The Art Galleries of Ginza: An Interview with Gallery Director Nagai Ryūnosuke

Culture Art

Along with its luxury shopping and exclusive nightlife, Tokyo’s Ginza is also home to the largest concentration of art galleries in Japan. In 2004, the Ginza Galleries collective took shape to boost the area’s artistic reputation. We talk with Nagai Ryūnosuke, representative director of the Nagai Gallery, until recently a director of this group, about the history of galleries in Japan and the future of Ginza as a center of Japan’s art scene.

Nagai Ryūnosuke

Born in Tokyo in 1956. Earned his degree in economics from Rikkyō University. Representative director of the Nagai Gallery. Appears regularly on television as an art appraiser and expert, including on an NHK program about the “genius painters of the nineteenth century”: Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, and Henri Rousseau. Has written a number of popular introductions to Western art, such as Chishiki zero kara no meiga nyūmon (An Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Great Paintings), Sekai de ichiban suteki na Seiyō bijutsu no kyōshitsu (The World’s Most Wonderful Classroom of Western Art), and Meiga no naka no koibito-tachi (Lovers in Great Paintings). Served as senior board member of Ginza Galleries from 2019 to 2021.

A Center of Tokyo’s Art and Culture

Ginza is world-famous as one of the most glamorous and sophisticated areas of the Japanese capital. The heart of the Tokyo’s internationally renowned fashion industry, Ginza’s European-style streets are lined with high-end brand boutiques and Michelin-starred restaurants. When the sun sets, the lights come on and Ginza is transformed into a neon-soaked paradise for the city’s grown-ups at play. Clubs and bars throng with businessmen and their clients. For there is more to Ginza than just fashion and fine dining: it is also where late-night business deals are done.

The shoppers who flock to the area with their eyes on the glittering windows may not be aware of it, but Ginza is also a major center of art. Even today, the district is home to more than 200 galleries, where it is possible to view and buy fine art from around the world. In 2004, a group of around 40 of these establishments formed the Ginza Galleries organization to publicize their activities and revive the district’s reputation as a center of arts and culture in the capital.

Nagai Ryūnosuke is a key player on the Ginza art scene, and representative director of the Nagai Gallery, founded in 1971. He served as a senior board member of Ginza Galleries for two years from April 2019, working passionately on activities like Gallery Nights, which encourage visitors to enjoy an evening of art in dozens of participating galleries, and drawing up plans for a new undertaking to focus on Japanese modern and contemporary art in 2022. Nagai invited us to his headquarters at the Nagai Gallery, on the fifth floor of a building on Namiki-dōri, to talk about his experiences in more than half a century in the art market and the future of art in Japan.

On weekends, the streets of Ginza are closed to traffic, making for a “pedestrians’ paradise.”
On weekends, the streets of Ginza are closed to traffic, making for a “pedestrians’ paradise.”

Ginza’s Growth as Japan’s Art Capital

The Ginza gallery with the longest history is the Shiseidō Gallery, which recently celebrated the centenary of its founding in 1919. But it was some decades later, around the middle of the twentieth century, that art dealers started to move to the district in large numbers.

The number of galleries increased further during the period of rapid economic growth during the 1960s and 1970s. Art enjoyed a new wave of popularity, and “the economic boom made art affordable for ordinary company employees,” says Nagai. Nagai himself was a high school student at the time, but was interested in art and studied painting at a local salon near the house where he grew up. Even so, after graduating from university he did not immediately join the gallery his father had founded but instead got a job at a regular company.

At the time, there were still relatively few large museums in Japan. “It was only in the eighties, really, that large numbers of municipal museums started to open around the country. Those museums became major clients for art dealers. Now there are museums in every one of the forty-seven prefectures.”

The peak bubble economy years of 1986–91 attracted a new generation of people looking to invest in art, and the number of galleries in Ginza swelled to more than 300. When the bubble burst, this number fell by about a third. For many who were around then, the rush to invest in art stands as a symbolic memory of the bubble years.

