Jonathan Goodman: Where did you grow up in Japan? When you went to college, what did you study in preparation for your eventual career in art? When did you move to New York? What caused the move?
Miyako Yoshinaga: I grew up in different cities due to my father’s work. If I single out the city that influenced me the most, it is Tokyo, where I spent 10 years before moving to the US. I studied social and cultural anthropology at Keio University where I became interested in unusual and inexplicable cultural phenomena such as shamanism. My interest in fine art came later when I began working at a business publication company in the late 1980s during Japan’s “bubble” economy. I earned my own money as a marketing researcher, feeling a true sense of freedom. One of my pleasures at that time was traveling abroad to learn about different cultures and people. I particularly enjoyed visiting museums. For me, they were inspiring and exciting, unlike Japanese museums. It made me wonder what the operations looked like behind the scenes.
One time I visited the former house and museum of Franz Marc on the outskirts of Munich. His career was cut short when he died in WWI, and I was deeply moved by how marvelously his work preserves the energy and creativity of the era. This experience of meeting the soul of an artist changed the course of my career. I taught myself about art by reading books and taking a museology course at Seibu Community College, the company’s educational subsidiary. This coincided with a time when large corporations and wealthy individuals in Japan not only invested in art but also realized the importance of philanthropy through art.
In 1991, I applied and got accepted to New York University’s Museum Studies Program, since in Japan no comparable studies programs were available then.
JG: You began your professional life in contemporary art here by working at the Brooklyn Museum--when did you work at that institution? What did you do in regard to the contemporary art department?
MY: In the summer of 1992, as part of the NYU course requirement, I interned at the Brooklyn Museum’s Asian Art Department. The Brooklyn Museum is one of the oldest and largest museums in the US, so my experience was full of excitement and challenges. While I was there,
I was exposed to works of art from ancient to contemporary, and I vividly remember how impressed I was with Louise Bourgeois’ giant spider sculpture in the lobby installation.
After the internship, I got a part-time research job at the museum, and I stayed there for four years. Meanwhile, wanting to augment my salary from the museum, I began contributing to Nikkei Art, a monthly Japanese magazine. My assignment was to cover gallery/museum shows
in New York as well as news in the art market. The editor allowed me to write about any shows and topics of my choice. I went to many galleries on a regular basis, talking to gallerists, and meeting with their artists.
JG: When did you leave the Brooklyn Museum to start your own gallery in Chelsea? Why did you make that decision?
MY: In the mid-1990s, my co-worker Mei Lin from Taiwan in the Asian Art Department of the Brooklyn Museum suggested we should pay attention to works of today’s Asian artists to demonstrate that contemporary Asian art is alive and well. She introduced me to a group of artists who immigrated from China but whose activities were unknown to the mainstream. Believing we could apply our museum training and our own identity as Asians, we decided to showcase these artists’ work at her apartment. This attempt, which we called the “Open Hous Exhibition” strived to be a platform for the promotion of contemporary Asian artists who were underrepresented in New York, the epicenter of international art.
Around the same time, an up-and-coming Japanese artist Mariko Mori asked me to become her studio manager. I left the museum in 1996 and shifted my career focus to contemporary art. While working as Mariko’s studio manager, I curated, wrote about, and promoted contemporary art as a freelancer for several years. After the Open House Exhibition, my partner Mei Lin abruptly returned to Taiwan, and after losing the space, I entertained the idea of having my own space. For help launching my solo career, I owe the guidance of two mentors: Amy Poster, then The Brooklyn Museum Asian Art Curator, and Joan B. Mirviss, a dealer of Japanese art. They represented the high standard of art professionals to which I aspired and taught me how we women could rise and excel in this competitive arena (Paying this forward, I have since taught many interns throughout my career).
Just before a "dotcom" boom in 1999, with optimism and in the spirit of the American, I signed a lease for a tiny windowless space on the 10th floor of an old commercial building in the garment district off 7th Ave. In 2003, I moved to a larger space in a former warehouse building on 27th Street in West Chelsea.
JG: Your gallery is known for its emphasis on Japanese photography (although you also show Western artists). Is there a recognizably Japanese esthetic in contemporary photography? If so, can you describe it as you understand it?
MY: It is true that I have always shown artists with diverse cultural backgrounds, and Japanese photography took a decade to become the gallery’s emphasis. I can say the infinite possibilities of photography as a medium and the discovery of the rich past and exciting present of Japanese photography has led me to this specialty. Since the late 19th-century Japanese photography has absorbed the influence of Western counterparts, from pictorialism to social realism, while developing its own tastes and vocabularies. However, this influence traveled just one way until recently. Just as, in the past, Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints fascinated Impressionists and art patrons/critics in the West, certain characteristics of Japanese photography, such as abstract expression using blur and grain and a predilection for book format presentation, eventually began to influence contemporary Western photographers. However, I am reluctant to generalize as to what distinguishes Japanese photography from others. Rather, we should wait to see the fruit of the growing dialogues on this topic among specialists.
