Published  13/04/2012

A Fitting Coda to a Culture-Bridging Career. An interview with Joe Earle of Japan Society Gallery, April 2012

A Fitting Coda to a Culture-Bridging Career

An interview with Joe Earle of Japan Society Gallery, April 2012


In September 2007, Joe Earle joined Japan Society in New York as vice-president and director of the Japan Society Gallery. His appointment came at a critical juncture; in 2007, Japan Society celebrated its 100th anniversary. During the previous two years, key personnel had left the organisation, while the gallery was operating without a director and a schedule for upcoming exhibitions. Thus, Earle, who had co-curated the gallery’s autumn 2006 “Contemporary Clay”, found an open field for making his mark.

Earle’s background made him the perfect choice. He had spent more than 30 years studying and promoting Asian arts in public institutions. He graduated from Oxford University, where he majored in Chinese language and literature. In 1974, Earle joined the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in the newly created Far Eastern Department. Over the years, he specialised in Japanese art. In 1983, he was named head of the Far Eastern Department, and in that position oversaw the opening of the V&A’s Toshiba Gallery of Japanese Art. In 1990, Earle left the V&A to pursue a career as freelance curator and author. In 2003, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, selected him as the first chair of its Department of Art of Asia, Oceania and Africa. Earle has contributed to seminal events like the Royal Academy’s Great Japan Exhibition (1981-82) and Visions of Japan, a section of the UK’s 1991 Japan Festival. He has also written numerous books and articles on Asian art and culture.

In November 2011, Earle announced his retirement from Japan Society at the end of September 2012. During his tenure, Japan Society Gallery has become a place where art forms and techniques of the past, present and future harmonise. From bamboo baskets, painted scrolls and clay vessels to anime and graphic arts – with a whimsical side journey to the world of buriki tin toy cars – Earle has organised shows with broad appeal, amplified with family-friendly programming and hands-on workshops. Quite a trek from the Museum Mile magnet of Fifth Avenue, these days the gallery attracts impressive numbers of visitors of all ages and nationalities to its serene setting on Manhattan’s East Side near the United Nations.

Studio International first interviewed Earle in autumn 2008 for his comments on the exhibition, New Bamboo: Contemporary Japanese Masters. Now, in his fifth and final year as director, Earle talks about the gallery’s current exhibition of Japanese Art Deco, his culture-bridging career and some possible plans for the coming years.

CDM: Thank you, Mr Earle, for speaking with Studio International again. I have viewed Deco Japan and extend my compliments. Beyond the many charming images and objects, the show spotlights a period of great cultural turmoil and conflicting political aspirations in the country. Can you describe initial responses to the exhibition?

JE: I think people are especially attracted by the fact that this isn’t your regular Japanese craft- and design-history show. Although this was a period when the traditional crafts re-invented themselves by absorbing international influences and, very importantly, were admitted to the national salon exhibitions starting in 1927 alongside the “fine arts” of painting and sculpture, those official works only tell one part of the story of Japanese design in the 1920s and 1930s. The salon crafts in the show are superb, but also included are other more ephemeral things like men’s under-kimonos with racy film-poster designs, obi sashes with Olympic insignia, postcards, posters, domestic tableware including a sake flask shaped like an Akita dog, jewellery, medals, matchbox covers and – my favourites – dizzy, sexy sheet-music covers that give viewers a much broader sense of the era, both artistically and, if you like, sociologically. Bob and Mary Levenson’s very astute collecting, alongside Kendall Brown’s compelling scenario, combine to make this one of those strongly narrative shows that is a joy to communicate.

(Editor’s note: Deco Japan: Shaping Art and Culture, 1920–1945, organised by Art Services International, is drawn primarily from the collection of Dr Robert and Mary Levenson and selected by Professor Kendall H Brown of California State University, Long Beach. For Studio International coverage of the show, see: Jazz-Age Style with an Asian Twist)

CDM: What attracted you to Japan Society Gallery? The position of director seems to be a fitting coda to your career.

JE: The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where I led the Asian Department from 2003 to 2007, gave me a fantastic opportunity to return to an “official” museum career after some 14 years out there in the jungle of freelance curating and commerce. It also introduced me to the American way of arts management in almost its purest form. Unlike some other very big US institutions, apart from applied-for, discretionary grants, the MFA receives no year-on-year funding from the city, state or federal governments. This made it quite a learning curve for someone nurtured in the security of a state-funded UK museum, but my freelance years were a good preparation. After getting a lot of things done in Boston in terms of new appointments, staff mentoring, improvements to the galleries, fundraising, deaccessioning – a great liberating force that needs to be unleashed in London without further delay – acquisition and – above all, perhaps – digitisation and documentation of the collections, especially Japanese prints – I felt the time was ripe for a new challenge. I’ve always loved doing exhibitions more than any other aspect of museum work, so the idea of a curated space with virtually no collection to take care of, but the duty to produce at least two exhibitions of Japanese art every year, seemed too good to be true.

