Published: September 24, 2019
Just weeks ahead of its fall edition, Asia Week New York announced that Katherine Martin would be its new chairman. Martin has been the director of Scholten Japanese Art since 1999, a frequent lecturer at institutions throughout the United States and is a scholar and expert on Japanese woodblock prints, for which she has written numerous catalogs. As Antiques and The Arts Weekly made its way around the city for September’s Asia Week, I sat down with Martin to talk about her new role, Asia Week’s unique timeline, the looming trade war, upcoming initiatives and more.
What are your responsibilities in your new role?
The chairman role is a rotating position that has previously been filled by some of my colleagues and friends, and I see it as a shared podium. I’ve been on the planning committee for several years, which is comprised of auction house representatives and dealers, and we really divvy up the responsibilities and plan it together.
Fall Asia Week is more low-key than the spring. Do you ever hope to balance that out or change that?
I think leaving our focus on March is the right way to go about it. Asia Week as a concept has been around for longer than Asia Week New York the organization. When I got into the art business, I joined the Japanese department at Sotheby’s in 1994, and they had just shifted the dates from June and December to March and September for the following year, 1995, and it’s remained that way in New York ever since. The energy is really heightened in March and we wouldn’t want to change that.
Asia Week New York is similar to a fair, but the building is the entire island of Manhattan.
In 1995 Caskey-Lees put on the first Arts of Pacific Asia Show at the downtown armory, and things really took off when the International Asian Art Fair came along at the uptown armory the following year in 1996, establishing New York’s Asia Week as central to the international Asian Art market. In the aughts, some of those things started to fall away, including the art fairs, and that’s when the Asia Week New York organization came together to pick up where those fairs left off. It was initially some of the dealers who exhibited at the International Asian Art Fair who recognized the need to create something new here. And they first defined themselves as the Asian Art Dealers Upper Eastside New York.
Why do you think the fairs didn’t last?
Sometimes you think there’s a big picture reason but sometimes it’s really just the most basic challenges of logistics. They lost their venues and had trouble planting seeds at another. Everyone in the art business always talks about the rise of the fairs. In the Asian art field, at least here, the fairs are not an active component. We are the component – Asia Week New York – we created something different.
Do you find that’s beneficial?
Yes. What’s really great about what we’re doing is we’re guiding our own ship; it’s an organization guided by its own participants. We all have the same common goal, and for the local dealers, it’s great to have exhibitions in your own space where people can come and see you there. For our international participants, of which we have quite a lot, they have a physical space that they rent from local galleries. So it’s a real mix of local dealers exhibiting in their own space and international dealers coming to town and showing with us.
Tell me about the international dealers.
The dealers that are in this group are vetted, so we invite them to apply or they apply on their own, and there is a process just like a fair. These are the best of our colleagues. And they have to locate a gallery or space, usually along or near Madison Avenue, working out independently their own locations. But there are also clusters of dealers exhibiting very near each other or in the same building. Many of them will go back to the same location each year, so they’re reliably present in a way.
Is Asia Week still expanding?
The first year of AADNY Asia Week New York, which became Asia Week New York, was in March, 2010, with 30 dealers, including our gallery. The following year it went up to 34. Since 2013, we have had 40 or more, with the highest being 50 in 2017. Last year there were 48. The composition has evolved too; we now have more Japanese art dealers and more contemporary Asian art dealers.
Can you compare the success of the week with the market?
To some extent Asian Art is simply a reflection of the greater art market. We’ve grown exponentially along with the economy, and we benefit from the depth and breadth of what we have to offer. Our audience is not limited to a small part of the world, after all, Asian art has a market here and in Asia. I see that as one of the great upsides of collecting in Asian art. On the one hand, you have competition from all over the world, but on the other hand, that competition keeps your market healthy.
What’s the consensus of the trade war among dealers?
It’s very worrying. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to us. We feel strongly that Chinese art and antiquities should not be included in this. It’s going to be a challenge for dealers to get art that’s located outside of this country to bring it here and offer it. The decision process that led to this is troubling to us, and we’re hoping that cooler heads prevail and there will be some sort of reasonable adjustment of this situation.
There was earlier language that art and antiquities were excluded, that was a hurdle we thought we had overcome.
I know. It almost feels like someone edited something wrong, they copy and pasted something that was not supposed to be in the document. It makes no sense, because that’s missed sales revenue. The art comes here – New York is a financial center of the world, the center of the art world – it’s an opportunity. Isn’t this what we want?
