The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Atsuko Hisano
Ms. Atsuko Hisano

The Saison Foundation
The Saison Foundation
Presenter Interview
Nov. 29, 2013
The Saison Foundation  Flexible support programs answering the needs of the times 
The Saison Foundation  Flexible support programs answering the needs of the times 
The Saison Foundation is a private foundation (a private grant-making foundation since 2010) established in 1987 by Seiji Tsutsumi, the head of the department store-based Seibu Distribution Group (now the Saison Group). Tsutsumi established a cultural affairs department in the Seibu Department Store that developed facilities including the Seibu Museum of Art (later renamed Sezon Museum of Art / 1975-’91), Studio 200 (1979-’91), the specialized art book store ART VIVANT (now the company New Art Diffusion), the specialized theater book store Wisefool, the specialized poetry book store Poem Parole and other facilities and programs. With these and other enterprises including the Seibu Theater (later renamed PARCO Theater / 1973 -) in the group store Shibuya PARCO, the Roppongi WAVE (comprehensive culture facility with record and book stores, movie theater, etc.), the publishing company Libroport specializing in books on art the social sciences, humanities and literature, the use of creator talent in advertising and product design, all combining to create an era of “Saison culture” that was a leading influence in Japanese contemporary culture from the 1970s into the 1980s. The Saison Foundation inherits this legacy in grant programs supporting the creative activities of front-line artists primarily in the performing arts and international exchange programs, as well as supporting initiatives to improve the creative environment and infrastructure. To learn about the quarter of a century of The Saison Foundation’s innovative programs supporting the performing arts, we spoke with Atsuko Hisano, a member of the Seibu group’s culture programs department in charge of theater and dance programs at Studio 200 before coming to The Saison Foundation in 1992 as a program officer viewing over 150 performances a year by young artists and working in the field to support their activities.
Interviewer: Takao Norikoshi, dance critic

“Studio 200” as an alternative event space

An important part of your career was the work you did from 1979 to 1991 at the “Studio 200” performance/event space that was set up in the head store of the Seibu Department Store chain in Ikebukuro, Tokyo. At the time, the Chairman of the Seibu Department Store chain and founder of The Saison Foundation, Seiji Tsutsumi, had developed an arts and culture strategy that included not on Studio 200 but also the Seibu Museum of Art, the specialized art book store ART VIVANT and other elements that generated what came to be known as “Saison culture” and had a major impact on the contemporary arts and culture scene in Japan. Studio 200 was quite a small space but day after day there were film showings, dance and theater performances and even rakugo Japanese comic performances. The program was not only diverse but also cutting-edge in each genre, and I was among the people who often went to your events. I consider it a pioneer of what we now call “alternative spaces,” and at the time I don’t think there was any other space like it throughout Tokyo. What’s more the fact that it was an initiative of a large-scale retail group like the Seibu Department Store chain was truly revolutionary. Although it was quite a while ago, could you begin by telling us how you became involved at Studio 200?
I was in university at the time that the Seibu Department Store culture policy was becoming the focus of a lot of attention and it became a popular place for university graduates to seek employment as a result. At university I was studying in the law department, but I was interested in working in a cultural affairs department, so I took Seibu’s employment exam and they employed me in my first year out of university, in 1981.
At first, I was also given some experience in the sales department, but from 1982 I was transferred to Studio 200, where I worked in the dance and theater program until it was closed down. Studio 200 was created in a corner of the 8th floor of the Seibu Department Store in Ikebukuro in 1979 as a space that could seat an audience of just 200. I am told that at first it was set up as a place to show movies as part of a plan to get the Seibu group into the film industry. However, it had problems as a facility due to building regulations, and with regard to showing movies; there were requirements that demanded coordination of schedules with the other movie theaters in the Ikebukuro area. What’s more, most of the staff, like myself, were young and had a lot of other things we wanted to do besides just film, so we quickly expanded our programs into other areas like dance and theater and rakugo comedy acts.
Our boss told us to go ahead and plan a year’s program with the things we wanted and left everything to our young staff to do as we wished. There were from four to six of us on the planning staff and we met for discussions every week, which was something that we really enjoyed. We had a yearly budget of between 80 and 100 million yen, and when you subtracted the expenses for rent, personnel salaries and operating overhead, it left between 40 and 60 million yen to spend on our program. Thinking about it now, that was quite a bit of money, but at the time we complained that it was still smaller than the Seibu museum of Art by a factor of ten. Because we were young (laughs). Although we had no budget for inviting works, since there was no other place like us Studio 200 in Japan, foreign culture and arts organizations helped us with the expense of bringing in works so that we could hold film festivals and invite foreign performers, and we provided the performance space for artists working in Japan on the residence program of the American foundation Asian Culture Council (ACC). That enabled us to present performances by artists like Molissa Fenley, John Zorn and Carl Stone.

