Raised as the child of a theatrical family, White’s grandmother was a theater director, her mother a stage artist and her father an actor. After working for an exhibition design company and a gallery, etc., she began her career in the theater world. After serving roles in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and as the coordinator of overseas performances of the Scottish touring theater company Communicado, White became an employee of the British Council. From 1989 to ’99 she served as arts manager of the BC Tokyo Office in charge of arts programming for UK90 and UK98 among other programs. Following a period with the London arts department, White assumed the post of Director of the BC Cuba Office.
* “British Art Today” exhibition
This was the first large-scale exhibition of British art since the 1970 exhibition “Contemporary British Art” held at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. The exhibition contained nearly 200 works ranging from those of internationally renowned artist to new artists being introduced in Japan for the first time. Young curators from several museums spent nearly three years researching and planning for the exhibition. It was a revolutionary exhibition for Japan in a number of ways, such as the use of several prominent British artists who were invited to Japan to create works on-site for display in the exhibition. (The exhibition toured to the National Museum of Art, Osaka, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts, Fukuoka Art Museum and the Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art.)
This large-scale UK festival event was organized with the aim of deepening mutual understanding between Japan and the UK through the arts. The program ran from August to November of 1990 with a schedule of many events including exhibition, concerts, theater performances and film festivals in Tokyo and other cities around the country. Among the highlights were the first Japan performances of the Wales National Opera, a British Art, Today exhibition (Setagaya Art Museum), a British Museum exhibition and British Film Festival.
|The British Council’s Tokyo Office has played a pivotal role in contemporary arts and cultural exchange between Japan and the United Kingdom ever since its establishment in 1953. With offices in over 100 countries and regions around the world, the British Council* (BC) offers programs that seek to share British culture in the three areas of the Arts, English, Education and ways of living and organizing society. In Japan, the British Council played a major role in introducing British contemporary art in the 1980s and later increased its presence as an “international cultural relationship organization” with initiatives like its Study Tour Partnership program that invites people like professionals in the fine arts and dance to the U.K.
In recent years, the Tokyo BC office has broadened its approach to include the introduction of programs such community dance that use the arts as a platform for addressing social issues, working in cooperation with Japanese NPOs. Here, we speak with BC Tokyo Office Head of Arts Manami Yuasa about the program strategy.
Interviewer: Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto (NLI Research Institute)
We would like to begin by asking you how you came to your position at the British Council (BC) Tokyo Office and how you came to be involved with British and arts & culture. When did you join BC?
It was in 1995, so this is my 17th year. I first joined as an assistant in the Arts section. My present position is Head of Arts in charge of administrating the activities of our Arts section. There are cases of people like Takeshi Sakurai, currently Director of the Contemporary Art Museum Kumamoto, who worked at BC for more than 30 years, but I think my 17 years is one of the longer careers for anyone working in the arts programs of BC offices around the world today.
What did you major in at university?
The fact is that I never did major studies in anything like the fine arts, theater or arts management at university. I entered the English Literature Department of Tokyo’s Sophia University. However, when I was in high school it was a time when the small theater movement was at its peak in the 1980s and I often went to see plays performed at the small theaters in the Tokyo area. At university I participated in the production work for our student drama group and enjoyed doing general production work for them like distributing leaflets, soliciting advertisements and other jobs. I think I naturally liked doing that kind of production work or publicity. After graduation I got a job in a company that ran international market events, and there I experienced working in the publicity department. After that I moved to a movie company.
So, you worked at a movie company?
Yes. At first I worked on their new business initiatives such as managing film festivals, then I moved to the publicity department. My work there was that of a publicity producer, which involved first of all coming up with the publicity concept for a film to be brought to Japan, then giving it a Japanese title and preparing the publicity tour to Japan. I worked at the film company for about four years, and during that time I worked on a range of projects, from artistic films to large-budget Hollywood movies. After four years at that company, rather than continuing to work in the commercial movie industry, I decided I wanted to try doing arts and culture related work in the public sector. It was just at that time that I found out that the BC office in Tokyo was soliciting job applicants for an assistant’s position and I applied right away.
