Peek Inside: Serious Look at ACT

I realized that one reason why I was slow in posting photographs of the Narrative Abstract Art show was that I was busy pondering many questions that I have about the place and the way they run things. Some of my opinions might not be popular ones, but I tried to be fair. I debated whether or not I should change names but I decided not to do so. Why? The place has potential and shows signs of willingness to learn and grow. I used specific names but I think these points could probably be applied to many galleries in Tokyo.

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This time I purposefully went to the gallery every single day even though the Artcomplex Center of Tokyo (ACT) does not require artists to do that. Why did I do that? I wanted to gain a better understanding of the place, talk to visitors, and develop a better working relationship with the staff.

To help develop that relationship, I offered the use of my services. I edited and sometimes rewrote much of the English documentation that they send to interested artists who do not speak Japanese. Don’t worry! The staff in charge of English communications understands written and spoken English as well as Japanese, but the phrasing sounded unnatural. One reason was that she strictly followed the Japanese documents which were not written by professional technical writers. I simply rewrote them to sound more natural, provide greater clarification, and to protect the gallery from possibly problematic situations. I also reorganized some of the content to make things easier for other staff to quickly find important information if the contact person is not available. I enjoy technical writing, so I did not mind doing this for them. I believe that everybody should help each other if they can. The person I worked with was grateful for any help and can easily handle any correspondence in English. She understood that I made her job easier.

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I had not planned in being in more shows here until I received a message encouraging me to apply for this show. That is always a good sign when somebody who works there contacts you personally about a show. Will I participate in more shows there? Maybe. I saw a lot of positive things in the week that I was there.

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PROS

  • A group show at ACT is an inexpensive way for an artist to enter the Tokyo art scene. It costs under $200. This includes your share of promotional postcards and the refreshments at a reception where the artists are introduced by everybody.
  • If you cannot go to Tokyo, they will install your art for you. This is good news for artists who do not live in Kanto or Japan.
  • Staff supervise the gallery every day. This means that artists do not have to be there every day. Nobody has to use their vacation time from their paying jobs to be there, and people who live far away do not have to make travel arrangements or find hotel accommodations.
  • Group shows are held many times each year, and the shows cover a variety of themes. Most artists can find at least one show in which they are interested.
  • Communication in English or Japanese is possible.
  • Promotional material is prepared by ACT.
  • The receptions are good places to meet other local artists, especially if you speak Japanese. I really enjoyed talking with other artists who regularly display at ACT but were not in my shows and found them to be very supportive.
  • A supportive environment is provided for emerging or re-emerging artists. ACT supports artists throughout their careers. Many artists who started at ACT go on to be featured in larger shows or solo shows.
  • Collectors, buyers, and the general public come to see the shows. Viewers are not limited to your circle of friends.
  •  A wide range of talent and art can be seen here.
  • Management indicated that they will increase their emphasis on fine arts.
  • Large and spacious venue.
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Detail of painting by Rie Ishishita
  • Strong solo shows are curated and regularly held in the large basement gallery.
  • No rejection letter exists in their files.

