Japan needs a “1% for Art” Program

Japan needs a “1% for Art” Program:IGARASHI Takenobu

Japan needs a “1% for Art” Program

TOP arrowInterviewarrow Japan needs a “1% for Art” Program:IGARASHI Takenobu


Japan needs a “1% for Art” Program

How do Japanese artists, who were involved with the creation of public art through Percent-for-Art Program*¹ abroad, feel about this program? We interviewed IGARASHI Takenobu, the former president of Tama Art University, to hear his thoughts. (Interviewer : NISHIKAWA Megumi, October 2015)

——You were involved with the creation of public art in the US.

Mr. Igarashi involved in public art production at Claire Atami Yugawara Studio.
Mr. Igarashi involved in public art production at Claire Atami Yugawara Studio.

In the US, the momentum for public art started in early 1950s. There soon appeared abstract sculptures in Manhattan, New York, initially with work of Tony Rosenthal*², followed by Red Cube by Isamu Noguchi*³, a bright red cube work with a hole. I had a chance to see these works in1968 when I went to study in the US. Public art has a role to vitalize cities, creating an artistic landscape in urban spaces. I think Tony’s black cube sculpture is the very first abstract sculpture that was designated to be permanently preserved.

*1 An idea whereby artistic work is installed within a certain range of the construction cost when implementing public works. What percent of the cost is allocated is not uniform across countries or districts.

*2 Tony Rosenthal (1914-2009) An American sculptor. He studied sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago. He created many abstract sculptures such as cubes installed in public spaces and is regarded as a legendary figure in public art.

*3 Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) An American sculptor, painter, interior designer, landscape architect, and stage designer. His farther was Japanese and his mother was American.

——What benefits can public art bring to artists?

Public art started in Europe, expanding then to the US. Certain percentage of the public construction cost is allocated to public art and in case of the US, I think it was initially 0.5%. The amount of work created for artists this way is totally different from procurement in museums or sales of art works by galleries. It creates a great power especially to support and help young artists. Also, artists can gain opportunities and grow from there. I think such a spillover effect is immense.

——What kind of public art can we find in the US?

In Japan, we tend to narrowly define public art to be fine art, but in the US, it actually covers a very wide range of genres, such as design for posters, concerts, and stage performances. I made a proposal to create balustrade with concrete sculptures to rebuild an iron bridge that was destroyed by a big earthquake in LA and was accepted. In normal circumstances, bridge-building can be done by engineers only. However, since one percent of the public construction cost is allocated to arts to create public art, artists from various genres participate in the bridge-building and there are many different ideas expressed around a bridge itself.

Mason Ave Bridge
【Mason Ave Bridge】6813 Mason Ave. Winnetka, CA 91306/photo by Shoko Okanoi

——It is not only about building a bridge, is it?

What is interesting is that the position of engineers and artists get reversed. It’s like this; “Please think of a bridge engineering that enables this sort of art.” Of course, there are layman ideas that get rejected for being unrealistic during the selection process. However, possibilities expand with proposals from those with non-engineering background.
Another public art I got involved was for a hospital in San Francisco. It was to build three new building blocks that combined end-of-life care for the elderly. Seven artists including myself were selected and each had two floors to work on. I created unglazed terra-cotta reliefs as well as about five landmark works with wood and ceramics. Additionally, for their rooftop courtyard, which was something like a Japanese spot garden but bigger, I created hanging sculptures with metal flowers and petals, presenting them as if they were flying in the air.

【Horizontal Feeling Landscape】
【Horizontal Feeling Landscape】2008/terracotta /W6,300 x H2,900x D50 mm/photo by Noreen Rei Fukumori
【Sky Dancing】
【Sky Dancing】2008/Aluminum, stainless wire /photo by Noreen Rei Fukumori

——How do artists get selected?

The big difference from Japan is that they consider projects to be long term. In case of bridges in LA, 80 bridges have been rebuilt over the course of 16 years. The application requirements are announced like this; “This year, five bridges in this district will be rebuilt. Anyone who has interest should submit his/her thoughts and past portfolios.” Of all the applicants, selected artists make proposals and presentations. In the final round, a committee that is comprised of four members from local representative, person in charge of public art, and architects makes the judgment. Since presentation request is received sometime between morning and afternoon and the actual presentation is done on the following day, it is a very fair system whereby the overall process is short, leaving no room for anyone else to step in. Also, even if you don’t get selected then, there still is another chance for you to be selected, as the project lasts for 16 years.

——Besides the bridge and the hospital, was there any other public art project you got involved in the US?