But even during the subsequent downturn in the economy, galleries with individuality and tradition were able to survive. The business climate for art museums and the galleries that support them became more challenging after 2000. Museum budgets were slashed, and the Japanese art market started to shift toward China.

Art galleries in Ginza, many of them quite small, are located in a district with the highest land prices in the country. Rents can be astronomical, and in recent decades, many galleries have started to feel the pinch. “There used to be galleries on the first floor of buildings all along Namiki-dōri, but from around 2000 they were gradually replaced by international brand-name boutiques,” notes Nagai. “It would be impossible to run a gallery on the first floor now. The rents are simply higher than anything the art business can afford.”

Nagai Ryūnosuke, representative director of the Nagai Gallery.
Nagai Ryūnosuke, representative director of the Nagai Gallery.

Even during this period of relative economic hardship, galleries managed to survive thanks to a dedicated client base of collectors. “There are two types of galleries: those that put on their own themed exhibitions and those that hire out their premises to artists for solo exhibitions. Galleries that continued to put on small exhibitions without attempting to ride the wave of the bubble survived, along with for-hire galleries that carefully selected the artists they wanted to work with. The for-hire galleries are a distinctively Japanese system: Artists pay to hire the premises for their exhibitions. Similar things exist in Paris and New York now, but they both borrowed the idea from Japan.”

Rediscovering Forgotten Japanese Artists of the Past

Nagai is also known as an art appraiser. From 1996 he appeared frequently on TV, appraising works of art owned by individual collectors and assigning values to the pieces. What knowledge and skills are necessary to assign a value to a work of art?

“With a well-known artist like Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita, for example, large numbers of his works circulate within Japan. They often come up at auctions, and are sold in galleries, so there’s plenty of data available in terms of assigning a market value. It’s much more difficult to assess the work of an artist whose work rarely comes on the market. It’s not necessarily the case that the work has less value, though—sometimes the work might have an added value because of that scarcity.”

Okamoto Tarō (1911–96), best known for the public sculpture Tower of the Sun, which became the iconic symbol of the Osaka Expo in 1970, is a good example. “Shortly after he died in 1996, several of his works featured on our appraisal TV program. Generally, Okamoto’s works didn’t come on the market at that time. His name was well known, but there was hardly any history of his pictures being sold, which made an evaluation difficult. The works that were in the artist’s possession when he died all went to museums. And a lot of Okamoto’s best-known pieces are public works like the Tower of the Sun or—from around the same period—the Myth of Tomorrow mural, 5.5 meters in length and 30 meters wide, that was discovered in Mexico City in 2003 and now hangs in Shibuya station. Pieces like that don’t come on the market, for obvious reasons. On the occasions when his paintings or sculptures came up for appraisal on the program, I always struggled to fix a value to them. In the end, I appraised them quite highly, assigning values in the tens of millions of yen.”

In October 1999, three years after Okamoto’s death, the Tarō Okamoto Museum of Art, Kawasaki, opened in Kanagawa Prefecture, and the artist’s wife, Okamoto Toshiko, published a number of books on his work. Together, these developments led to a reappraisal of Okamoto’s work. Nagai says he feels proud to have been among the first appraisers to put a concrete value on Okamoto’s work—and to have given the work what he still believes was a fair and accurate evaluation.

An art appraiser’s job involves more than simply assigning a financial value to a work. It is also about rediscovering artists and making their work more widely known. On the TV program Kaiun nandemo kanteidan, Nagai appraised the work of many different artists, helping to raise the profile of painters like Makino Yoshuo and Takashima Yajūrō, who were scarcely household names at the time. Nagai notes that the now hugely popular painter Tanaka Isson (1908–77) first became widely known to the public when his work was introduced on NHK’s long-running Sunday evening arts program, Nichiyōbi bijutsukan (Sunday Art Museum). “The history of art is the history of rediscovery. This process of excavating forgotten artists and their work is an important part of what creates the history of art.”

