By JONATHAN GOODMAN, February 2023
Kyoko Sato is a mid-career curator who has made her professional life in New York City. Someone who has eschewed extensive academic training for practical experience as a curator, Sato has worked on a broad range of projects, including both new and old art. Her 20-year span as a curator has enabled her to see the industry from the inside out, both as a creative participant and as someone exposed to the infrastructure of the art world. Sato has worked in a wide variety of settings, including museums, galleries, and non-profit spaces, again both here and in Japan. Her answers in this interview are highly intelligent; indeed, they are more than that: they are the distillation of years of work titled to an exploratory art world that embraces ways of seeing and thinking that have kept Sato at the forefront of contemporary art in New York City.
JONATHAN GOODMAN: Please provide details about your early life. Where did you go to college? What did you study at your university? When did you decide to become a curator?
KYOKO SATO: I was born in Ako-city of Hyogo prefecture, Japan. My family moved a lot. We moved to the Tokushima prefecture when I was in kindergartener, Costa Rica when I was 6, Tokushima again when I was 11, Nishinomiya-city in Hyogo prefecture when I was 13, and then I went to Tokyo when I was 19 to enter Waseda University. I studied art history. I thought about becoming an artist, but when I was 17 I decided to study art history instead of making it myself...
When I graduated from the University, I was able to be hired as staff in a joint project of NHK (a public TV station) and the Asahi Shimbun (Newspaper), creating a blockbuster traveling exhibition of the ancient Jomon civilization in Japan. I was in charge of loaning artifacts from the museums and private collections. I have been a curator since then.
How long have you been in New York? What was the reason behind your decision to leave Japan? What was the title of your first curated show in New York? Where did it take place and what was it about?
I came to New York in 2002, so I have been here for 21 years. Probably because I grew up in Costa Rica, I knew there was a world beyond, and I thought I would live abroad in the future. In 2000, I visited my sister, who was studying at Columbia University. I was organizing fashion shows as a producer of NHK group then, and I was always working, so I tried to meet all the top stylists in New York, and one of them was my ex-husband working as a stylist in the legendary Kenneth Salon in New York. Later, he invited me to live with him.
Do you have a Japanese bias in your curating practice? Do you work mostly with Japanese artists living here, or do you also work in Japan? How are the contemporary art situations different in the two cultures?
When I curate shows, I see the artists’ personalities first. The more I know about an artist, the more I understand their works. Naturally, I know a lot of Japanese artists and because of that I invite a good amount of them when I curate group shows. Also, organizations and galleries have asked me to curate shows of Japanese art, and one of them is “A Colossal World: Japanese Artists in New York, 1950s – Present” at WhiteBox, New York. It was held in 2018, receiving a prestigious grant by the Ishibashi Foundation, and exhibited mostly historical figures, such as Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Kenzo Okada, Yayoi Kusama, Yoko Ono, Shigeko Kubota, Takashi Murakami, and younger expats such as Oscar Oiwa or Tomokazu Matsuyama.
However, I am known for exhibiting many kinds of art forms from artists all over the world. I curate women’s show, too. I don't want to limit myself. With regards to women’s shows, I was able to complete my task by helping organize a traveling exhibition called “Ancient Egyptian Queens and Goddesses: Treasures from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,” held in the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum and the Kobe City Museum in 2014, because the theme was about strong female leaders. It took eight years to realize the exhibition once I presented my first proposal to the two organization: The Metropolitan Museum and the Asahi Shimbun. This was a very long time before the show materialized, but I never gave up. During those 8 years, I was having two babies!
Do you favor working with non-profit spaces or commercial ones? Is there a difference between curating in one or the other?
I like experiencing many forms of exhibitions. I consider what is good for the organizations, and then I curate in a way that is best suited for them almost without compromising the quality. I am probably a very flexible curator fit for any kinds of conditions/venues/forms.
What is current Japanese art like today? Is there any large movement, like Mono-Ha, you can describe? Is the art currently being made by Japanese artists particularly Japanese, or does current work fall into a generally international category?
Many artists are using anime or manga styles. They do live paintings a lot, while the Pollock style action painting is a classic in New York. Japanese culture has been, and still is, developing in very unique ways, which is what I like about it. Ukiyo-e was discovered by Europeans when they found the prints were being used to wrap ceramics from Japan. Actually, I have been showing such unique Japanese arts. including anime in New York, believing they will have great value in art history as Ukiyo-e does in the world.
Please name and describe the art of two or three Japanese artists you feel will become important. Are they based here or in Japan?
Tomokazu Matsuyama and Oscar Oiwa. Both are quite different, but they both definitely have the quality of world top leaders with global visions. Matsuyama’s works were sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong evening auction in spring 2022. Just within the past 12 months, 8 works of Matsuyama were acquired as a permanent collection by global museums. He has a studio style with over 20 staff. His decorative and colorful works are made of the highest quality, with an academic backing and techniques. While Oiwa works alone, his works are in literally all major museums in Japan. Most of his works are mural size, bringing viewers to a dreamy other world with the architectural bird's-eye view. The two artists are based in New York and have many solo shows all over the world. I am proud and honored that I have been collaborating with them.