What was almost finalized were public art for animal shelter (an establishment where abandoned animals are sheltered) and for fire department. For the animal shelter, I made a proposal to scatter animal-shaped benches. For the fire department, I proposed a garden with springwater-like fountains to provide a healing space to firefighters who fight with water. They were well received by the judges, but didn’t get realized as I had to come back to Japan.

——How do you see the current state of artists in Japan?

A very tough situation that makes me wonder how they make a living. There is no money in the art world. Corporations are far from supporting arts. If “1% for Art” gets institutionalized for public art, it would provide great opportunities for young artists and broaden artist base. Additionally, if public art covers not only mere fine art, but also genres such as design, crafts, plays and performances, it would mean it supports a very wide range of artists.

——What do you think is missing from artists in Japan?

Communication skills to market artists. If Japan had skills to market artists and their works as its infrastructure, it would be like the UK where artists are treated as topnotch and supported at national level. I wonder why Japan, a country with no resources, doesn’t do the same. If Japan can do that, it would be a great source of foreign currencies. In Japan, the idea to link art to money and business is flatly rejected, but it is actually unbelievable that there is no public art by MURAKAMI Takashi*⁴ anywhere in Japan. He is probably a sole Japanese artist who can attract people and collect foreign currencies. It’s not about likes and dislikes. He has fans all over the world, so I just cannot believe that Japan does nothing for him. About 15-16 years ago, I happened to see a big exhibition of Anish Kapoor*⁵ in London. There was a nationwide promotion as well as TV commercials, and on the last day, there was a long line at the exhibition. The atmosphere was like celebrating the birth of a new great artist. Kapoor’s works were excellent, too. Some years ago, his giant stainless work was installed in urban area of Chicago with an enormous cost, showing a big difference from Japan’s approach. I’ve never met Mr. Muarakami, but I bet he is not very happy.

*4 MURAKAMI Takashi (1962- ) A Japanese modern artist, pop artist, and film director. He is popular abroad for his work of anime he expresses in a popish style.

*5 Anish Kapoor (1954- ) An Indian modern sculptor. He is known for his simple cubic works, which strongly appeal to people’s eyes with a use of paint that absorbs metal and light. He also creates many works of public art.

——n Asia, “percent-for-art” is institutionalized in Korea and in Taiwan. Have you created any public art in Taiwan, too?

Mr. Igarashi checking stained glass
Mr. Igarashi checking stained glass.

The opportunity came when a Japanese art consulting firm contacted me and asked if I could join them for a competition in Taiwan. It was for installing a public art in the entrance hall of a government office complex in sub-center of Taipei, so I proposed a ceramic sculpture to decorate the front wall. It was a big competition with the proposal spanning over 40 pages and maquette had to be made in one cubic meter with actual materials. The final judgment was made with popularity vote and my work was selected. I think it is very significant that they selected a Japanese for a big project in Taiwan.

Public art work supervised by Mr. Igarashi, JR Hokkaido Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station 【Muku Muku - homage to water, light and earth】
Public art work supervised by Mr. Igarashi, JR Hokkaido Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station [Muku Muku – homage to water, light and earth]

After the interview

Based on his experience of living in the US for a long time, Igarashi perceives the cultural situation in Japan with a more objective as well as fair view. From his point of view, it seems there are many things that make him feel frustrated. One example is that there lacks a culture to grow artists. “1% for Art” is an excellent program as a means to widely provide young artists with opportunity to create art, but Japan as the third economic power has not yet realized it, an irritating fact of falling behind Korea and Taiwan. Another is a lack of strategy at national level to market Japanese culture and arts to the world. Igarashi talks about a case whereby Japan is not fully taking advantage of world-renown artists such as Takashi Murakami. There are some criticism against Murakami’s works in Japan, but Igarashi points out; “If we starts talking about likes and dislikes, anyone has likes and dislikes. However, it does not make sense to have such criteria for judgment.” He says anything popular should deserve a fair treatment. He even states; “It is just unbelievable that Murkami’s public art cannot be found anywhere in Japan.”

I felt there are still many things Japan needs to tackle in order to be called as a cultured nation both in name and in reality.


Sculptor. 1944, born in Hokkaido, northern part of Japan. 1968, graduated Tama Art University , then studied at University of California Los Angeles graduate school. 1994, he moved from Japan to Los Angeles. 2004, returned to Japan and his artworks of sculptures and ceramic reliefs are displayed all over Japan. From 2011 to 2015 president of Tama Art University, actually president of NPO Art Challenge Takigawa. His artworks are collected in many museums as MOMA

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