28 Mar 2016
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Drawing Connections Between Business and Art

Consultancy shows Japanese companies the benefits of appreciating and investing in contemporary art
by Constantine von Hoffman

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Photography by Benjamin Parks/GPA

Business and art can both be viewed as aspirational activities. Business aims to improve people’s circumstances. Art, on the other hand, tries for something less tangible by changing people’s understanding of the world.

This transformative moment, what the poet Wallace Stevens called playing “A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,” is a fugitive thing. It depends on an artist’s skill and a viewer’s perception, neither of which can be quantified or standardized. For many, this moves art beyond the realm of business, which relies on regular, and understandable inputs and outputs. Even so, art can have considerable value to business as an investment and that requires a healthy supply chain, that is, a healthy art community.

“It is the classics that today have the greatest value,” says Tetsuji Shibayama (MBA 1990). “But they did not start out as classics. All art was fresh and contemporary when it was created, and was available cheaply. There may be only one or two pieces among a million that will endure for centuries. However, if there is no market for these million paintings now, there is no chance any will last into the future.”

To address that, in 2007, Shibayama founded AG Holdings, a consultancy with a special focus on art and culture programs.

Art was the last thing on Shibayama’s mind 35 years ago, when he started working at Mitsubishi Corp., one of Japan’s giant trading companies, as a copper trader. Then he was just focused on the traditional forms of career advancement. After eight years with the company, he decided to go to HBS. “The idea came from my time as an intern at Digital Equipment Corp. in the United States while I was a university student,” he said.

He came to Boston and Digital via AIESEC, an NGO that arranges exchange experiences and internships around the world. While in Boston, Shibayama became close with some Boston University students and was surprised by the prominence of the liberal arts at American universities, which was not the case in Japan.

“American undergraduates mostly study liberal arts and then work for a company for a couple of years. It’s then that many of them decide to go on to graduate school,” Shibayama says. “In Japan, many of the students decide their position for life as an undergraduate.”

He prefers the American path, he observes, because it gives people time to discover what they want and who they are.

Despite having lived in the United States before, when Shibayama returned to attend HBS, he found the cultural challenges of living here quite daunting. He also found that HBS was much harder than any other academic experience he’d ever had.

“I’d never studied that much in my life,” Shibayama recalls. “Even though it’s a lot of money to save or borrow, I’d recommend studying at HBS. The two years of hard study and job hunting can help expand opportunities for your career.”

From HBS, he went to work for Rockefeller & Co., in Manhattan, as an investment associate. Run by David Rockefeller, the firm has a renowned art collection, much of which is displayed on the walls of its offices. When Shibayama started there, he barely even noticed the art, including the pieces hanging in his own office. “I didn’t pay any attention to the paintings,” he says. “I just looked at them as wallpaper.”

However, art can seep in whether you consciously pay attention to it. After a year on the job, Shibayama found himself increasingly interested in the paintings and began having long conversations with Rockefeller & Co.’s curators, who regularly rotated which paintings were on display. These conversations and the ever-changing art had a huge impact on him. In 1994, Shibayama went to work as the managing director of Sotheby’s in Japan, even training as an auctioneer. His time at Sotheby’s gave him a lot of experience with the business side of the art world, which meant seeing art as a commodity and an investment.

Japanese culture has always valued art and incorporated it into nearly everything, Shibayama notes. Something as minor as the gift wrapping on a box is usually carefully considered and meticulously executed to a beautiful end. That helps explains Japanese businesses’ affinity for art as a part of the corporate culture. Many of the nation’s corporations have museums in their headquarters, displaying the art collection—everything from pottery to fine textiles—of the company’s founder. Many of the items are priceless, and nearly all were made long ago.

In all investments, the key to success is to buy low and sell high. Buying low in the art world requires purchasing the work of emerging artists and hoping they become a success, just as a venture capitalist invests in many startups in hopes that one will pay off. And just as VCs need new startups to choose from, so art investors need a steady supply of new artists.

“We have no market for contemporary art by young artists here,” says Shibayama, who notes that there is a social benefit as well as a financial return in supporting artists. “We have around 20,000 art majors graduating from college every year, but no one is encouraging their work.”

Having been a trader and investment adviser, and the head of a major auction house, he knew that business could provide the solution. “I thought I should create an art market rather than complaining about the lack of one,” Shibayama says.

Today, his AG Holdings plans and manages corporate art collections and art support programs in his native Japan. The best known of these is the Mitsubishi Corporation Art Gate Program, which buys about 200 works a year from emerging Japanese artists and then displays them in galleries and the company’s offices before selling them at a charity auction, where the artists and buyers can meet. The money raised goes to scholarship funds for people studying the arts.

“It helps support the artists, while at the same time expanding the art appreciation of society at large, including me,” Shibayama says.

Another way he supports artists is through education, teaching at several universities. At Gakushuin University, he teaches a course called “Art & Business.” He also teaches about the art industry and its practices at his alma mater Hitotsubashi University.

Did Shibayama know his idea would work when he launched his firm? No, he admits, at least not with 100 percent certainty. “If you worry about it too much before trying, you won’t do anything.”

Shibayama’s next aspiration is to combine art with agriculture, which he thinks are equally creative. Young artists who are not yet able to make a living with their art alone typically work part-time in urban areas in relatively low-paying jobs and they have trouble finding large spaces for their art making. On the other hand, the agricultural industry in Japan has been losing young workers. To tackle both problems, Shibayama is exploring an idea in which young artists could work part-time in agriculture while keeping time and finding space for art making.

“I have begun talking to various organizations, including local governments and dairy farms, in Hokkaido, the northern-most island of Japan, where agriculture is the largest industry,” he explains. The program is tentatively called “A&A,” for “arts & agriculture.”

“Artists will work in agricultural and dairy farms in the early morning and late afternoon,” he notes. “And during their spare time from agricultural work, they will make artworks in the large, gymnasium-like spaces formerly used as school buildings but abandoned because of the declining farming population.”

In Shibayama’s mind, this is an ideal solution in which art can help society at large.

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