I believe that you were unable to operate like a regular stage or movie theater due to facility regulations, but you managed?
Only now can I say this, but we were unable to get certification as a commercial theater so in fact we were giving performances at Studio 200 as “experiential seminars” of the Seibu Community College (cultural education center) that operated in a neighboring building to the department store. For that reason, the word “lecture” was always included in the names of the film showings or theater performances we held. You might call it a forerunner of the “artist talks” that are commonly held today. We were young and unwilling to give up on things when problems arose, so our attitude was always that there must be a way to get around the problems. That was the kind of corporate culture we had.
The Seibu Museum of Art (now Saison Museum of Art) was at the time what could be considered the only art museum in Tokyo dedicated to contemporary art and the lectures and such connected with its exhibitions were also held at Studio 200. Among the speakers were big names like Leni Riefenstahl and César Baldaccini and Arman Fernandez.

I always thought it was strange that your events were called “lectures,” but now I understand the secret behind that (laughs). Of all the events you were involved in there at Studio 200, would you tell us if there are one or two that left an especially strong impression for you?
There were a number, but one I would definitely cite was Saburo Teshigawara’s Seiten no Ude (1987). Teshigawara had won international recognition as the runner-up in the 1986 Bagnolet International Choreography Contest (now Les Rencontres Choregraphiques Internationales de Seine-Saint-Denis), but prior to this work he had called his own style “moving work” and this was the first work that he called “dance.” So, in that sense, this work Seiten no Ude (The Arm of the Blue Sky) was in a way his debut performance as a dance artist in Japan. In 1985, I had been involved in the planning and execution of the last project of the father of Butoh, Tatsumi Hijikata, titled Tohoku Kabuki Keikaku (Tohoku Kabuki Project). Unfortunately, Hijikata died suddenly in 1986, and seeing Teshigawara suddenly appear that same year to become the next great leader of Japan’s dance world was probably the most important experience of my career.

That is indeed an amazing thing to experience. And it is very surprising to hear that the same presenter at a small space like Studio 200 would be in charge of two such historical events as the last stage of the Tatsumi Hijikata, who had created the Butoh form in 1959, and the first stage of Saburo Teshigawara, who would opened the door to Japanese contemporary dance in the 1980s.
It was around the same time in the 1980s that the theater world was seeing figures like Hideki Noda and Shoji Kokami leading boom in small-theater art. In the Seibu Department Store there was a theater-specific bookstore named Wisefool and I was able to consult with specialists in theater as I put together our program. It happened to be a time when special attention was coming to focus on women theater-makers and I had planned performances at Studio 200 by Koharu Kisaragi of company NOISE and Eriko Watanabe of the Gekidan Sanjumaru theater company. Especially with Koharu Kisaragi, I was able to help with her becoming independent from the Theater Kiki company (Gekidan Kiki) and form her own company NOISE, after which we put on many Noise performances. We had a tendency in that way at Studio 200 to continue the relationships with artists once we met, and when we met truly wonderful artists we naturally wanted to keep working and building with them.

Birth of The Saison Foundation

Entering the 1990s, we had the burst of Japan’s economic bubble and Studio 200 had to be closed down in 1991 after being a key part of the era of culture the Seibu group had created. The following year, 1992, you moved to a position at The Saison Foundation.
The bursting of the economic bubble didn’t have an immediate effect on our program, but there was an atmosphere in the company that everyone should be returning to the original business of being a department store and we began to see clearly a curtailing of the arts and culture programs. Also, in 1986 The Seed Hall was opened in the Seibu Department Store in Shibuya (closed 1995) as a new arts and culture center and we at Studio 200 got the feeling that we had done our job and now our role was finished.
In 1987, Seiji Tsutsumi founded The Saison Foundation as an initiative separate from the Seibu group’s business activities. He funded the Foundation with some 10 billion yen of his own money. Tsutsumi is a poet and author (pen name Takashi Tsujii) and a collector of contemporary art and at the same time he was a personal patron of artists including Kobo Abe and composer Toru Takemitsu. In the area of contemporary art, Tsutsumi already had the Saison Museum of Modern Art in Karuizawa (created by moving the Takanawa Museum of Art there in 1981 and changing the name in 1991), so I am told that he created The Saison Foundation for the purpose of supporting contemporary theater.
In terms of the Foundation’s directions, they can be divided largely into project oriented activities and grant-giving activities, but basically The Saison Foundation main direction is the latter and the important policy is one of giving grants to support people’s creative activities. My job as a Program Officer is to supervise the grant-giving program. By the way, there are also cases where The Saison Foundation becomes the sponsor/organizer of a program when there is a very important theme involved but no operating base available in Japan.

