums and theaters that currently exist as separate incorporated bodies into a single corporation, and such a plan continues to ignore the characteristic nature of an art gallery.

In comparison, the major trend in the United States and Europe is to turn each art gallery into a separate corporation and emphasize its uniqueness. The Louvre Museum in Paris has its own corporate status and exercises discretion over its budget, personnel, purchasing of artwork and other matters. Under these conditions, the Louvre has doubled the number of visitors over the past decade. Incidentally, according to data provided by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, the Metropolitan Museum in the United States has a staff of 1,800 and the Louvre Museum has 1,300, while Japan's National Museum of Western Art has a staff of only 22.

Business conditions in the newspaper industry have deteriorated due in part to the dramatic decline in advertisement revenue, while corporate sponsorship of exhibitions has also decreased due to the prolonged economic slump. As a consequence, newspaper companies have become more cautious toward sponsoring exhibitions of foreign artwork, which involve enormous cost and risk.

Art galleries are knowledgeable about paintings but are incompetent in practical business. Financial authorities are bent on collecting revenue for the national treasury and show no understanding for art. And newspaper companies are shifting their emphasis on profitability due to deteriorating business conditions. The three players involved in art exhibitions are each riddled with problems.

Meanwhile, visitors who flock to art exhibitions in their millions each year have been completely left out of the debate.

While Japan may fall far behind the Louvre or the British Museum in terms of permanent exhibits, it belongs to the world's top class in terms of the number of visitors to special exhibits. Nevertheless, the voice of these visitors is seldom reflected in exhibition management. "Museums should offer nighttime viewings for those of us who wish to visit after work," "I wish museums had a nursery," "I would pay more for a chance to view the exhibits at a leisurely pace" - at present, such voices are not being adequately met. Exhibition managers must recognize once again the most important principle that "the viewer has the lead role in any exhibition."

Last but not least, let me call out to all art fans. Your help is essential in ensuring that we can continue enjoying the world’s great paintings in Japan and in enhancing the excitement of each exhibition. Let's join hands and work together.

The writer is chief of Culture & Arts bureau in Tokyo at Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

土生 修一  / ジャーナリスト

2012年 3月 31日
















一般社団法人 日本英語交流連盟

English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > The Sorry State of Public Art Policy in Japan