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Inside Collector Takeo Obayashi’s Sanctuary for Art in Tokyo

Reena Devi
Dec 30, 2022 3:00PM

Portrait of Takeo Obayashi. Courtesy of Takeo Obayashi.

During November’s Art Week Tokyo, the city’s premier citywide initiative for contemporary art, attendees flocked to a special collector visit: In downtown Tokyo, Japanese art collector Takeo Obayashi welcomed visitors to his Yu-un Guesthouse. Designed by Pritzker Prize–winning architect Tadao Ando, the space, which opened in 2006, showcases art from Obayashi’s private collection of 1,000 works.

A Stanford University–trained civil engineer, Obayashi is now chairman of the Obayashi Corporation, a Japanese construction conglomerate founded by his great-great-grandfather in 1892. Since the late 1990s, under the reign of the younger Obayashi, Obayashi Corporation has undertaken many large-scale art projects. More than 70 pieces of contemporary art are currently on view at the company’s headquarters. From 1998 to 1999, the company commissioned famed Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama and 18 other internationally renowned artists to create rare works of art, integrating new artwork into the office design.

Obayashi is also a council member of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, a member of Tate’s International Council Executive Committee, and a member of the Japanese Committee of Honour, Royal Academy of Arts, in London, as well as president of the Japanese Friends of Centre Pompidou in Paris.

Olafur Eliasson, Tile for Yu-un, 2006, at Takeo Obayashi’s Yu-un Guesthouse, designed by Tadao Ando, Tokyo. Courtesy of Takeo Obayashi.

Installation view, Antony Gormley, Another time XX, 2007–2013, at Yu-un Guesthouse, Tokyo. Courtesy of Takeo Obayashi.

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Yet the Tokyo-born 68-year-old is most famous in art world circles for his guesthouse—and its ongoing exhibition of 20 curated works, entitled “When You Were Young.” “I am showing various established artists’ works, but specifically the works which were painted or made when they were very young, such as early paintings by Jackson Pollock and Cindy Sherman,” Obayashi told Artsy.

Five site-specific works also adorn the property: commissions by artists Olafur Eliasson, Lee Ufan, Lee Bul, Tatsuo Miyajima, and Tokujin Yoshioka. The guesthouse features other temporary installations, including pieces by Roni Horn and Tadaaki Kuwayama. Artist Hiraki Sawa has also curated video works and an installation that are now on view.

Obayashi described the guesthouse as his second home, whose function is to “show my collection, to meet my art friends, to eat and to drink with people who are interested in contemporary art.”

Olafur Eliasson, Tile for Yu-un, 2006. Site-specific commissioned work. Site-specific commissioned work at Yu-un Guesthouse, Tokyo. Extracted from Art Basel’s video “Meet the Collectors | Takeo Obayashi.” Courtesy of Art Basel.

The tranquil space also offers a creative respite within one of the world’s busiest cities. Located in a quiet residential area within a 10-minute drive from the internationally renowned Mori Art Museum, the guesthouse presents itself as a sanctuary for art.

When visitors first look upon Yu-un Guesthouse, it appears as a huge glass box, even though very few windows gaze out onto the street. There are only interior windows, with subtle light from the glass facade filtering into the space—ideal conditions for presenting art. The main wing is square, and the annex, which opened to visitors in August 2021, is L-shaped, with both connected by a bridge. A courtyard appears at the center of the building, featuring a mounted pathway of tessellated tiles by Olafur Eliasson.

Obayashi devotes the three basement floors to exhibitions that show off his extensive private collection of international contemporary artworks. Featured artists include Yayoi Kusama, Tracey Emin, Marc Quinn, Mike Kelley, Daniel Buren, Lee Bul, Gabriel Orozco, and Tokujin Yoshioka.

Installation view, Lee Ufan, Relatum, 2010. Courtesy of Art Basel.

The collector admitted that he is running out of space for new site-specific works, and he has not commissioned any new pieces for years. “I should do something next year. In the past, I installed five of those works,” he added.

