Tokyo Gendai Gets Ready to Open as Japan’s Art Market Heats Up

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in Breakfast With ARTnews, our daily newsletter about the art world. Sign up here to receive it every weekday.

On Tuesday evening in Tokyo’s Roppongi district, under a sky that threatened downpour, artists, collectors, dealers, and others gathered for openings at the numerous galleries that are clustered in this bustling gallery neighborhood, including the homegrown ShugoArts and Taka Ishii, as well as outposts for foreign blue-chip enterprises like Perrotin. There was champagne and canapes, and, at the Perrotin store, next to his main first floor gallery, frozen ice desserts. Upstairs, Perrotin was inaugurating a third, intimate salon-style space.

It was the first night of what might be called Tokyo Gendai week after the art fair that opens its second edition on Thursday in the Pacifico Yokohama, a convention center about an hour south of central Tokyo. On hand for the openings among locals was Magnus Renfrew, the founder of the fair, as well as London gallerist, Sadie Coles, a participating dealer.

Reports from the first edition last year were generally upbeat, but as anyone in the art fair business knows, it’s the sophomore year that’s the real test. There are some complicating factors this time around: the global art market is in a different place than it was in 2023, with the work of many hot young (flippable) artists having cooled considerably, and the dollar’s strength against the yen, while a boon for those Americans coming to Japan to shop, could be glitchy for dealers selling work in dollars to locals. 

Still, art fairs are a long game, and the fact that Perrotin is expanding and, more significantly, that Pace Gallery is previewing its forthcoming Tokyo branch this week ahead of its September opening, signals that the Japanese capital is heating up. Renfrew likely knows this better than most art fair owners: it was he who, starting in 2007, was the founding director of Art HK which eventually became Art Basel Hong Kong

Back in 2007 no mega-galleries had a presence in Hong Kong, though Gagosian was sniffing around and opened in 2011; now, all the megas have spaces there. The shift being observed now is away from a centralization of Asia’s market in Hong Kong and toward regional markets: note, for instance, that Gagosian will for the first time have a presence in Seoul coinciding with the third edition of the Frieze Art Fair there, hosting an exhibition of new paintings by Derrick Adams in an adjunct space (APMA Cabinet) at the Amorepacific Museum of Art, in the headquarters of Amorepacific, the cosmetics brand led by ARTnews Top 200 collector Suh Kyung-bae. Pace opened a permanent Seoul branch in 2017.

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Tourists entering in a museum, Mori Art Museum, Roppongi Hills, Tokyo Prefecture, Japan.
Photo DEA/G. SOSIO/De Agostini via Getty

What can assuredly be said about Japan is that there is a new generation of art collectors here that, as one dealer told me, have been spurred to acquire art in part through the example of entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa , who famously bought the record-setting $110.5 million Jean-Michel Basquiat painting at auction in 2017, when he was just 41. Maezawa’s influence is mixed, the dealer told me. “He had a big impact, and in some negative ways because he has been a speculator, but there are legitimate people in Japan who are thoughtfully collecting.” 

And then there is the old guard, like the powerful Mori family, now largely represented by Yoshiko Mori. Pace’s 5,500 square foot, Thomas Heatherwick–designed Tokyo gallery is in the new Azabudai Hills development, a project of the Mori Building company. It was Minoru Mori (Yoshiko’s father, who died in 2012) who established the Mori Art Museum in 2003, which catalyzed Mori’s Roppongi Hills development. The Mori Art Museum opened an Azabudai branch in November, with an exhibition of Olafur Eliasson. In Tokyo, as elsewhere (like, for instance, New York’s Chelsea art district), the art market and real estate development are closely linked.

When the first edition of Tokyo Gendai opened last July, the big news was that the government was revising tax laws to make it easier for galleries, and the fair, to operate. This year will be a measure of how that is playing out. “Japan’s art market is behind where logic dictates it should be,” Renfrew told the Art Newspaper last year. Just how far behind will be determined this year, and in the years to come.

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