I had long had an interest in the United Kingdom and international arts and culture exchange was the area I was most interested in working in, but there were very few posts available. I knew that BC ran its job advertisements in the Japan Times
newspaper, so I used to check it frequently. It was the first job advertisement the BC office had run in ten years, and it was for a position in the Arts section. Later I found out that over 100 people had applied for it. There were probably quite a few among them who had studied arts management overseas and the like, but I really wanted to work at BC and I think I made a strong appeal for that in my job interview. The BC office was also looking for a new type of employee with experience in the private sector and such, and since the desire I showed for the job was probably quite exceptional (laughs), I guess that is why I got hired.
At the time, Jenny White was still the Arts Manager at the BC, wasn't she? She is the one who was responsible for the arts programming of the large-scale United Kingdom festivals in Japan (UK90 and UK98) and with her extensive knowledge of theater she had served as a vital link in arts exchanges between Japan and the UK.
That’s right. And Mr. Sakurai was still at BC, too. Jenny was in Japan until 1999, after which she moved to the Arts section at the London [BC] headquarters. When I realize that I would probably be doing something completely different today if I had not been hired that time, I am filled with gratitude for the fact that I was.
Many people you have helped in Japan’s arts world are surely thankful as well for that fateful hiring (laughs). Would you tell us about what were things like at the BC Tokyo Office when you joined it in 1995? It was about five years after the British Conservative Party administration changed from the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to John Major, wasn’t it?
When I joined BC it was just before preparations began for UK98. The areas of activity at BC haven’t changed much since then. The programs were in the four areas of Arts, English, Education and Science. At the time the Internet environment was not at a stage of development where it could be used as dynamically as it is today and I have to say that, compared to the movie company I had worked at before, it was a rather quiet and conservative workplace (laughs). As an assistant, I worked at things like creating systems that would allow everyone to share information, and for UK98 I spent a year preparing a British film festival with the support of a corporate sponsor and using my former connections in the movie industry.
Looking back, I feel that the period in the 1980s and ’90s before you joined BC was one when it played a pivotal role in introducing a variety of British arts to Japan. I especially remember the success of its efforts in introducing British contemporary art in the 1980s.
That is true. As the current Director of the Niigata City Art Museum, Junichi Shioda, has written in his book Igirisu Bijutsu no Fukei
(British Art Scene), this is in large part due to the success of the exhibition “British Art Today”* organized in 1992 with the full cooperation of the British Council. At the time there were few people in Japan who were truly knowledgeable about the contemporary art of the UK, but for this exhibition Shioda san, who was then a curator at the Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts, and other young curators joined with British curators and BC staff to research British contemporary art for about three years to plan the exhibition. This led Japanese museums to begin collecting the works of contemporary UK artists, and eventually museums like the Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts put together very fine collections.
The following year, 1993, BC initiated a “Study Tour” program which invited a group of eight people including curators and other Japanese arts professionals to the UK for a comprehensive arts research tour. The result was a rapid advance in understanding of British art and also led to the development of relations with a number of now well-known experts on the UK. In 1990 there was the large-scale UK year in Japan event “UK90” that prompted the birth of a variety of exchanges between the UK and Japan from the 1980s into the ’90s. The time I joined BC was one when a second wave of new activities were beginning from the base that was formed in that period.
After your initial work as an assistant at BC, what did you do from there?
A few years after going to work at the BC Tokyo Office, there was a revision of the team makeup and I was given a project manager post. After that, I became the Head of Arts in 2005.
Head of Arts is the post that Jenny [White] had held, isn’t it?
