Tokyo-based collector Dr Ryutaro Takahashi is the media-shy man behind the biggest, most valuable private collection of works by legendary artist Yayoi Kusama, among other contemporary Japanese artists. No museum or institution in Japan has come close to his level of commitment and patronage to this genre. We sat down with Dr Takahashi to learn about his collection, what defines good art, and the future of contemporary art in Japan.
When did your passion for contemporary art begin?
Dr Ryutaro Takahashi: It was in the late 1990s, in the latter half of my 40-year career as a psychiatrist, that I started collecting. I didn’t have much money to spend on art back then, so I went to see affordable artworks such as lithographs. After my practice was more stable, I went to see Yayoi Kusama’s exhibition at Ota Fine Arts in 1997. She had been producing acrylic paintings but returned to oil painting for the ‘Infinity Net’ series. A year before that I found myself enthralled by the works of Makoto Aida at Mizuma Art Gallery. These two exhibitions made me realise how captivated I was by art and I have been collecting ever since.
What kind of collecting style do you have?
When I acquired an artwork in the past, my thought process didn’t involve reference to it being part of a collection. I would purchase multiple works simply out of desire. And during [first name] Yamaguchi’s solo exhibition, I went as far as to ask for the entire show on display. I wanted it all. The gallerists were obviously befuddled for a minute with this audacious request. They eventually persuaded me to think twice. I purchased only two-thirds of the collection. I now have over 2,800 works. I no longer buy art based on pure fondness. I take into consideration the Takahashi Collection. I feel the social responsibility to build a balanced collection. I’m honestly uncertain if this consciousness is a good or a bad development as a collector.
Who are your favourite artists?
I am hesitant to answer that, but Yayoi Kusama and Makoto Aida are two very special artists I have a personal history with. I have come to respect them as artists, as well the incredible impact they have and will leave on art history. I am proud to have the largest collection of their works.
What is the relation between art and therapy?
As a collector, I don’t view the artwork as a psychiatrist. However, both art and therapy involve reaching the viewer or patient’s unconscious. We need to release what lies beneath the surface. Hence, in theory, I believe the intention of a contemporary artist and a psychiatrist is very similar.
What do you consider as good art and why is it important?
Art has many facets and interpretations. Good art can change the way we look at the world, and I think this is fascinating. Good art can be a means to express or to escape. Good art is produced by an artist whom I consider is a genius — someone that has the power to create and give us something valuable.
Who are the leading artists of this generation and where do you see the future of Japanese contemporary art?
I think the leaders include artists such as Kōhei Nawa, Chim-Pom and Koki Tanaka. These three are the major ones for me. They have been perceived very well domestically and built a growing fanbase overseas. This is admirable, but we don’t have any artists to cultivate the next generation. I am worried about this dilemma. Japan is rich in culture, but the development and transmission of contemporary art is weak. The youth are not ambitious like before. It’s a modern-day phenomenon and I think it will be difficult to change. It is all very unfortunate.
Do you have any advice for those who want to start collecting art?
The art scene is not created by curators, it is created by art collectors. We are the ones who need to nurture growth. It is a real shame when wealthy collectors from Japan only purchase safe works by foreign-established artists based on market analysis. They completely disregard the development of their own country. Many wind up with collections of similar content: there is a lack of original curation. We should purchase works from Japanese artists and allow them to thrive in the world. We need to have the will to challenge society and this is what I want to see from a younger generation of artists and collectors.