Was the policy of being a grant-giving foundation something that existed from the beginning?
Yes. I am told that as part of the preparations for establishing the foundation a survey was done to find out what theater people wanted most and what they needed most to create works. The result was most of the requests were for funding, studio spaces and time, so the programs were initiated to answer these needs. So, an important policy for the programs set up were to supply funding, to provide studio spaces (in 1993 the main building of the Morishita Studio facility with three studio spaces was opened, and in 2011 the new building of the same facility with one studio and residence spaces was opened), and to create an environment where artists could devote time to their creative work.
Even today there are not many foundations specializing in support for the arts in Japan. There are 23 foundations that belong to the Conference of Arts and Culture Support Foundations (as of Oct. 2013) and most of them specialize in support for the fine arts or music, while The Saison Foundation is still the only one that supports theater and dance exclusively.

Could you give us an outline of the current make-up of the foundation’s programs?
The three main pillars are (1) direct [grant] support to the artists, (2) the “Partnership Program” and (3) the “Residence in Morishita Studio” artist-in-residence program. The forms of direct grant support to artists are the “Saison Fellows” grant program that provides financial support on a yearly basis and the “Sabbatical” grant program that provides funding for periods of overseas stay for artist to recharge and find new inspiration. In the Partnership program there are two types of programs, one that provides the environment for creative work by offering studio space and another called “International Project Support Program” that provides support for the preparatory stages of international projects. In the Residence in Morishita Studio program there is a “Visiting Fellows Program” that invites important artists or art administrators playing important roles in the international network of theater and dance along with other programs.

At first the Foundation may have been specialized in theater, but now you are also providing support for contemporary dance.
Dance was officially added to our grant application categories in 1992. Before that, our application form specified only theater as the field for grants, but we got applications from people in dance anyway. In the 1990s there was a big boom in activity in contemporary dance in Japan. Since there was the need for support in that field as well, we decided to add it to categories of recipients. I believe that this was an example of the flexibility to be able to respond to the needs of the times with new programs instead of sticking stubbornly to one policy.

It seemed to be apart of the “Saison mind” apparent in the era of Studio 200 as well that you did indeed show the ability to reflect the trends of the times with great flexibility, wasn’t it?
Yes, it was (laughs). For example, In the past we only accepted applications from theater and dance companies for the “Art Creation Program” that provides long-term support for creative activities. This was because at the time creative work was generally done by groups, so the theater and dance companies were the important players. However, in recent years that has changed and we now see more of the creative work being done by units or individual artists rather than by companies, so we changed the “Saison Fellows” program policy so that grants are now given directly to individual artists and the way the funding is used is left up to the artist. There have been countless cases of this kind of change for us.

Generally, the tendency is that once the grant framework is decided on, it becomes difficult to change the framework and in many cases that prevents organizations from keeping pace with the changes of the times. Is there some reason that at The Saison Foundation you are able to continue to reflect feedback and keep changing with the times?
For us, it is prerequisite that the framework is not something to be obey and protect but something to be reviewed and revised on a yearly basis. Like myself, most of our staff come from jobs at the Seibu Department Store, so we naturally have within us the regular working methods of corporations based on the “Plan → Do → Check → Act model. For our yearly reports, we have the grant recipients do a self-evaluation, the program officer does and evaluation and we bring in experts in the related fields as monitors to provide us with input, so we are getting views from a number of perspectives. We also have discussions were people make suggestions about alternative or best practices and input about the requests that people are making regarding what we can do better. We also have a smooth decision-making process, so things get decided quickly.
However, our foundation also has a mission that we all must adhere to, and it is unchanging. The mission consists of two ideals of a dedication to “creating new values” and “enhancement of mutual understanding among people,” and all of our programs exist to realize this mission. Based on these ideals, we are proactive in modifying our programs to reflect the changes in the conditions of society and the changing times.

Would you tell us about the make-up of the foundation’s office?
Including the Morishita Studio, we have a staff of 12. Excluding Morishita there are eight including the management department. Of the eight, four are program officers, including myself.