That’s right. It is a post that was previously filled by a person sent from the BC headquarters in the UK, but after a series of reforms in the BC organization it became a post to be filled by locally hired staff. The BC organization became more flexible in many ways, and one example of the reforms was that the IT related work was outsourced to India as one of the moves to streamline functions at the London headquarters. I believe that another part of the organizational reforms involved a decision to have the arts manager post at each country’s office filled by locally hired personnel. BC doesn’t have a system by which people are automatically promoted as they gain experience. Rather, when there is a need for a new post, applicants for the job are solicited openly from inside and outside the organization. When the post of arts manager at the Tokyo Office was opened to local hiring in 2005, I applied for the post and was given it.
The post of Head of Arts at the Tokyo Office involves the decision-making power over the setting of strategy for the Arts section in Japan, designing the programs and budget allotment. At the same time, it carries the responsibility of securing budget within the organization, so the Head of Arts is expected to elevate the presence of arts program in Japan within the worldwide British Council. Before becoming the manager, I had no experience in that kind of strategic program building, so I have been learning a lot of valuable lessons since I took this post.
From the 1980s into the early 1990s there was clearly a priority at BC on introducing British contemporary art to Japan, but since 2000 it appears that more emphasis has been placed on the introduction of arts programs with social relevance, such as community dance projects and workshops by the directors of the “Streetwise Opera” program that seeks to use music to get the homeless people back on the road to independent self-support. Is that the result of your policy-making?
It is not simply a matter of my own personal interest, but more importantly I believe it to be a reflection of the changes that have taken place in the circumstances in Japan and in the UK. There have been changes in the policies and concerns of the headquarters in the UK compared to those when I first joined BC 17 years ago. For example, during the era of Prime Minister Blair there was a priority on promoting “contemporary British” as a brand, among other things. In the meantime, Japan adopted an NPO law and increasing attention has come to focus on the societal role of the arts, as evidenced by the fact that a number of arts NPOs have come into existence that are currently involved with BC. The same situation exists in the UK and that has also led me to want to introduce arts programs that will have social impact.
What are the policies like at the BC headquarters in the UK today?
In the Arts section, the policy is to work with people in the arts in each country to spread high-quality British creativity to a new and larger audience, and in line with this policy, new global corporate (management) plans have been introduced every few years. The most recent “Corporate Plan 2012-15” is posted o the BC website (http://www.britishcouncil.org/about
). In it there is an overall vision and targets for 2015 along with policies for programs in the three areas of the Arts, English, Education and ways of living and organizing society, and the BC offices in each country use it as a guideline for their activities.
Currently, BC has offices in over 100 countries and regions around the world. In the past, each of those offices dealt directly with the London headquarters, but in 2000 a new global network system was adopted with 11 regional offices (currently seven); namely for Western Europe, N. America, Latin America and the Caribbean, Southeastern Europe, Russia, Northern Europe, Central and Southern Asia, India and Sri Lanka, China, East Asia, the Middle, Near East and North Africa, the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. Japan belongs to the East Asia region and we have meetings once a year within the global network for each department category. In these meetings the representatives from each country’s office share information about the projects they are conducting in their country and formulate strategies as an arts team for the East Asia region.
By the way, Director of Arts at the London headquarters is Graham Sheffield, and he is the one responsible for formulating the global vision. Last year a meeting was held in the UK that included all the countries’ arts managers. I attended that meeting and gave a presentation on the things going on in Japan.
Doest the Arts section hold a prominent position in the corporate plan?
As the economic conditions worsened in the UK in 2003 and 2004, the position of the Arts section was getting precarious. However, there are leading artists on the international scene today like Antony Gormley who feel that they owe their careers in large part to the support they received from BC to perform overseas back before they became famous, and some of them got together and issued a statement on BC’s behalf about the importance of the arts programs. That led to the BC also issuing a statement about the importance of the arts. At that time the support of the artists provided a very strong impetus.
Could you tell us some more about the East Asia region’s global network? What countries make up this region?
