Posted:Apr 14, 2015

Looking Back: 10 Years of Tokyo Art Beat

An interview with Tokyo Art Beat co-founders Paul Baron, Kosuke Fujitaka, and Olivier Thereaux.

Thanks to the help of all of its supporters, Tokyo Art Beat is now celebrating 10 years since its founding and with so many well-wishers attending the big 10-year birthday bash at the end of last year, we have been once again reminded of just how much support they’re thankful for. On the occasion of this anniversary TABlog has taken the opportunity to interview the three co-founders of Tokyo Art Beat. What motivated them to start TAB and what role do they envision for its future? Here’s a chance to hear the behind-the-scenes story from Paul Baron, Olivier Thereaux and Kosuke Fujitaka.

From left to right: Tokyo Art Beat co-founders Paul Baron, Kosuke Fujitaka, and Olivier Thereaux
From left to right: Tokyo Art Beat co-founders Paul Baron, Kosuke Fujitaka, and Olivier Thereaux

–How did you three meet and why did you decided to found TAB?

Olivier: I think I met Paul in April 2003 at a Tokyo Blogger meet-up. We became friends quite quickly, and met often for night-time photo walks. One day in January 2004 Paul asked me if I knew of any good web site, ideally bilingual, about the amazing art and design scene in Tokyo.

Paul: At that time, few galleries and museums had website and I always seemed to find out about events after they had ended. This was incredibly frustrating as I was used to visiting tons of shows in London and Paris before moving to Tokyo. I convinced Olivier that we needed to build such a tool for ourselves and other people in Tokyo.

Olivier: So we decided to just build our own. After all, what could possibly go wrong? Paul had the design chops and a lot of ideas, and I knew web technology well enough. We were helped by a number of people early on – our original “co-founder” was not Kosuke but a friend of a friend called Tadafusa Honda. He worked with us for a while, helping collect information on art and design venues which would become the backbone of TAB. He was busy, however, and left the project after a while. Then we met Kosuke one day over lunch, thanks to an introduction by some mutual friends. He was smart, enthusiastic, and was bringing exactly the skills neither Paul nor I had. We had a team.

–Are there any outstanding memories in the history of TAB?

Paul: The past 10 years have been dotted with great memories and hard times. As we started researching how to build such a site, a friend of ours introduced us to Kosuke who in turn convinced us that the site should also be in Japanese since even local people didn’t have access to basic cultural information here. TAB was launched after 12 months of labor entering data in English and Japanese for about 150 venues (today more than 1000) and their events, with a great team of volunteers working in their own time outside of their regular jobs.

The day we launched, Olivier, Kosuke and I went to celebrate at a nearby bar. It was half-way through the celebration when we realized that we had forgotten to take down the password protection on the page, meaning that no one had been able to access the site for the first hour after launch. I couldn’t believe we had managed to interest people with our project after such a mistake, but it seemed that we had really struck a chord.

Kosuke: At the time we started TAB in 2004, many people had quite a negative image of the internet, and it was really difficult to convince the PR people of various galleries and art museums about the merits of TAB. It is an absurd example which makes us laugh now, but at the time there were even members of art museums who would only give out press release details by fax and refused to receive emails.

There were tough times but we wanted to make something which would be convenient to use, and getting positive feedback always made us feel we had created something which everyone could appreciate, these honest voices of support really giving us pleasure and helping us to overcome our challenges.

Paul: In 2008, we had to greatly reduce the staff and operations to counter the effects of a nasty global economic crisis affecting our advertising revenue. This was a really hard thing to do. I thought we were eventually going to close down the site. This episode forced us to rethink the way we managed TAB and we came out stronger. But the best memories are and will always be all the friendships built around the team over the past 10 years! The recent party we held in Shiodome was an amazing testament to what we have built. We had dozens of friends (including ex-staff, long time volunteers and interns and ex-interns) all coming together to offer a great party to our users.

–What makes you feel proud about TAB?

Kosuke: I think it’s that feeling of knowing that through TAB, this bilingual website promoting art information, people all over the world are getting to know the Tokyo art scene. English language users make up about 10-20% of overall access, which lead to some opinions that with all the trouble to make bilingual service it might be better to focus just on the Japanese. However, the English version definitely has its value. Currently I am working for the New York branch of Smart News, a news report application, and one of our new American staff happens to be a huge fan of TAB. When I heard this it really made me happy that we made TAB bilingual.

Olivier: The really impressive thing, however, is that so many people have given so much of their time through the years to make TAB (and the other Art Beat sites in New York and Kansai) what it is today. This includes the good half dozen editors and translators who helped put together the site before it was launched, without any guarantee that it would succeed; and all the volunteers who have contributed since–people like Chris (Palmieri), who has been leading the design of TAB pretty much non-stop for the past 10 years. Building something people care about and want to help with is probably the aspect of this project I am proudest of.

–There have been many dramas over the last 10 years of providing this service. What has been key in allowing TAB to continue for such a long time?

Kosuke: Of course the first thing I have to say is that these 10 years are thanks to the great contributions of time and effort from so many people who have been involved. In addition I would also have to say that the fact that we have remained faithful to the founding remit of TAB–as a convenient bilingual tool for art fans to gain comprehensive information about what’s going on across Tokyo’s art scene, from small galleries to big art museums–has been fundamental to our success. For example, due to financial concerns we sometimes put out the idea of taking a fee from the museums and galleries to be included on the site, but in this case we would not be able to include information on exhibitions which could not or would not pay the fee, and so in the end this would not benefit the user. I think we have been able to continue for these 10 years because we have been able to come up with a technical system which can contribute to people’s needs and combined this with an easily accessible user interface.

–How do you feel looking back to the last ten years of TAB from the foundation? Do you have any thoughts or ideas on TAB’s future?

Olivier: How do parents feel when their children grow up? Pride. Gratitude. Some scars, because it wasn’t always easy. A bit of sadness, because life goes on; all three of us co-founders have moved away from Tokyo. It sometimes feels strange to think that other people are taking care of TAB. Mostly it is joy, because we were lucky to be part of this adventure.

Paul: The needs and habits of our users have greatly changed over the past 10 years. If 10 years ago information was scarce and few sources were sharing them, nowadays our challenges are a useful curation of information and the relationship we build with our users over social networks. We also have to constantly think up new business models to survive as a financially self-sustainable NPO in Japan. I hope that the Japanese government will greatly improve the volume and quality of their support to the next wave of Japanese artists in the years leading up to the next Olympic Games. Japanese artists deserve to stand on their own.

Kosuke: We have received strong support from those who have a latent interest in art, but such people still remain a small minority in society. As someone who is consciously interested in art and continued to be involved in TAB I think art is going to become more and more important for society. I think art and artists hold something which reaches beyond mere visual culture, they have the power to disseminate ways of thinking at a very fundamental level. Although many individuals already feel this, it currently hasn’t spread to society in general. I think TAB can really aim to foster this sentiment. I personally want to continue to support this message in the future too.

Shizuka Kitani

Shizuka Kitani

Born and residing in Tokyo, Shizuka is a BA student studying visual culture, media arts and all sorts of other stuff that interests her. She did a year abroad as an exchange student at Copenhagen University majoring in Art History. Arts, photography, teas and manatees have been her top interests since she was a child. She loves rainy days.