CONS

  • No rejection letter exists in their files. Stricter curating could result in shows of better quality. It, however, needs to make a profit, so all submissions are accepted. Will this change in the future? I hope so.
  • The tags for the artwork are sometimes made by the ACT staff but not always. I was happy to know that ACT made the tags for the Stella Nova show, because consistency was established. When each person does their own tags, the gallery pays less but it can be a clash of different colours, fonts, sizes, and display methods. Greater consistency creates a more professional look.
  • Manga-inspired, graphic, and derivative art have been their focus until recently. Many artists and viewers are not interested in going to ACT because of this emphasis.
  • Small rooms with narrow hallways on the second floor remind me of schools, not galleries.
  • Buyers and collectors are looking for bargains. Anything that is small, cheap, and colourful will probably sell. Should the artist focus on making product that will sell or artwork with merit?
  • ACT makes their own promotional postcards and posters, but they are weak online. Their website is complicated, and it is difficult to find pertinent information in any language. An employee who is familiar with digital media and technical communications is needed.
  • Collectors have filled the vacuum in digital promotion. For example, receptions and other events are created and found on the Facebook pages and other websites of collectors, not by ACT. This makes the information difficult for the general public to find unless they know the collector.
  • Collectors naturally promote artists of their own choice but not all artists in a show. ACT should be responsible for promoting the artists and posting links to related websites, but they are passing the buck and delegating to the collectors. I noticed that in my shows and in several other shows that Japanese artists received additional promotion but non-Japanese artists were ignored. The art world is supposedly international, right? Also, the non-Japanese artists for the most part are foreign residents of Japan and not mailing it in from another country. Are the Japanese artists doing work of higher quality? Not necessarily. For example, the people  that run the annual show in Kyoto say that the international artists have added flavour and improved the quality of the show. The international artists regularly receive top awards, including the ones that are not reserved for artists of specific nationalities. Prejudice is not unusual in the Tokyo art scene. Visiting artists from other countries are welcome. Why? They leave after a short stay and provide international coverage for the gallery. Foreign residents are not so welcome. They are difficult to categorize, and the gallery does not believe that there be increased exposure or coverage in the domestic or international markets.
  • Collectors are dictating their preferences for the styles of art displayed at ACT. Their preferences seem to be for the manga-inspired art, and those shows are turning ACT into a gallery that resembles Design Festa in Harajuku even though ACT is geographically quite far from that scene. This preference does not align with the changes that the management supposedly want to make. Will ACT actually change to focus on fine arts and make several collectors angry or will ACT kowtow to pressure from the collectors and let them call the shots?
  • Some staff are courteous to everybody, but some are prejudiced. Not everybody, just some. For Stella Nova, I purposefully contacted ACT and asked that I be introduced by my first name and my last name. I did not care which order they used but I did not want only my first name to be used as is common in Japan when dealing with foreigners. I wanted to be treated as a professional, and I wanted them to act as professionals. The people I initially dealt with impressed me with their attitudes. I was regarded as one of the artists, not a tourist, English teacher, or child.  At the reception, however, someone who I assume was higher up in seniority or management took over and paused when reading my name. I knew then what was going to happen and I was right. I was introduced as “Michelle-san“. Insistence on calling foreigners (with the exception of professional athletes ー usually male) by their first names, especially in professional settings and against my expressed wishes, is a type of microaggression that belittles its targets. I had even written my name in katakana, which is a phonetic written system used in Japan.   During Stella Nova, staff who I dealt with every time and who I presume were in lower-level positions were wonderful. I have nothing bad to say about them whatsoever. Those in higher-level positions, however, barely acknowledged my presence despite my greetings in Japanese. During my second show at ACT, the coldness from those people continued despite my attempts. One warmed up a bit by the end but did not remember talking to me earlier in Japanese. And yes, they treated Japanese artists differently from the artists of other nationalities, who were assumed to not speak Japanese.
  • ACT is regarded as an entry-level gallery in the Tokyo art world.
  • Corporate sponsors that I talked to are reluctant to rent the space with the gallery’s current focus. They want to have large, spacious venues to hold events but want to attract people with money or influence, not just wannabes who dream of manga and cutesie items.

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  • Space is very limited. Some shows end up looking like a mishmash. This could be easily prevented by greater curation, stricter admission, and more space assigned per artist. These changes might also improve how others regard the quality of the shows.

I know this list might have sounded harsh, but these opinions are not unique to me. Other artists who regularly exhibit at ACT expressed similar concerns when I talked with them. That was a surprise to me! Although they were grateful for the repeated exposure, they felt that they had to leave to find better support and greater opportunity.

Tokyo has a need for an artist-run centre or a gallery that is affordable and also approachable for new artists as well as emerging or mid-career artists regardless of their visual style who have grown beyond the Design Festa gallery, and ACT could easily fill that spot if they tried. ACT does receive some funding from municipal governments and has much more space than most commercial galleries.  I think it is possible to be an entry-level gallery and still show quality work with a unique vision rather than hobbyists or copycats. Winnipeg has such galleries, so why not Tokyo? Lots of talented people come to Tokyo; they need a chance.

Will I try to show my work again at ACT? Probably. Why? I loved the way ACT helped to raise and develop artists, and I met many interesting, talented artists there, too. The positive points outweigh the negative I think. ACT has shown awareness of their weaknesses and seems willing to address them. Will their current audience let them do so? It depends on how much control they take back from others. Will they find a new or wider audience? I think so. They can also keep their current audience but they can also widen their target groups. I am curious to see what happens in the future.

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