Japan, S. Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, the Philippines, Myanmar, Indonesia, New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and China.
Rather than East Asia, you might call it the Pan-Pacific region.
Yes. China became part of the East Asia network as of last year. There are a large number of emerging nations in the East Asia regional group from whom a great amount of growth is expected in the future, and there are also countries like Japan that already have a well developed infrastructure, so the position of the group is relatively prominent in BC as a whole. However, since the member countries have completely different systems and take different approaches to realizing the aims set down in the corporate plan, such as spreading high-quality British creativity to a new and larger audience, promoting international collaboration between artists and using the digital media to reach out to new audiences. One of the strengths of BC is its system that enables local staff like us in each country who know the conditions in their respective countries well to develop programs that fit their country’s needs and work together with our regional partners to find ways to implement them.
For example, in Indonesia in the last several years there has been a focus on the field of fashion. Working in collaboration with the Indonesian government’s Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy, BC has been involved in a project in the past few years that will function strategically to foster the training of Indonesian fashion designers and creating a fashion industry network connecting the UK and Indonesia. In Thailand an eco-design workshop has been organized for Asian designers with the help of a facilitator from the UK’s Royal College of Art. We had designers from Japan attend the workshop and this represents another case where the global network is creating the possibility of building productive new relationships. As for our role at the Tokyo Office, I would like to work to give Japan a more prominent presence within the East Asia region.
It appears that the BC philosophy of international cultural exchange is not simply concerned with a one-way promotion of British arts and culture, is it?
When we translate the description of BC into Japanese, it becomes “Britain’s public international cultural exchange organization” but in English BC calls itself a “cultural relations organization.” The vision is to “become a leader in cultural relationship” and in a recent BC corporate plan the phrase “Build trust and engagement” was used. You could say that the aim is to build relationships based on mutual trust and commitment, and there was a time when we used the phrase “BC is a bridge.” When you speak of “cultural exchange” it has the image of introducing your arts and culture and having others introduce theirs to you, but the core of BC’s approach is how to build relationships. It is close to the concept of building a circle of trusted friends. I believe it is BC’s role to facilitate that.
Would you tell about your Art section’s approach?
It is sometime misunderstood, but since BC is not a grant-giving foundation, we do not give out grants as financial support for other people’s projects. What we do is to introduce innovative British contemporary artists and undertake project-based initiatives in collaboration with British and Japanese artists, arts organizations and people in government agencies. By the way, our arts section at the Tokyo Office currently consists of three people, including myself.
In the area of introducing British artists, BC has organized performing arts showcases every other year since 1997 at the Edinburgh International Festival. In 2007 and 2009 we sent a group of Japanese producers from public halls and theaters and other arts professionals to Edinburgh. Then in 2010, we jointly organized a project called “Connected” in collaboration with the Tokyo Performing Arts Market (TPAM)
, which had a tremendous ripple effect. It was a showcase that brought together a number of British artists exploring new possibilities in performing arts, and we also invited producers from around the East Asia region to come see it.
As a result of these kinds of activities there were Japan performance tours by the highly experimental company rotozaza and Stan's Café, a group known for projects that use grains of rice as equivalents of people. They were invited to Japan and did performances in such as one called “If I were a grain of rice.” Their rice projects were very interesting, with things like a mountain of rice equivalent to the world population (with one grain equaling one person) and another representing the number of people working for Sony. When they performed it at the Setagaya Public Theatre they used Twitter to solicit a range of statistics like that, and there was a project that got children involved in making mountains of rice. I thought it was a great project that could be done at museums. Duncan Speakman was also invited to do one of his signature “subtlemob” performances that are audience-participation events mounted in public spaces using digital equipment to create interactive encounters. Due to Connected, it was possible to have subtlemob projects performed in New Zealand, S. Korea, Hong Kong and Yokohama. Then they returned to Yokohama this year and the ST Spot provided facilities for them to have a one-month residence during which they created a new work. I believe this kind of development of new connections is the form of program that BC hopes to see most of all.