About the programs

Would you tell us in more detail about your program of support grants directly to the artists?
Of our Saison Fellows, those under 35 and called “Junior Fellows” and they receive grants for two consecutive years. They can apply for these two-year grants as many times as they wish before the age of 35. Recipients under the age of 45 are called “Senior Fellows” and are give grants for three consecutive years and with a higher level of funding. However, these Senior Fellow grants can be received only once by an artist. With regard to grants for performances, there are many sources of this type of funding, so The Saison Foundation gives its grants directly to the artists and leaves it up to them to use the funding as they feel best in areas such as gathering necessary information, doing research, expanding their personal experience or getting together the creative resources they need.
For the application form, we have the artists themselves write out a plan for how they will use the grant money. We have them do this because, it is of course possible for the artists to use the grants not only for their own activities but for those of their theater or dance company, and in that case we want to confirm that the decision has been made by the artist recipients themselves and not by the company’s producer (arts manager). It is important that the artists be able to do their own management. So, we have interviews with the artist applicants and talk with them thoroughly.

In that sense as well, I think it is important that you, as a program officer, have been in this field for a long time. Because, at other foundations it is common for the people in charge of grant decisions are rotated for terms of about three or four years.
That is true. In addition to the job of elevating the awareness of the grant recipients, we make sure to learn from them as well and feed that knowledge back into program improvements. The important thing for us when we make a program is to be sure that our job is no more than providing a small supportive push from behind to help the recipients themselves do what they want to accomplish. Another thing we believe in is that we are not a foundation that does anything directly for society. It is enough for us just to support the creation of good art so that the works themselves can return something to society, and the core of that process is done by the artists. These are two principles we always keep in mind.

Next would you tell us about the Partnership Program?
There are two categories in the Partnership Program. One is the creative environment improvement category that seeks to create an environment and infrastructure that makes it easier for artists to do creative work. In practical terms this involves support for building a network for exchange of information through symposiums and the like and projects such as workshops for building skills. Recently we were able to support the preparatory work for the establishment of ON-PAM (Open Network for Performing Arts Management.
The other category is “International Project Support,” with support for up to three years. In order to achieve our mission of “enhancement of mutual understanding among people,” we provide long-term support in this program based on the assumption that at least three years will be necessary to have people meet, deepen their exchange, create something and have it presented in Japan or some foreign venue. Recently we have supported the “Karumegi Project,” collaborative work between the Korean playwright and director Sung Ki-woong and Junnosuke Tada, a director with Tokyo Deathlock. It takes the early years of Korea’s modernization as a new setting for an adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull and deals with the shared political history of Japan and Korea in the early modern era. In the first year of the project there was research done in Tokyo and a series of discussions for the writing of the play, and in 2014 there will be a month of performances in Seoul, after which we are hoping to plan performances in Japan in 2015. In 2008, the Welsh dancer Sioned Huws from the U.K. did a residence at ACAC in Aomori and fell in love with the Japanese traditional art of “hand dance” (teodori) and we supported her in a two-year project to create a collaboration of hand dance and contemporary dance. The resulting work is still touring around the world. This kind of development makes us very happy.

Now I would like to ask about your Visiting Fellows Program. In this program you invite people from overseas to do a one or two-month residence at Morishita Studio to do research, etc., on Japanese performing arts. During their residence you also have them give lectures on the situations in their own countries.
The Visiting Fellows Program is one where we invite foreign artists or stage managers who want to do research on Japan and give them support in the form of travel expenses and living expenses while here.
The trend today for artists who want to be active on the international stage is that they have to build their own network to expand their scope of activity. Nonetheless, we are aware of the problem that most Japanese artists are not good at networking. On the other hand, there are an increasing number of scenes in which Japanese works are receiving more attention overseas. However, the ideal situation is not to have the works performed and have the audience simply say, “That was interesting and unique,” but to give them a solid understanding of the context involved in the work. To do that, we believe that one of the most direct methods that will make these exchanges more meaningful is to have artists and presenters come to Japan and acquire more knowledge and experiences of Japan. That is the idea behind our Visiting Fellows Program.
Now we have expanded the scope of the program to include artists, and in the case of presenters we have them stay for about one month, while artists usually stay for two months and meet people and do research and such. The support we give for research is really quite substantial, We draw up a list of people to meet and things to do depending on the purpose of the stay and we make all the arrangements, sometimes including an interpreter when necessary. But, usually they begin to make friends part way through the stay and after that they start taking things into their own hands (laughs).

