Case Study: Studio Kura
Studio Kura is a company based in the rural area of Itoshima, located on Kyushu - Japan’s third largest and most south-western island. I arrived there as a resident artist at the start of March, flying into nearby Fukuoka Airport and catching two trains out to Ikisan Station, just around the corner from Studio Kura. It is a special place and during my time there I was inspired by what they do, and enjoyed the opportunity to work on my own arts practice.
The main Studio Kura site is formed by an office, workshop and galleries, and describes their business as “…an art company with three purposes: organising exhibitions, events and residencies; teaching art to people of all ages; and producing art ourselves.” “Kura” in Japanese translates to “Storehouse”, and the main gallery is formed by an old rice warehouse. The space is beautiful and full of the charm of rural Japan with wood grain and muted tones.
Hirofumi Matsuzaki is the founder of Studio Kura - and he arrives to chat with me on his way from building a new studio at one of their houses. As well as their main buildings, Studio Kura runs three houses in the surrounding areas which provide the accommodation and studio space for their resident artists. I was there for the month of March 2017 and during my stay there were ten artists in residence working across a range of mediums including oil painting, photography, installation and performance art.
When the vision for Studio Kura first came about Matsuzaki was an artist working in Berlin, where he spent more than 5 years running a gallery space and arts foundation. “I was the director and every month we opened an exhibition, I would meet with other artists who all wanted to find out about how to work in Japan. They knew about Tokyo a bit, Kyoto and Hiroshima and so on, but not the countryside so I thought it would be nice to start a residency program that was based in the countryside. My parents had this rice warehouse which I thought was an interesting space for artists because it is not a white cube!”
So with these inspirations in mind Matsuzaki decided to start a residency programme and made a website; and to his surprise and delight several artists started to apply. It started in 2006 and for the first three years he was still based in Berlin and came back to Japan to run the residency programme for one month of each year. Eventually the programme was so well subscribed that in 2009 he decided to move back to Japan to focus on developing the residency.
“At first I just started a residency programme and after I thought about how it could make money to be able to invest in the space. I started teaching art classes here for kids and adults, but it is out in the countryside so very few people came here. So I developed a programme for kindergartens and nursery schools and went into the schools to present these classes as art outreach.” These were resoundingly successful and the company now provides art education in 100 kindergartenson Kyushu, the biggest business of its kind on the island.
Interestingly Studio Kura is not funded by any funding schemes. There is funding available in Japan for the arts however after working in the sector and experiencing some of the issues with funding reliance Matsuzaki has very purposefully set up the programme to be self-supported. “I decided to be independent because I saw many good institutes in Germany with long histories having to rely on funding and sometimes having to cope with salary or budget cuts. Sometimes they even had to close down, so I wanted to do things differently here. I had thought of setting up as a non-profit organisation but I decided in the end to set up as a company as that suited what we are doing.”
Matsuzaki was born and grew up in the Studio Kura space, and through his work you can see his love for the area and why the programme works so well in Itoshima. There are also challenges with being based rurally “In Japan in the country side it is sometimes very difficult to work with art because people are afraid and hold back. It has been good to show foreign artist’s works here. Many people think art is just ‘beautiful’ things to look at but it is not just beautiful, it shows emotions and many other things and I want to bring this into this area.”. The creative community and regular arts and culture events have also become a drawcard for other creatives to move nearby - bringing businesses, curators and musicians into the area.
The community buy-in is growing and slowly more people are approaching the residency programme with community events that artists can be involved with. In March artists were invited to Japanese language classes, a local weekly conversation group and participated in the Spring cherry blossom festival at nearby Sakurai Shrine. Every three years Studio Kura also runs a big arts festival, the next one will happen in October 2018.
The company is growing. They currently have 12 staff, mostly involved in art education working in kindergartens (children aged 3 to 6 years). They are also now working in 20 primary schools in the Fukuoka and Saga prefectures. Matsuzaki teaches the adult classes at Studio Kura, which run on weekends or Thursday evenings - these students are anywhere from 13 to 85 years of age, predominantly women.
During the residency we are looked after by a superhero in the form of residency coordinator Katsura Ishikawa, an unfailingly patient and extraordinarily competent woman who supports the artists during their time at Studio Kura. Phenomenal people assets like Katsura are I think why the programme is so successful; artists are at the heart of the journey for this incredibly special space.
The next challenge Matsuzaki has set for the company is to create more residency opportunities for Japanese artists in the area. “I want to invite more Japanese artists to meet and work with foreign artists so that they can mix, and I want to create a space where they can live. I am searching now for empty houses that we can buy and rent just to creative tenants who will be good for the area. They will be happy working here and can meet the foreign residency artists. The foreigners will also benefit by getting to meet more local artists and creative people. It would be great to be able to establish more long-term projects that aren’t just pop-ups.”
On the road just outside the office is a wooden artwork, created by a resident artist earlier this year who was visiting from Chile. It stands out particularly because Japan is not somewhere with a lot of public art generally, particularly lacking murals and graphic art. The rules around public artwork can be quite strict “one of my friends was a graffiti artist who got put into prison because he created a big artwork”, Matsuzaki tells me. “It would be nice to see more atmosphere through public art in the area.”
There is a thread running through everything he talks about, which places a good deal of value on the culture of creativity and the benefits that this brings to a community. Rural areas in Japan have a growing number of empty houses due to an ageing population and people moving into the cities. Whilst this creates its own set of challenges, the flip side of this means that there are houses becoming available that Studio Kura can utilise to be a part of Matsuzaki’s vision for a creative village in Itoshima. “So” I ask, “What will Studio Kura look like in ten years?” “Maybe we will be a village, a town - still alive!” he laughs, “We had our tenth birthday last year so in another ten years we will have been running for more than 20 years!”
I, for one, am really excited to watch this space.
This article is based on an interview with Hirofumi Matsuzaki, founder of Studio Kura held on Tuesday March 28th, 2017.
A huge thank you to Hiro-san and his gorgeous young family, Katsura and the other staff, the other resident artists and the wonderful Itoshima locals who looked after me during my time at Studio Kura.