Each week on the New Emissary, art consultant and Tokyo art gallery owner Bob Tobin reports on the contemporary art scene in the Asia-Pacific, sharing his unique insights into some of the emerging trends and artists from around the region.
I spend half of my working life as a professor at a Japanese university. If you believe what you read in the local press, you might imagine that the students here are a slovenly bunch with no direction. But the ones I meet are engaged, interested and highly motivated. In fact, my students now are some of the best I’ve encountered in all of my 30-plus years of teaching.
I should note they’re a select group. The ones who take my classes are those who study hard, go overseas, take a semester at Stanford or Cambridge, attend and organize regional conferences. They start businesses, and don’t worry (too much) about job hunting.
Many take my classes every year (sometimes for no credit) because they can be with other students who share similar values and goals. Being with others who have dreams is contagious and as the school year progresses, their dreams get bigger. They work hard all term, not just at exam time. In fact, I rarely give exams, and instead evaluate students based on projects.
How have I been so fortunate? I like to think that it’s my skill that attracts good students and makes them so motivated, but that’s only part of the answer. The majority of the students are the sons and daughters of families who’ve lived overseas and the students select my classes because they’re looking for something different than the norm. They want to find a professor who thinks a bit differently, a professor who is also an entrepreneur and who’s not from Japan.
It’s not easy to escape the norm in Japan. The pressure to conform is overwhelming, and those who are different are often subject to derision and alienation. It’s much easier to follow along. Students are continually told what they have to do to succeed, and many accept this dogma hook, line and sinker. There are ways to escape, but it requires a lot of effort to find the right place here in Japan (or indeed overseas).
Artists deviate from the norm everywhere, but in Japan it’s especially hard for them. They have to break away from the pack and do something different. And there’s not too much support when you do break away from the pack. There’s no artist neighbourhood here where artists can hang out with other artists.
That’s where the gallerist comes in, encouraging the artist to explore new ground and placing the artist’s work with collectors who can appreciate what the artist does.
Some artists go overseas and never return. Others achieve recognition overseas, which makes them more likely to be accepted here.
When I tell people that I’m a professor in addition to owning an art gallery, they assume that I teach art. I don’t. I can’t even draw a stick figure. I teach business, or, more accurately, I help students learn about business. I started many years ago as a university professor in American MBA programmes teaching courses like organizational behaviour, strategy and management. When I came to Japan, I taught these courses with more of an international focus.
Now my courses at the university are more closely aligned with what I do in my other job: running the art gallery. I teach courses on entrepreneurship, leading creative businesses, and a surprise hit, ‘Artisanry of Japan’s Small Businesses.’
I tell people that the job of running the gallery and teaching at a university are actually very similar. In both places, I encourage the people I meet to be creative and take risks—the students, the artists, the other professors, the gallery staff, the clients. One of the joys of being a foreigner in Japan is that all I have to do is open my mouth and this encourages people to widen their perceptions.
As a professor and a gallerist, I try to help make people’s dreams bigger. Teaching and art change people’s lives. In the gallery and the university, I try to create an atmosphere that will encourage learning, growth, communication and enjoyment.
Art in your home or office encourages people to be creative and communicative. When I was younger, there was a pick-up line, ‘Have you seen my etchings?’ It was a way of inviting someone to visit your apartment. This never worked—it was more of a joke. But looking at art encourages people to dream. It’s a way for people to connect and communicate. Teaching does the same thing.
I try to help students re-frame situations, enlarge their options and I encourage the artists and clients to do the same. To me, being a professor and being a gallerist are the same job in different settings.