Was Connected a project of the East Asia global network?
Yes, it was. Around this time there was a clear increase in performing arts in the UK that were venturing out of the theater and using digital media and devices to create “interactive” events that the audience could participate in and take the leading role. There was a suggestion that it would be good to see a showcase somewhere in Asia curated specifically to include that king of work, and since we had TPAM, we at BC said we would like to host it in Japan.
The Connected project took place in March, and after that we organized Study Tours, one in May for Japanese museum curators and another in July for producers of public halls and theaters to go to the UK and get a first-hand look at the current British arts scene from a broad perspective. This also had a very large ripple effect that resulted in Japan performances for “home sweet home” in Itami and Yokohama. This was a project by the artist unit “Subject to change” in which they prepared a large floor space and then had children and their families build a town there. It was wonderful to see. They made a train station, a baseball park and houses. There was a community radio station with a Japanese DJ and there was a postman. The image just grew and grew, and at the project in Yokohama they even proposed a situation where a fire had broken out and got the participants to all become involved in a fire-fighting effort. After that, we were very happy to see the members of Subject to change apply for this year’s Koganecho residence program (in Yokohama) and spend a month in residence there that led to a new project.
In that way, the effects are circulating full circle, aren’t they?
That’s right. And, we have heard that the curators that went on our study tour are now working together on a number of projects of their own initiative. Having BC serve as facilitator in creating new networks in Japan in this way is certainly an ideal outcome in light of BC’s aim of becoming a leader in cultural relationships.
In the ’80s and ’90s and the early years of the new century, we would often hear voices of people in Japan who were interested in learning from the UK and other foreign countries but, in an interesting development in a Study Tour we organized to see programs aimed at community development, we heard a suggest from among the tour participants that besides learning from the UK, they would also like to introduce in return some of the wonderful programs that are going on in Japan. I thought that was a great development. The concept of true cultural relationship also encompasses the stance that the UK is not always right, and that people should be able to learn from the UK’s mistakes as well. This is also the part of the relationship that can’t be expressed in the common [Japanese] term “international cultural exchange.”
Would you tell us the process by which your projects are evaluated?
In the BC organization there is a practice of conducting questionnaire surveys of project participants every few years to evaluate the longer-term ripple effects of the projects, and we are always making efforts to improve the evaluation process and methods. As a result, I believe that the evaluation process is oriented not so much toward asking how a project went after it is over, but asking what you would have changed about the project and what challenges should be undertaken to affect change. In other words, the evaluation is oriented toward designing the next project.
Finally, I would like to ask you about the policies you apply to project design.
I believe one thing is that the main focus of projects from now on is using new technology like digital technology and devices to create new relationships between art and the audience and deepen the experience. A number of different methods are now being attempted in this direction in the UK today, and I believe that the mood is right for it to be happening more in Japan too. So, in 2011 we organized a “Digital Creative Conference – Technology and Art, Thinking about the Future.” As speakers we invited artists and arts professionals who are involved in advanced projects and got broad range of prominent people from the arts, theater, architecture, advertising, etc., to participate in discussions. We have also initiated a joint UK-Japan project for using orchestras and music halls for education and community programs. In February of 2012 we joined with the Japan Foundation in jointly organizing a symposium titled “The Power of Music: Connecting with Communities” that brought together the representative of the London Symphony Orchestra and people involved in Japan’s music world. And for January 2013, in a tie-up with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, we have planned a study tour that will send representatives from Japanese orchestras and music halls to the UK.
Another policy direction is to work with new corporate partners and others in hopes of expanding our programs. We are now talking with people in the corporate world to try to find new possibilities for tie-ups in the areas of “technology and art” and “society and art.” We are finding that there are some corporations that have not had connections to people in the arts before but are interested in the area. So, I definitely want to try to make things happen in that direction as well.