CDM: What were your first objectives for expanding the gallery’s audience?

JE: My programming, especially at the beginning when I faced the terrifying void of no scheduled shows beyond the middle of 2008 – and I started in the autumn of 2007 – has been a mixture of planning and opportunism, since we clearly don’t have the resources – especially after the financial crisis of autumn 2008 – to conceive and produce every show ourselves. That said, my special objective has been to prevent the gallery from becoming a prisoner of any particular, rigid concept of what is important about Japanese art. So long as it’s mostly Japanese – in the broadest sense – and of great quality, the art can be traditional or contemporary, high or low, “craft” or “fine art”, paintings or prints. Despite the much talked-of phenomenon of “Japan passing” and the rise of China, there’s still this fascination with Japan in New York and across the country. Keep Japan Society Gallery in the public mind as the place to go and see exhibitions of Japanese art or, let’s say, “visual culture” to broaden it a bit, and I’m sure you’ll have a robust and, hopefully, growing audience, all the more now that other institutions like MoMA, the Met, the Whitney and the Guggenheim are showing increased interest in exhibiting and, in some cases, collecting Japan.

CDM: While I have enjoyed your shows of more traditional Japanese arts and crafts, the ones that stand out for me are KRAZY!, which explored the world of anime, manga and video games, and buriki tin toy cars. It struck me that a collection formed in Japan of miniature American automobiles like Studebakers and Cadillacs made in Japan is a powerful symbol of cultural harmony. Where does popular culture fit within the overall plan for the gallery?

JE: I’m not sure that I’m all that comfortable with the idea of an “overall plan” and anyway, now that I’ve announced my departure things might change once the existing schedule is played out. Actually, the buriki show was a bit of an experiment, not so much the concept itself as the idea of having a smaller, more light-hearted show every summer, something which proved to be beyond our financial and staff resources after the subprime crisis. But I’m not answering your question, am I? I guess the answer has something to do with the definition of popular culture. Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s work was definitely popular culture in the 1840s and 1850s, and now he is sought after by collectors and carefully preserved in museum print rooms. Zen master Hakuin was a populist, too.

CDM: I imagine that your 2010 show of prints by Kuniyoshi – Graphic Heroes, Magic Monsters – resonated with generations of Americans who were raised on superhero comics and continue to support a burgeoning industry for books, magazines and films featuring such archetypal figures. Was the exhibition among the more popular ones in the gallery’s history?

JE: Yes, in pure box-office terms Kuniyoshi was the most successful exhibition of pre-20th-century art held at Japan Society Gallery since we opened in autumn 1971. The exhibition title was devised especially for the New York showing. I researched it by reading the many London reviews and polling the critics’ favourite nouns and adjectives. As your question suggests, the title was deliberately targeted at the interest of our audience, both young and old, in graphic narrative, whether classic American or contemporary manga and anime. As in London, the picture editors did our promotion for us, splashing the artist’s ghosts and heroes across acres of newsprint, many of them in full colour!

(Editor’s note: The Arthur R Miller Collection of work by Kuniyoshi, which was shown at Japan Society Gallery in spring 2010, appeared at London’s Royal Academy of Arts from 21 March to 7 June 2009.)

CDM: At Oxford, you majored in Chinese language and literature. When did you begin to focus on Japanese art and what was the impetus?

JE: My interest was first piqued by fellow-students who were studying Japanese. I wanted to understand the cursive marks, particular to written Japanese, that appeared between the Chinese characters that are common to both written Chinese and written Japanese. So, I took basic boot-camp Japanese while still at college. Secondly, I got the opportunity to work at a newly formed national museum department devoted to Asia during a brief moment of increased government spending on the arts. I joined the V&A thinking that I would be a curator of Chinese art – my immediate boss was Edmund Capon, now just retired after well over 30 years as director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales – but soon discovered this vast, beguiling treasure-house of Japanese art, mostly crafts of the Edo period (1603–1868) and a huge collection of prints. Knowledge about Japanese art at the V&A was focused on one individual, Basil Robinson (“Robbie”), who was even more eminent in the field of Persian painting, a formidable autodidact who was incredibly generous with his vast knowledge, both hands-on and in terms of signatures, seals, lineages and inscriptions.

