HONG KONG — A smashed sculpture and a fuming Takashi Murakami led to Etsuko Nakajima’s big career break. The French-born Japanese Nakajima had not long been working in the art world when she happened on what turned out to be a fortuitous on-site accident.
“Now you can see him speaking English well, but back then he didn’t,” recalled Nakajima, who now serves as Asia director for the contemporary art-focused Galerie Perrotin. “We had a huge problem happening on site. One of the sculptures broke and Takashi was really upset and when he’s upset he wants to scream in Japanese.”
“He said, ‘Come here! You speak three languages!’ I was so young. I didn’t know what to do but I tried to moderate the conversation.'”
The crisis was eventually mitigated, and that episode began a working relationship with Murakami that’s now going on 16 years as a close adviser, propelling her to her role at Perrotin, where she also represents art and social media sensations JR and Kaws.
At Perrotin, Nakajima is tasked with growing the business in Asia and moving with the times of the “I want it” generation, who place orders for artwork well into the millions of dollars over Instagram and WeChat. During her tenure, Nakajima has launched galleries in Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo and, most recently, in Shanghai last year.
When she joined in 2002, there were just three people working at Perrotin, including its founder Emmanuel Perrotin. It’s since grown to a staff of 120.
“Until two years ago, the U.S. was dominating 60 percent of our revenue,” she shared. “Asia is catching up over the years. It will catch up in probably six months. The mainland Chinese customers are very competitive.”
Particularly in the early days of her work, she found that the older generation of Asian collectors were held back by language barriers and clung to safe purchases, like Impressionist works. But the younger crop of buyers couldn’t be more different and are happy to show their appetite. “They want to be more famous, they want to show their knowledge,” she said.
“Especially in Asia, we have very young clients. They start from their 20s. When they become really serious art collectors — spending $3 million to $5 million per year — I would say in their 30s.”
“Every time an artist posts new pieces online, we receive so many calls and an immediate reaction, direct messages to the gallery’s Instagram account,” Nakajima said.
At the same time, she’s noticed the attention spans of her clients is shortening. “It’s like in fashion,” she said. “There are so many lines these days to motivate your customers to buy, buy, buy. The same thing is happening in our industry. The attention span is very short so that the program is constantly changing.”
There were also plenty of gender and cultural obstacles to overcome.
“I hope it’s not going to offend anyone in Asia, but I thought being in a European and American environment as a woman was not a big problem. But coming to Asia was actually a big problem,” she said.
“Maybe because the market was still young so maybe the role, the business of the gallerists, was extremely new [in Asia]. The quality of communication and respect was very difficult to establish, especially when you’re too young. They don’t take you too seriously.”
Despite being of Japanese background, Japan was a market she struggled to get it off the ground. “All the female gallerists supported me when we opened there but the men didn’t,” she said.
There’s still to work to be done to that end, but in the meantime, she ended up hiring an “older generation to talk to them because it was not efficient.”
For the next move, Nakajima said Perrotin is eyeing the North American West Coast to open a gallery location, as it’s home to substantial Asian wealth and has had strong reaction to the works Perrotin has brought there in the past.
“Ideally, I think L.A. would be great, especially as Takashi’s biggest career move happened in L.A. His turning point was his largest exhibition at MOCA [Museum of Contemporary Art]. So he’d be extremely happy if we did.”
“When Takashi’s exhibition traveled from Chicago to Vancouver, I was very surprised how Vancouver is almost not Canada anymore,” Nakajima said. “You can live without speaking English. Seattle is also a great city, and San Francisco. Silicon Valley, to be honest, it’s not very easy to approach the new Silicon Valley money. They are still struggling about collecting art, I believe.”