Has this hurt business yet?
Not yet, but any uncertainty can cast a cloud over anything we do. I don’t think it has affected sales yet because it just happened. If you’re a seller and you have a collection of art, trying to work out how to sell it, be it through a dealer or an auction house, you’re trying to make sense of what’s happening with the market and it’s going to be confusing on how best to handle anything right now. But right now, we don’t know how it’s going to affect things.
What about the international exhibitors?
I think they’re going to have to take it into consideration. They’re already thinking how they are going to manage it or accommodate it. Some of them may already have art located here. I wish I could fix it for them.
You need a lobbyist.
We get looped in with active organizations, sharing information with our participants who have voiced their opinions. When they’re considering new legislation and are able to receive comments and letters, we forward that information on to our participants, and some of them have offered insight and testified in Congress We do our best to support where we can.
Any changes to Asia Week New York on the horizon?
We’re going to work on an education initiative for the new year. In the past we have worked with local institutions to organize lectures, but we recognize we want to do more. We want the next two years to reflect that. It’s a great opportunity, you have some of the best minds in Asian art coming together for a week. It’s a must-do in their schedule, and there’s all this wonderful art on view to the public, so we want to take advantage of that for our attendees.
Auction houses and galleries aren’t always on the same side of things, how do they work together during Asia Week?
Speaking as a dealer, gone are the days where I can put up an eclectic mix every six months. I try to present things that tell a story, and many of the other dealers do the same. That can be a potential advantage of a gallery. The auction houses sell collections as things come to them, and it works well that way. The whole point as a dealer is that we bring and share the knowledge. That’s our job. The auction houses also need to have tremendous knowledge to handle those sales with a wide variety of material, but it’s a different process. They handle special collections and they present them very well and they tell that story. But the dealers can go about it a little bit differently. We’ve found that well-curated exhibitions supported by research are one of the ways that the dealers distinguish themselves. And dealers endeavor to share knowledge and can support the objectives of collectors and curators to seek out works that fulfill their goals.
What are some examples of that scholarship on show?
Runjeet Singh Limited published researched catalogs each time he has participated and held a lecture last year during Asia Week New York. Treasures from Asian Armories was the 2019 catalog. Oliver Forge and Brendan Lynch usually concentrate on one specific period or group of artists in the field of Indian Miniatures, and Francesca Galloway also has highly curated shows in that field as well. Joan Mirviss has had ground-breaking shows of schools of Japanese potters with illustrated catalogs: in 2018, her exhibition “Three Giants from the North: Kamoda Shoji, Matsui Kosei and Wada Morihiro” highlighted specific artists and their influence, and last year’s “Tomimoto Kenkichi and His Enduring Legacy” was another similar show. Jim Lally’s 2018 show “Ancient Chinese Jade” was centered on a collection of that material, which is quite esoteric. And Kaikodo gallery is known for their exceptionally scholarly catalogs.
What do you tell new collectors to coax them in for Asia Week?
I’ve had these conversations many times with new collectors. I explain that it’s all well and good to interact with me, but if you come in March, you can see what else is going on and you’re not going to believe what’s out there. There’s a lecture you should hear, see an exhibition there, there’s a curator you should meet. There are all these galleries – it’s an opportunity to educate your eye. And people come because they want to interact with other people who have the same interest as they do. There are competitors out there. I always find it funny when two collectors meet in front of me, and they’ve maybe known about one another, and they do this dance, saying “what do you collect? Oh, what do you collect?” Really, when else are you going to be able to do that? All condensed, all within walking distance. It happens all the time, riding up in an elevator and meeting a scholar whose book they’ve read. There was this one time when I was talking to a curator who had heard about a traveling exhibition and was interested in bringing that to their museum. And I said, “oh, the curator for that is in the other room, let me introduce you.” And they met and now that’s happening.
How many visitors come in?
As best as we can estimate, we usually have approximately 6,000 to 8,000 people attending.
Can you tease anything out for the spring?
I don’t know what will be up for sale, but I do know of some local exhibitions. The Japan Society will feature “Layering and Patching: Boro-Japanese Sustainable Handiwork, A Closer Look” and the Asia Society will put on “The Art of Impermanence: Japanese Works from the John C. Weber Collection and Mr and Mrs John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection.”
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