Interpersonal connections are an important theme throughout Obayashi’s collecting practice—“Yu-un” means a space for people to gather and connect with each other through arts and culture.

“Meeting artists is very important for me, so I meet artists through galleries, museums, art fairs, and on other occasions,” Obayashi said. “I tend to collect artworks of artists I have met. For example, I met Japanese photographer and architect Hiroshi Sugimoto, and I love his artworks. I go to all his exhibitions, I go to his studio, go out for drinking, and we are a part of each other’s lives.” Naturally, Obayashi gravitates towards contemporary art and artists.

To further his communal aims, Obayashi organizes open houses every few months to celebrate each new, specially commissioned, site-specific installation.

Installation view, Antony Gormley, Another time XX, 2007–2013, at Yu-un Guesthouse, Tokyo. Extracted from Art Basel’s video “Meet the Collectors | Takeo Obayashi.” Courtesy of Art Basel.

Since the pandemic, Obayashi’s social impetus has become even more crucial: “After COVID, in addition to showing my collection, I work with galleries and artists to show their works at the guesthouse. Afterwards, I sometimes buy one of the artworks,” he said.

Obayashi is also keen to work with foundations. “Next year I’m going to work with Louise Bourgeois’s established Easton Foundation,” he said. “They are very interested in my guesthouse and showing a few drawings and sculptures in my space.”

Though the guesthouse is only open by appointment, it’s very important to the collector to make private collections and contemporary art accessible to the public. “For art collectors, it is important to show their works in museums, or in their own private houses,” he said. “Especially in Japan, where not many people have big spaces, they should try and open their houses and show their collection.”

Obayashi observed that many of his Japanese collector friends are beginning to consider opening their own private museums. It’s a trend, he said: “It’s happening.” One reason for this shift is that “while there are many public museums showing Japanese paintings and modern art,” Obayashi said, “there are not many museums, especially public ones, showing contemporary art in Japan.”

Installation view, Taizo Kuroda, TSUBO (Vase), 2018, at Yu-un Guesthouse, Tokyo. Extracted from Art Basel’s video “Meet the Collectors | Takeo Obayashi.” Courtesy of Art Basel.

Obayashi hopes that the new, rising generation of young Japanese collectors will develop their knowledge of the art world beyond Japan—and develop their own international art collecting practices.

“I hope those Japanese entrepreneurs interested in collecting contemporary art open their eyes to not just what is happening in Japan, but also what’s happening in Asia, Europe, and America,” he said. “There are still many young Japanese collectors who only watch the local market.”

While foreign galleries may venture to Tokyo in order to show international artists and broaden local collector appetites, Obayashi believes that Japanese galleries are also responsible for promoting local artists overseas, especially now that Japan’s contemporary art market is growing. There’s significant global interest in the region, especially with next year’s launch of the international art fair Tokyo Gendai and relaxed tax regulations for imported works.

Installation view, Tokujin Yoshioka, Waterfall, 2006. Site-specific commissioned work at Yu-un Guesthouse, Tokyo. Extracted from Art Basel’s video “Meet the Collectors | Takeo Obayashi.” Courtesy of Art Basel.

“Most Japanese artists are very well supported by Chinese collectors, not quite international,” Obayashi said. “Good artists should be supported in America, Europe, and Asia. It doesn’t mean Japanese artists aren’t good. There are many great Japanese artists. But Japanese galleries need to go abroad to introduce the artists internationally.”

Nonetheless, Obayashi, a self-described risk-taker who prefers works by emerging artists, believes that each collector—especially young art collectors—should develop their own sensibilities.

“Art collectors should have their own eyes and their own tastes. You probably won’t feel the investment, but so what—as a collector, you should sometimes make mistakes,” he said. “Buying works from emerging artists is risky, but I don’t mind risks, I don’t buy for investment, I don’t sell.…I always make mistakes, but I never regret anything about my collection.”

Reena Devi
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019