Have any projects resulted from the Visiting Fellows’ stays until now?
The program is still only in its third year, so I believe we will begin to see such results from now on, but one of the 2012 Visiting Fellows, the Romanian dancer and producer Cosmin Manolescu has started a Romania-Japan dance exchange project. And, since he applied for our International Project Support Program with a 3-year plan titled “Eastern Connection” we decided to support it. In this first year of the project, five Japanese fellows, including two dancers (Zan Yamashita, Mikiko Kawamura), a producer (Shinji Ono), a production manager (Ayako Miyake), and a critic (Takao Norikoshi) stayed in Romania and held meetings, and next year we will have dancers from Romania coming here to Japan.
The people of Eastern Europe are very serious about international exchange and we also get lots of applications from them. Since we also want to have encounters with cultures we know little about, I want to continue to see us pioneer new relationships with countries that most Japanese are not familiar with. We have supported lots of projects with Singapore and South Korea until now, and from now on I want us to put more efforts into exchanges with other countries in Asia.

In the past international grants were mainly for inviting productions to Japan or sending Japanese artists to perform abroad. Now it appears that stronger emphasis is being placed on making connections on the individual level.
That’s right. When we first invited Max-Phillip Aschenbrenner to Japan from Switzerland he had just been appointed artistic director of a Swiss theater at the young age of 29. He was a big fan of Japanese culture but when he was here he fell in love with the works of artists of his same generation, including Akuma no Shirushi, Gekidan Penino and Kyohei Sakaguchi, known for his photographs of the homeless and things like their makeshift shelters made blue vinyl sheets titled “0 yen Houses,” and after returning to Switzerland he continued to develop those relationships. Now he continues to help us put together European tours, inviting our artists to festivals he is involved in. A number of cases like this have resulted from the program.

That is truly a wonderful result. Although you said that the size of the grants is not very large, there is no telling how much more important such personal connections can be and how much they can expand an artist’s world in the long run than just receiving a one-time grant of a few million yen. And, after the Saison support ends, these artists continue to expand their network of relationships. It is truly a case of sowing seeds that will later bear fruit, and I believe it is the true form the support should take.
One of the things that really made us appreciate this effect in a compelling way the “Triangle Arts Program” that was conducted from 1994 to ’97. It was a dance exchange program involving the USA, Indonesia and Japan. A group of dancers, presenters and critics was formed to made two-week stays in each of the three countries to interact with the regional dance communities. It was a project designed to promote understanding of dance, exchange with other cultures and build a network, but at the time no organizations could be found in Japan to participate in the program, so The Saison Foundation became one of the Japanese organizers. Our partners in the program were ACC and Sam Miller (Jacob’s Pillow) in the USA and from Indonesia, Dr. Sal Mulgiyant (Indonesia dance Festival).
That project brought us an understanding of the process by which international exchange had to begin first of all among the members of the dance community, with people meeting people and building mutual understanding, and only then should it move on to the next stage of creating works. From that understanding we began to change the contents of international exchange programs with a shift from supporting overseas performances to a new focus on supporting the creative process. All this has also connected into our current Visiting Fellows Program.

I see. In other words, the growing understanding of the grant-making organization is reflected in the contents of the grant programs. Considering the present conditions, where there are not many support foundations giving well-tailored support for networking, we can see how important the presence of The Saison Foundation is. Finally, from your perspective having worked in the field and watched its developments for many years since your time at Studio 200, is there anything in particular that you hope for from the artists?
In the past, international exchange was a form of company trip with the artists following along and giving their performances, and if the performance was well received, everyone would be relieved and say, “That was great.” But today, it has shifted to trips by individual artists. So, now it is a question of how much work an artist can do based on their own footwork and how much communication they can create with others. That means that the artists have to polish those skills and use them to meet a lot of people, and we want to help in this process.
Compared to the era when I was working as a presenter at Studio 200, support for the performing arts has undergone numerous and substantial changes. Not only the Agency of Cultural Affairs but also a number of other government agencies have opened their eyes to the potential of arts and culture and are launching a variety of support programs for it. There are also an increasing number of governments that are establishing arts councils to specialize in support for the arts and culture. And, I believe it is safe to say that we are now seeing deeper support from corporations and crowd funding in the form of donations from individuals.
I want the artists to realize that they need to do more than just making applications and getting grants. There is a need for more systems of supporting creative activities and working in collaboration with other artists, so I want the artists to make more use of our services.