Art Collaboration Kyoto Aims to Create a New Model for Art Fairs, Where Dealers Are Friends Not Foes

Contemporary art fairs have been proliferating across Asia lately, as they did a decade or so ago in the United States and Europe. Frieze Seoul arrived in 2022, Art SG in Singapore in January, and Tokyo Gendai in July. Art Basel Hong Kong is still the dominant player in the Asian art market, but it is gaining competitors fast. Remember complaints about “fairtigue” prior to the pandemic? That seems like long ago. The argument put forward by fair organizers has been that these economic hubs, with their own distinct art scenes, merit fairs of their own. No arguing with that. But strolling the aisles (or just perusing Instagram), there is a creeping sense of monotony to it all: Well-capitalized dealers carting their wares from one white-walled trade-show booth to the next.

But at least one art fair has set out to do things differently. Behold Art Collaboration Kyoto, a young public-private entity that asks each selected Japanese gallery to partner with one or two galleries from abroad on a single display. That intriguing conceit has “a synergistic effect on the quality of the booth,” Yukako Yamashita, ACK’s program director, argued in an interview with ARTnews ahead of the event, which opens this weekend. (Typically, the Japanese gallerist invites the foreign colleague, but the fair also sometimes assists.)

“It’s just such a nice way of doing something with colleagues from the other side of the world, sharing resources,” Paris-based dealer Robbie Fitzpatrick said. His eponymous gallery will be in a booth with Anomaly (of Tokyo) and ROH (of Jakarta); each is bringing work by three of their artists, including Hannah Weinberger, Kei Imazu, and Dusadee Huntrakul, respectively.

ACK debuted in 2021, when Japan’s borders were still closed amid the pandemic; they reopened fully last October, weeks before its second edition. And so the latest outing, which runs October 28 to 30 at Sachio Otani’s 1960s sci-fi Kyoto International Conference Center, has the feel of being a major event, with exhibitors coming from around the globe.

New York’s 47 Canal, for one, has linked up with Tokyo’s Misako & Rosen to show some of the beguiling impressionist landscapes that Trevor Shimizu, who is represented by both galleries, has been making in recent years. This will be dealer Jeffrey Rosen’s third time doing ACK, having collaborated with São Paulo’s Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel in 2021 and London’s Herald Street in 2022. “It was fun, and because it was fun, it generated business,” Rosen said of that second fair, adding that he “met Japanese collectors that we did not otherwise know.”

Yamashita, who started out as a dealer (she showed at the first ACK), said that she has heard collectors lament at big fairs that “there are too many things to see.” In Kyoto, just 64 dealers will be on hand—which “should be a comfortable size for visitors to go through the fair and fully digest the artworks on view,” she said.

Misako & Rosen and Herald St’s joint booth at ACK 2022.

Photo Nobutada Omote/Courtesy of ACK

Thanks to the shared format, that means the fair has only about three-dozen booths. (Art SG, by contrast, had over 150, and even the fairly compact Tokyo Gendai had more than 70.) Eleven of those are in a section called Kyoto Meetings, where solo dealers can display art with a special connection to the city. Neugerriemschneider, of Berlin, will be presenting Olafur Eliasson pieces informed by its Zen gardens, and New York–based Karma will have a group display that includes paintings of food and drink that Dike Blair made based on photos he took during a 2009 trip.

ACK is part of a small group of niche fairs that have been sprouting up in recent years that you could see as antidotes to the gargantuan behemoths. There’s Independent 20th Century (from the “consciously scaled” Independent art fair team), which convened around 30 exhibitors in New York for a second edition last month, and Paris Internationale, the outré-minded, dealer-founded fair that brought together 64 galleries earlier this month, timed to Art Basel’s Paris+ fair. On the more experimental end of things, you could also point to events like Basel Social Club, which was cofounded by Fitzpatrick and runs during Art Basel in Switzerland, and Our Week, which debuted to high acclaim during Frieze Seoul this year.

The model of ACK—whose backers include the Contemporary Art Dealers Association Nippon and Kyoto Prefecture—is indicative of the Japanese art world, which “has always distinguished itself from the art worlds of, let’s say, the US and Europe in being much more collaborative, mutually supportive, and cooperative,” Rosen said. “In order to take advantage of that, it makes sense that there would be a fair highlighting this element. And it makes sense that this fair would also be relatively small in keeping with the size of the art world, the size of the market.”

The fair’s location—in the treasure-filled city that was Japan’s capital for more than a millennium—is also a selling point. “Visiting an art fair is not just about spending time at the fair but also about visiting and experiencing the fair’s host city,” Yamashita said. Special exhibitions in association with ACK are being held at the Komyoin Temple, the Heian-jingu Shrine, and the conference center, and additional events around this town of 1.5 million are part of the festivities.

View of works by Olafur Eliasson in neugerriemschneider’s booth at ACK 2023.

Photo Yuki Moriya/©neugerriemschneider, Berlin

“The city of Kyoto itself played a significant role in my decision to participate,” said Jaewoo Choi, of Johyun Gallery in Busan, South Korea, which is collaborating with Tokyo’s Tomio Gallery on a display that will include Lee Bae, Kim Chong Hak, Jo Jong Sung, and Kishio Suga. Their works “might not necessarily be characterized by strong colors, unique material properties, or striking imagery,” he said, but they will get at “the essence of Kyoto.”

Dealers have been known to bemoan their relentless travel schedules off the record, but the ACK’s dealers seemed ebullient in the lead up to the fair. For Choi, the chance to partner with foreign colleagues is “truly captivating.” It’s “very innovative and exciting,” said Yuka Watanabe, of Anomaly. Matthew Brown, of Los Angeles, noted that it will be his first time exhibiting in Japan, alongside Blum, the LA giant that has had a Tokyo branch for a decade. “I’ve always looked up to Tim,” Brown said, “and when he proposed we collaborate on a presentation for Art Collaboration Kyoto, I immediately said yes.”

Brown is showing paintings by Paris-based Julie Beaufils, who has an “affinity for Japanese aesthetics—the flattened perspective, simplicity of form, and asymmetry achieved through a reduced palette,” he said. Blum, for its part, is showing three artists, including paintings by the Tokyo-born Asuka Anastacia Ogawa—“in one of the most beautiful cities in the world,” its director in the Japanese capital, Marie Imai Kobayashi, noted.

After more than 20 years in the Japanese art world, Rosen sees ACK “as part of a curious apparent growth” in its market, “which has been developing slowly and steadily, and as a consequence of that, probably, arguably, more sustainably and positively than elsewhere. And I also see that as a nice complement and—maybe even to be a little cheeky—counterbalance to some of the hype surrounding developing art markets within Asia more generally.”

“It’s a model that I think could be emulated in different places,” said Fitzpatrick, who grew up in Tokyo and hopped on a plane right after Paris+ to take part in ACK. It’s “a “direction,” he continued, “that more and more fairs and galleries should consider as we move forward—how to create more collaborative events that unify us.”