JG: We recognize that you stand behind all the artists you show. But can you single out two or three artists in your roster, or whom you have exhibited on a limited basis, Japanese photographers in particular? Why do you think they are strong artists?
MY: I have supported both the younger generation as well as the older generation of artists. Ken Ohara (born 1942) and Hitoshi Fugo (born 1947) question the “objectivity” of photography and suggest to the viewer multiple layers of meaning through their conceptual approach. Meanwhile, works by mid-career artists such as Emi Anrakuji (born 1963) and Takahito Kanayama (born 1971) revolve around deeply personal matters, evoking universal human interests and concerns. Yojiro Imasaka (born 1983), a young landscape photographer, has developed a kind of
neoclassical and unduplicatable photography through traditional darkroom processes and cutting-edge technology.
JG: Do you keep up with Japanese contemporary art (not photography)? Is there a difference between the new art of Japan and the new art we see here?
MY: Unfortunately, I haven’t had enough time to fully follow what’s happening in Japan since I left there 30 years ago. However, there are many ways to get updated, through word of mouth and publications including online newsletters I subscribe to. As far as I can tell, what’s new in Japan seems quite similar to what’s new here and elsewhere due to the globalization of the art world.
JG: Do you have a preference for figuration or abstraction in art or photography? Can you explain why?
MY: I have a very eclectic taste for art, including photography, and I am interested in exploring the full spectrum of any art form.
JG: Recently you moved your gallery site from Chelsea to the Upper East Side. What was the cause of the move? What are the advantages of showing art in your new neighborhood?
MY: I miss the exuberance of Chelsea and the large audiences on opening nights. In 2019, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the gallery, I held a two-part exhibition featuring 50 artists with whom I worked. As I looked back on my past, I felt I needed a fresh start in a different
environment. It’s been a kind of revelation.
The Upper East Side was my choice because there are small, established, and independent dealers like myself, especially in the field of photography. The new location on East 64th Street opposite a building that formerly belonged to the Wildenstein Family, an art dealer dynasty which promoted European and American art, is amazing to me. It’s a small space, but cozy and quiet. In this space, I feel I can concentrate on the quality and the depth of my activities. For my visitors, I hope to create an intimate and calm atmosphere in which to exchange our conversations.
Seasoned collectors go to prominent galleries in Chelsea, and emerging collectors favor young galleries on the Lower East Side. Some galleries in between like myself can be at a disadvantage in both places. I think being on the Upper East Side liberates one from the notion that a gallery has to be cool and hip. I rather want to be seen as chic and serious.
JG: Are most of your collectors from America or Asia? What are they looking for in art? Has there been a downturn in collecting because of the virus quarantine?
MY: Actually, aside from American collectors, I have more European collectors than Asian collectors. They are primarily looking for what they really like and the core values they believe in. Their budget is not limitless, so they are also very careful about making decisions. My role as an art dealer is to understand and diminish their uncertainty, rather than pushing them too much, because I know most of the time the artwork/artist has already spoken to their heart. The pandemic has reduced life down to the basics, and for many people collecting art is neither essential nor necessary. Due to the economic uncertainty, people are putting off major spending even if it’s tempting. Of course, it isn’t just psychological. I am very sad that in-person interactions in the art world have been virtually shut down since last March.
JG: How important is writing to the career of your artists? Do you receive coverage from both Western and Asian publications?
MY: It is extremely important for the artists to receive press coverage, especially critical reviews, of their work. The exposure of the gallery and artists by influential media that curators and collectors read and follow can be quite impactful, though that impact may be short-lived. For the
long term, we archive written materials and quote them often in our communications with our audience. I receive coverage mostly from Western publications.
JG: What do you think of the art being made today? Is there a lack of craft and an emphasis on social issues? If this is true, has it nonetheless resulted in lasting visual imagery?
MY: Naturally, social issues are important as an inspiration for artists and their audiences. But how can visual art without skillful executions/presentations sustain its value? That’s a good question. Some artists express social-political messages in subtle and sophisticated ways with craft. On the other hand, raw images of protesters on the street with their graphic signs and banners can also be transformed into art for our time. I think it is the curator’s and gallerist’s task to sort out and temper this output.
JG: Do you want your gallery to be identified primarily as a Japanese undertaking? Or have your years in New York changed your sense of purpose to a more international or even American concept? Is it possible to maintain a notably Asian outlook in New York?
MY: I’m from Japan and probably understand Japanese and Asian cultures at an intuitive level, so it seems natural that I represent a higher percentage of Japanese artists than most New York galleries. However, it is true that I never support artists based on their cultural origin. The artists
I represent include those from here in the US, Brazil, Canada, China, Cuba, Germany, and many members of diasporas I’ve met in New York. On the other hand, it is also true that I promote my cultural identity by using my name for the gallery name. I am proud to be Japanese, Asian, Asian-American, and an American who has lived and worked in New York City for thirty years.
I used to be more concerned about how I am seen by others in this business, but that self-consciousness has diminished over time. Emphasizing Japanese photography is not the same as running an international gallery in New York. They are like left and right brains moving together in one direction.