Tokyo Loves Art Exhibitions – Be Warned!

There’s no shortage of big-name art events in Tokyo. Every year the calendar includes numerous travelling exhibitions of works from some of the world’s most famous museums and private collections featuring a staggering number of iconic paintings which draw in the crowds.

And that’s just the problem.

Obviously the costs of staging such exhibitions are enormous – not only must priceless (and often fragile) artworks be shipped from overseas requiring huge transport costs, the price of insurance must also be phenomenally expensive.

It’s no wonder then that the main intention of holding the exhibitions seems to be less to do with art and more about how to make money. To do so, they need large numbers of people to come and part with their cash.

And of course that means that no-one gets to really see the art. Fortunately for the organisers, most of the Japanese public appear satisfied merely to glimpse the iconic works rather than spend quality time in front of them; or at the very least they don’t seem to object to the former. Perhaps it’s just another example of the cultural etiquette of stoicism.

A blockbuster exhibition from the Musee d’Orsay in Paris gave me an opportunity to document the phenomenon. It was a particularly successful show but by no means unique in its ability to pull in a large Tokyo audience.

The exhibition was held on one floor of the massive National Art Center, a truly impressive piece of architecture designed by Kisho Kurokawa (Japan’s largest museum with a total floor space of over 49,000 square metres) in Roppongi, Minato-ku.

The day I visited was an average weekday. A Friday.

An hour before opening time, those without tickets had already formed a queue about 50m long in front of the ticket office (outside the building). Those who had bought their tickets in advance had already made their way inside and were queued up outside the exhibition entrance on the second floor.

Here we see the first in line for the day, ready to go in. The queue, four abreast, stretches most of the way to the end of the landing.

But that’s just the beginning of the queue. Let’s follow it back.

The escalator to the second floor. Staff were situated at the bottom and top of the escalator, strictly controlling the flow as (obviously) a crowd at the top would prove a dangerous blockage to others ascending.

Looking down the escalator, the sheep-pen queue arrangement at the bottom switched back 3 times between the escalator and the far end of the building.

From there the line of people began to snake the length of the building, hugging the curved front wall…

…past restaurants and toilets, along the entire length of the atrium’s glass front. And then it doubled back again.

Finally after reaching the end the queue formed another sheep-pen arrangement which staff continued to extend out into the middle of the atrium as new arrivals joined.

To put the numbers into perspective, just this last photo of the queue’s tail-end contains almost 400 people. The total number of people is quite staggering – in the thousands – and this is on a Friday morning, before opening time!

Signs were placed along the queue informing people how long they could expect to wait before entering the exhibition. At the back of the queue the estimated time was well over two hours.

And after waiting, what was it like once you’d made it inside?

This is what you found: people stacked 7 or 8-deep trying to see the art!

Admittedly I went on a busy day, yet over the 70 days the exhibition was open it was attended by 780,000 people – that’s an average of over 11,100 a day.

Of course I understand that for the majority of people in attendance this might be the only chance they have in their lives to see these artworks. But really, the viewing conditions were so far from ideal as to make the exercise almost pointless.

Great result for the organisers though. A lot of people. A lot of money. Goal achieved!


The exhibition

English information

Official page

The National Art Center

About the space. More photos.

Guide for tourists


~ by JapanGasm on 26 April, 2012.

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