About Dandans and its footsteps in 10 years (2005~2015)

In the spring of 2005, an artist friend of my son came to our home for dinner. She described how difficult it was for young artists to show their work in central Tokyo. At that time, art galleries were suffering under Japan’s slow economy. Many artists were forced to rent gallery space in order to exhibit. After hearing the story of my son’s friend, I thought I might be able to help those artists to find an exhibition space. Little did I think I would be able to find it within a month.

I met my old friend Koji Watanabe, a fashion designer, who owned a building in Ginza. When he mentioned that his tenant, a tailor, was vacating his shop, I saw an opportunity. Koji was an art lover and I knew he would support my idea. He generously agreed to let us use the open space for a month free of charge. I happily reported back to the artist that I had found a perfect venue. She quickly gathered 13 artists working in various media(i.e. Japanese traditional painting, oil painting, sculpture, installation and video), who would participate in the first exhibition.

Art has always been a great love of mine. However, I had never worked in the art world and did not have a clue how to organize an exhibition. After groping my way in the dark, I contacted my French friend, Christine Vendredi Auzanneau whose knowledge about the arts was huge. I asked for her help. During our initial talk, we agreed that we needed to give a name to the group. The artists, not wanting to take the traditional path of joining an established group, preferred to work more independently. I wanted to create a platform for those artists who needed support.

The Japanese character for group [団] is pronounced“dan”. The French for“in a group”is“dans un groupe”.  By combining the two words, the French dans and the Japanese 団 and reversing the two words as they are out of the traditional group, rather puzzling name 団 DANS(Dandans)was born.

Because we lacked capital, the artists were expected to help prepare for the show. As for the venue, we decided to leave the old tailor’s shop untouched. We showed a video in the fitting room, presented installation work in a big chest of drawers and displayed bronze sculptures on the shelves.

One unique aspect of Dandans was the use of a transparent bidding box for silent auctions.  People could actually see the status of the bidding, which added more excitement. 90% of the income went to the artists, while Dandans kept the remaining 10% as capital for the next exhibition. We kept this distribution ratio flexible, it occasionally changed depending on the group’s current financial situation. Mr. Ryoichi Hirano, then the owner of gallery Koto-ken in Kyobashi, was kind enough to advise us.

At the openings, friends and mentors of the artists as well as many of my friends gathered to celebrate. They kindly brought bottles of wine, even nibbles and canapes. I fondly remember the warm atmosphere on that night.

Once an artwork was sold, I asked the artist to hand-deliver it to the collector. Visiting the collector’s residence and actually seeing the space where his / her artwork would be displayed, provided the young artist with precious experience. The first exhibition fostered new friendships and many of our friends continued coming back to attend the exhibitions year after year. They looked forward to watching the artists mature in their profession.

I continued to search for exhibition venues and ended up organizing 17 exhibitions over ten years including seven exhibitions overseas in Washington D.C., London, Berlin and Paris.

Members of the group changed from time to time – some artists left, some joined and a few later returned. But the main principle of the first exhibition remained as the framework for years to come.

Upon securing a venue, I would let the artists know the place, the date, the theme(if there was one), and the time for the first meeting, usually held in my living room. At the first meeting, I would announce the deadline for submitting a rough sketch of their work. Artists would also decide on the task they would undertake in preparing for the exhibition(i.e. creating lists and timetables, planning for the fundraising event, producing catalogues and invitation cards, organizing silent auctions, making name tags etc.)After several exhibitions, the group became familiar with the procedure and the operation began to run smoothly.

The venues were never the same. We showed works in model homes run by a construction company, a hotel garden and banquet rooms, a guest lounge, the exhibition space at a famous boutique, a former embassy building, galleries, a lawyer’s office, and the entrance hall of the German Foreign Office in Berlin.

Besides holding exhibitions, I organised several short trips for the artists to visit Seoul, Chongqing and Beijing, exploring the local art scene. I believe it is very important for young artists to learn about different cultures in our neighbouring countries.

I have also always believed that young artists must broaden their horizons and have encouraged them to venture outside Japan. Some took part in artist residency programmes abroad, applied for grants to study overseas, and exhibited their work in galleries and art fairs in Italy, Paris, Spain, Croatia, Brazil, Taipei, Hong Kong, Singapore and the United States.

When in 2011 the disastrous earthquake and tsunami struck Tohoku, we went to visit the afflicted areas and offered workshops for the children and elderly people forced to live in temporary housing. We helped them print their own designs on T-shirts, worked with clay and produced washi paper. It was a humbling experience spending time with people who had lost everything, their belongings including their homes, their children, parents, grandparents or friends. It made us realise what is important in life. These experiences, I believe, enriched the artists and their work.

Needless to say, I could not have done it all by myself.  I was blessed to have wonderful friends in Japan and abroad, who generously supported me in various ways. I am enormously grateful to those who gave me information on potential exhibition venues, attended fundraising dinners, gave us grants and donations, wrote articles about our exhibitions, promoted events, provided prizes, donated wine and performed music at the fundraising dinners, and invited contemporary art collectors to the exhibitions. There were ambassadors and other diplomats who warmly welcomed us and hosted receptions. Some of my friends living overseas gave splendid dinner parties and receptions at their homes. Many purchased artwork, which no doubt boosted the artists’ confidence.  Some travelled thousands of miles to attend the exhibitions in Europe.

When I look back at the past ten years, wonderful memories come back to me. As a small token of my gratitude, I should like to dedicate this archive to those who have supported me. Words cannot express how thankful I am for their invaluable friendship and kindness. I greatly enjoyed working with the artists, a wonderful group of young people. We had so much fun together and I often cried with laughter. I feel very fortunate to have been able to work with them.

I am nearly 70 years old. I feel it is our turning point for me and for the artists. I have supported them as much as I could for these 10 years and now, they are well equipped to carry on independently. It has been an honour to work with the talented artists. From now on, I’ll support them in a different way and our friendship will continue. These years with the artists will be certainly a treasure of my life.           

Kazuko Aso
Organiser and Director of Dandans
Autumn 2016


P.S.  In order to create the archive, I was able to get in touch with most of the artists who participated in Dandans exhibitions. Several of them wrote back, ‘I’m sorry but I stopped making artwork,’ ‘I moved back to my hometown and started a new job.’ or ‘I got married and I am busy raising a child.’

I appreciate that many of these young artists have other obligations and I admire them for making the difficult decision to give up something they feel passionate about. Having worked closely with those artists, I am well aware of their profound love for creating art.

I should like to take this opportunity to acknowledge those who made tough decisions and to extend my respect to them. I wish them all the best in their future endeavours.