AIKO and Dragon 76 are becoming known, taking considerable importance and often making murals. AIKO’s was the first Japanese-created mural on the Bowery Wall. Dragon 76 created a huge mural for the United Nations recently.
Many people feel that curatorial work is now more important than the work of the writer. Do you agree? What is the role of the curator today?
Curators are presenters, while writers are respondents. A curator can create a world, send messages. Even though writers are respondents, real writers are very creative and can send extensive messages. The difference is that the curator can make physical spaces which we can experience, and the writer's world is written and goes to the reader's imagination In a way that, by comparison, Instagram can be considered easier for people to process because it's all about visual communication. Actual physical space is easier for us to process rather than using our imagination in the brain. I cannot judge which is more important, but using the eyes is easier than using the imagination or brain.
I always present my curatorial work in a way most people can understand with clear messages or intentions. I want to give people hope, surprise, or make people happy experiencing my creative exhibitions.
How do you see the infrastructure of the New York City art world? Are non-profit spaces losing out to commercial galleries? Are the museums themselves becoming too commercial in their shows? What is your opinion?
I would like to bring back the art society in Manhattan. Many talented artists are mostly in Brooklyn now, and they are scattered. When I studied and exhibited works of Fluxus artists, I felt they were enjoying making art, influencig each ther, or even having fun with each other in the Fluxus circle in SoHo. I believe artists can make good artworks when they are enjoying or happy. Land prices in Manhattan got too expensive, and that has caused all of what you mentioned in the questions. I hope someone will work on changing expectations again like they did in the past, and bring artists back to Manhattan.
Do you think curation requires academic study? Or can you learn it effectively by experience alone? Please answer the questions in accordance with your own experience.
Curating exhibitions needs basic knowledge about art, art history, and furthermore, an ability to understand what each artist is thinking and making on a deep level. I learned many kinds of art history such as Japanese art history, Indian ancient art, Italian Renaissance, French and Russian avant-garde, American modern art. When I was 6-11 years old in Costa Rica, I saw indigenous arts, also Mexican murals produced during the 1930s.This experience sent me into the art world. That led me to write a graduate thesis about Jackson Pollock. I am still continuing to learn about art. We don't have to go to school. If there is a will, there is a way.
For organizational skills, I have learned mostly through on the job training. I had chances to go back to school, but I like working in actual society instead of schools. Since I started producing projects such as exhibitions, events, shows, and forums in media companies, I have been using the skills I learned and have been thinking in order to effectively present them to the world. Art can and should be entertainment, documentary, charitable, and educational.
Since you have been in New York, how has contemporary art changed? Has it improved or declined? Does the current emphasis on politics strengthen or weaken art being made now?
It is hard to answer these questions. Artists are born to make art and express themselves. So, they make art no matter the situation they are in. Many artists made a lot of artworks during the pandemic because they were isolated or had more time. Because some artists want to say something about our world, artists who create political works have always existed.
Current work covers a wide spectrum of possibilities. How do you personally determine, in the face of so much variety, what art is good? Or has that question become unnecessary in the face of a broadening acceptance of all kinds of art?
The best art always talks to my heart. Good art talks to my brain. Communicating with actual artists or knowing more about their personality is very important. I like artists with a pure positive heart, who have strength, brightness, and are engaging, charming, caring about others. The quality of art is also important as an outcome. I am trying to accept and understand all kinds of forms of art.
Please describe two recent shows you have curated that mean a lot to you. Please describe the theme and a few of the artists involved. How did you get the idea for the shows?
Since I am independent, I have a choice of which show I should curate. So, all the works I curated in New York have meant a lot for me. When I start curating a show, I set some goals, and I have been completing those using all my abilities and networks. Last fall, I curated a solo show of Shichiro Kobayashi, a historical anime director who passed away last year. My aim was to let world anime fans know about his half century legacy. In winter, I started to collaborate with the TV show writer Motoichi Adachi, who won the Emmy, bringing some unique Japanese artists into the New York art scene exhibiting with international New York front runners. In this way, I was able to extend publicity abroad to not only in the US or Japan; Slovenian news and Mexican TV shows featured us. Most recently, I had the honor to create an inaugural juried exhibition for the Sojourner Gallery, which opened a second space in Hudson Yards. My intention was to let New York art people effectively know about its debut, so I did an open call to offer artists: successful applicants were meant to be introduced and then juried, The exhibition includes 33 artists. So news of the opening will be unusually large. The exhibition "Sojourner" is open until March 15, 2022, at 446 West 34th Street, NYC. To visit, please write to email@example.com to make an appointment. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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