Turning Challenges into Opportunities

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic caused forced the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics to be postponed for a year, and in April the first nationwide state of emergency brought much of ordinary daily life to a standstill. The Nagai Gallery too had to close its doors and put its normal activities on hold.

Nagai took the opportunity to launch a Japanese-language YouTube channel, in an attempt to bring art closer to Japanese audiences as something relevant to their daily lives. “I couldn’t just do nothing. I thought this might be a good way of communicating with people and bringing the art close to them even if they couldn’t come and visit the gallery in person.”

The collapse of the bubble economy and now the coronavirus pandemic . . . the last few decades have been a challenging time for galleries. Nagai says he believes that the activities of groups like Ginza Galleries may prove crucial to helping his business and those of his fellow gallery owners to overcome these difficult times.

The “Gallery Nights” were inspired by art-themed “soirées” organized by galleries in Paris. Nagai says the idea was originally suggested by the owner of the Galerie Nichidō, which has a branch in Paris. The Ginza event takes place twice a year, in the spring and autumn, with participants following their own route from Ginza 1-chōme to 8-chōme, visiting as many galleries as they like on the way. The autumn event in 2020 had to be held online because of the pandemic, but the spring 2021 event went ahead as planned.

Another of the group’s activities involves opening the doors of the district’s galleries to school children: Nagai Gallery and other galleries in the area welcome third-grade children from the local Taimei Elementary School on a visit every year.

“For 2022, we’re planning a collaborative program that will take a fresh look at the art of the modernist period,” Nagai says. “Ginza played a central role in the modernist movement in Japan. We want to look back on that point of departure and hopefully bring a renewed sense of excitement and energy to the district’s galleries again. The idea is to make this an opportunity for us to showcase the unique identity and sense of style that makes Ginza special.”

Nagai describes Ginza as a “district shaped by modernism.” In the project, each gallery chooses a modernist artist and showcases a tribute to the work by a contemporary artist working today. “It is not about just nostalgically looking back on the past. The present must always be built on the past, and the idea of this project is to hand the heritage onto the future. At the same time as reexamining our roots, we want send out something new to the future—that’s the message we want to convey.”

Ginza is home to more galleries than anywhere else in Japan—but despite this, people do not generally think of district as a center of the arts. In Tokyo, people are probably more likely to associate contemporary art with Roppongi, home to the National Art Center, Tokyo, and the Mori Museum. But in fact, all kinds of cultural facilities are located in or around Ginza, including the famous Kabukiza theater, the Kanze nō theater, and numerous cinemas and playhouses. Perhaps one reason for its relatively low profile on the arts scene is the lack of any iconic museum that can stand as a symbol for the area. Nagai suggests that this could be rectified by building a new museum to highlight the face of Ginza as a hub of sophisticated cultural enjoyment in the capital.

Homegrown Appreciation for Japanese Art

Japan has artistic traditions of its own that enjoy a high reputation internationally, of course. Ukiyo-e is one obvious example. However, explains Nagai, “the value of this art was not something that Japanese people took to the rest of the world, confident that here was something worth sharing. The value of the art was recognized by people in other countries first, and Japanese audiences caught on later. Once the value and prestige of ukiyo-e increased, Japanese collectors became interested in acquiring the pictures too—but only after they were appreciated in other countries first.” Nagai says there is a need to help more people appreciate art from a Japanese perspective, rather than relying on Europe to validate things first.

“One of the things that makes art so appealing is the way it can suggest new approaches to questions we don’t have answers for. It offers different ways of looking at things. I’m convinced that art and artistic ways of looking at the world are vitally important to us in our lives,” Nagai says.

In closing, he offers his hopes for the future: “I hope that more Japanese people will learn to trust their own eyes and develop the ability to evaluate art for themselves. And then maybe in the future we can do more to communicate what we have here and share it with the rest of the world.”

(Originally published in Japanese and Spanish. Interview and photographs by Daniel Rubio, Banner photo: Nagai Ryūnosuke stands in front of a picture by the artist Hasegawa Kenji, subject of an exhibition at the gallery when we visited for our interview.)

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