One of the principal tasks at that time was to survey all of the holdings of Japanese art that had accumulated since 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, and manually document them on 3 x 5-inch index cards, so I learned a lot quickly. Another opportunity was given me by the V&A’s visionary director, Sir Roy Strong, who asked me, aged 27 and having only once visited Japan, to curate an ambitious 1980 exhibition about contemporary Japanese design and living, Japan Style. So, I was very lucky.

CDM: When you joined the V&A in 1974, the museum’s Far Eastern Department was just getting off the ground. Were there any challenges similar to ones you met when you joined Japan Society?

JE: I lived in a protective cocoon then, both by virtue of my junior position and because we just assumed that the government would pay for things. There was much grumbling about salaries and resources, but I don’t remember anyone worrying about audience numbers much, still less revenue since as an integral part of the UK’s Department of Education and Science we weren’t even allowed to accept money, a bit like the position the Japanese national museums found themselves in until very recently. I remember a time that a cheque was received for a substantial amount of money and it languished for weeks in a safe because no one could figure out what to do with it. Frankly, the atmosphere was pretty relaxed. There were long lunches and a lot of partying. I’ve made up for that since.

CDM: For some exhibitions, you commissioned artwork for the building’s entrance; for instance, the autumn 2011 show of textile art, Fiber Futures, where paper artist Kyoko Ibe created a hanging installation above the lobby garden pool. And for a 2008-09 show of contemporary bamboo art, the gallery commissioned an installation from Kawana Tetsunori that was positioned with bamboo works by American artist Stephen Talasnik to create a dialogue between them. Can you give us the back-story for this effective tool of engagement?

JE: Stephen was incredibly persistent, in the nicest possible way, even before I took up my position as director and, of course, we often try to introduce an American component into our shows: Look at the 1952 quotation from John D Rockefeller 3rd on the stairs of our building and you’ll see at once that we are at least a bilateral, and sometimes a multilateral, institution. Also, I was very keen to make the show completely different from a smaller one I had done in Boston (Beyond Basketry, August 2006–July 2007), and I did that by focusing exclusively on sculptural bamboo. Stephen’s work was the natural choice after we hit it off during my first studio visit with him. I’m so impressed with the way his career has taken off in the last few years with installations both at Storm King (Art Center in New Windsor, New York) and for (Japanese clothing retailer) Uniqlo. I was interested to include Kawana-sensei because of his work at the New York (Bronx) Botanical Garden and his position within the Teshigahara tradition of flower-arrangement and its completely different take on the potential of bamboo. And I liked the idea of something on a much bigger scale.

(Editor’s note: The contributions of John D Rockefeller 3rd were essential to the establishment in 1971 of Japan House, Japan Society’s current home. The quotation referred to is: “The Japan Society’s long range objective is to help bring the people of the United States and of Japan closer together in their appreciation and understanding of each other and each other’s way of life. It is our hope that a vigorous Japan Society can be of real benefit by functioning as a private, non-political organisation interested in serving as a medium through which both our peoples can learn from the experiences and the accomplishments of the other.” – John D Rockefeller 3rd, March 1952)

CDM: Please identify a few achievements that have strengthened the gallery’s position as a major New York City cultural institution during the past few years?

JE: The major achievement has been to keep it going on a drastically reduced budget and with a tiny staff yet with a growing reputation for quality and variety. Outsiders who just see the results generally don’t know what it takes, but believe me it has been very hard work, much harder than I expected when I started four and a half years ago.

CDM: What is your vision for the future of the gallery?

JE: That’s really up to my successor and the management and board of Japan Society. The programme is set through to the end of December 2013, so there’s a little bit of planning time, more than I had!

CDM: Can you leave our readers with an idea of your own plans for the future?

JE: I’m hoping to be involved in some way in helping to make sure that Japanese art continues to be collected enthusiastically and knowledgeably outside of Japan, and especially here. Because of mounting costs and ever more stringent conservation concerns, some entirely justifiable and others disingenuous, relating to the fragile, organic materials that make up a large part of Japanese works of art, in future we are not going to see many major exhibitions coming from Japan. Even when we do, the new rules mean that they will be of short duration, small, single-venue and highly expensive.

This autumn we are holding an exhibition of paintings by Sakai Hoitsu (1761–1828) and his pupil Suzuki Kiitsu. Of the 58 works in the show, all but five will come from American collections, both public and private, and the show will be of outstanding quality. Outside of Japan, America is the only country where this is routinely possible and it needs to go on being possible. Although I’ll be based in London, I am proud to be a citizen of both the UK and the US, and I hope the “coda to the coda” will bring me back here often. The US is the leading country outside Japan for the study, appreciation and display of Japanese art and that seems unlikely to change any time soon.

CDM: Thank you again for speaking with Studio International, Mr Earle. Clearly, you have made an indelible mark on Japan Society Gallery and brought forward its revitalisation.

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