Woman with Purpose: Yukako Yamashita

Woman with Purpose: Yukako Yamashita

Yukako Yamashita has steadily built up her career for 12 years since she began working in the art industry. After joining Sotheby’s Japan, where she oversaw the sales of Japanese contemporary art, she actively introduced emerging artists in Japan through “THE CLUB,” a gallery in Ginza, Tokyo. These works led to her appointment as program director of the art fair “Art Collaboration Kyoto (ACK)” at the age of just thirty-four. ACK is an art fair launched in 2021 under the theme of “contemporary art and collaboration,” unique in bridging Japanese and international galleries, government and private sectors, and the fine arts and other fields. She is also a visiting professor at Kyoto University of Art since 2020 and is involved in art education.

We spoke with Yukako Yamashita, a true woman with purpose, about meaningful art fairs, contemporary Japanese artists, and the challenges she had to overcome as a young woman in the art world.

Photo @ Kaori Nishida

What drives your passion for art?

I genuinely love art. No matter how tired I am, when I see a work of art that I think is superb, I can keep on working. What people think is beautiful varies individually. If something, art or fashion, appeals to my eye because of its beauty, it fuels my enthusiasm.

You have been the Program Director of Art Collaboration Kyoto since 2022. What motivated you to produce a "slower, more meaningful" art fair? Could you share your thoughts?

The world we live in is getting closer and closer to a consumerist society. That accelerates the flow of time for everything. Personally, I was tired but fulfilled before the COVID-19 pandemic. When the pandemic stopped everything, I recognized how luxurious it is to spend time for myself. This pushed me toward the curatorial theme for ACK: Flower of Time. I wanted to express the richness of living at your own pace. Since my late twenties, I have visited art fairs around the world every year as an art lover. After taking on the position of ACK Program Director last year, I have transitioned from being a mere attendee at an art fair to being responsible for organizing it. As a gallerist at THE CLUB and an art enthusiast, I understand the value of the artistic process and the time artists devote to their creations. This understanding has led me to believe that it is crucial to establish a suitable timeline that effectively conveys the significance, passion, and impact of the behind-the-scenes effort. For the audience to truly appreciate the weight of each artwork, it is essential to create a comfortable environment that allows viewers to savor the artwork. Therefore, we have placed great emphasis on the concept of "slower, more meaningful" to enhance the audience's experience. It is necessary to create an environment where viewers can enjoy art at their own pace, so they can fully embrace the works and feel the importance of understanding the significance of each work of art.

Which women in the arts do you admire?

I yearn to be a woman who contributes to society. Peggy Guggenheim is one of the women I respect. She had a patronage mindset.

Any up-and-coming Japanese artists that should be noted?

Mayuko Ose, Ernst Yohji Jaeger, and Genta Ishizuka. I am always interested in artists who have unique skills, concepts, and individuality and enable me to experience profoundness.

You were appointed as a managing director of an art gallery in Tokyo, THE CLUB in Ginza, 2017 to 2022, hoping to further internationalize the art world of Japan. What is your impression, having worked at THE CLUB? What synergies were generated there?

I left Sotheby's and took over the management of THE CLUB in my late 20s to launch a new business. It was a turning point that I learned a lot from. During that time, I developed the mindset I still follow today: Hold on to your vision, take responsibility for it, and earn the trust of others. I was overwhelmed by the internationality and diversity when I visited overseas galleries in my 20s for the first time. I wanted to give the young people who will lead the next generation of the art world in Japan the opportunity to be exposed to this diverse art like I was able to experience it. It is harder for younger people to go abroad by themselves. Therefore, I wanted to increase the internationalization of the art world and create an environment that enabled visitors to be exposed to diverse, world-class art at THE CLUB. I still try to broaden this perspective by getting involved in growth strategy development for central and local governments, such as working as a strategic advisor for Kyoto City.

Do you think there is any significant difference in the reception of art between the Eastern and Western art worlds?

As far as art is culture, I believe there are no large regional differences. There are art museums in every country. All countries have their own cultures. However, there are differences in preferences in terms of art, that is, people's tastes. The West tends to wear culture on its sleeve, while Eastern aesthetics favor a less-is-more approach — a concept where beautiful things are only beautiful or valuable because they are hidden. This has developed into people valuing even small works of art in the Eastern world.

You are from Kyoto. What is the potential of Kyoto as an international art city?

Kyoto is appealing as it has an overwhelming cultural potential and a profound history, even when looking at it from a global point of view. More art colleges have recently been founded in the city where history and future coexist. It is encouraging that more universities are offering high-level art education and more young artists who will lead the next generation. Many people and companies are devoting themselves to patronage activities and supporting artists and culture. The Agency for Cultural Affairs was moved to Kyoto recently. I hope the public and private sectors will be able to collaborate to make Kyoto an international center for art.

As a woman working in arts: where do you see a connection between fashion and art?

Beauty, craftsmanship, uniqueness, and the ability to develop a rich mindset.

What action or decision are you proudest of?

I leap into new fields even though I am scared. I suddenly decided to go abroad even though I was brought up in a domestic environment. I joined Sotheby's Japan as the first employee entering the company right after graduating from university. I founded a gallery as a new business, although I was an inexperienced gallerist. It is important for me to carve out my own place in the world.

Do you have any difficulties working as a female art producer? How do you overcome them? By having a successful career as an art producer, what message or advice do you have for young artists and people who want to be curators or producers, particularly women?

I encountered different stereotypes because of my youth and gender. Young female gallerists are unique in Japan. Now, at the age of 35, I have finally started to feel comfortable with my way of living. “There is no rain that doesn't stop” is my favorite saying. You cannot avoid conflict because of your youth. However, believe that time will come. Have hope. Don't rush. I feel that it is especially important to have peers whom you can trust and who support each other as I get older. My community of peers is a treasure for me.


Photos @ Kaori Nishida

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