Art Biennales as a Third Place to Regenerate Cities

by Ayaka Hosogaki Matthews

Old merchant houses in Japan
Old merchant houses along the castle canal in Omihachiman city, Shiga, Japan. / image: Ayaka Matthews

The Venice Biennale is a large art exhibition that started in 1895. Since then, it has become one of the world’s most famous art festivals, and other cities have started similar large international art festivals. Reports show more than 300 art festivals globally, according to the Biennial Foundation. These art festivals integrate with community, tourism, and regeneration. As a result, they serve as a vehicle for city planning. This post asserts that art biennales are a modality of local regeneration, with my experience at Japan’s Biwako Biennale as a case study.

The Biwako Biennale is an international contemporary art festival that occurs every two years in Omihachiman, Shiga Prefecture. Omihachiman is a small town located on the east shore of Lake Biwa. The daimyo Hidetsugu Toyotomi established a castle town south of Mt. Hachiman in 1585 and brought merchants and artisans from the adjacent town. The city thrived as a merchant town, relying on the Lake Biwa and land routes for trade. Merchants built gorgeous houses along the street and castle canal. As a result, the town used to be lively with locals and visitors.

Omihachiman’s historic district, with beautiful merchant houses. / image: Ayaka Matthews

But Omihachiman began to quiet down after 1900. The industrial revolution changed Japan’s commercial structure,  and economic growth in the 1960s attracted young rural residents to city centers. As a result, 30-40% of the rural population is at least 65 years old, and 13.6% of houses are vacant in Japan now. Omihachiman exhibits these statistics: 41% of the population is over 65 years old, and 34 of 397 houses are vacant in this old merchant house district.

One of the abandoned houses in the historic district. / image: Yuto HIRAKAKIUCHI
Yoko Nakata, the general director of the Biwako Biennale, at the biennale pre-event in Paris in 2018. / image: Biwako Biennale

The abandoned homes inspired Yoko Nakata to create the Biwako Biennale in 2001; she is the general director of the Biwako Biennale. Nakata hoped the art festival would breathe life into the traditional homes. She transformed the homes into art exhibitions, bringing to light their intrinsic beauty. Nakata’s intuition was correct: the dichotomy between modernity and antiquity was beautiful. And it continues to be so, twenty years later. The combination creates a whole greater than its parts. There is a seamless integration of history and modern culture. Local volunteers tell stories about the history of the town and its homes. Furthermore, you enjoy local culture and scenery by walking from exhibition to exhibition. In this way, the entire city transforms into a dynamic living museum. Additionally, the living museum has created a community surrounding art. The director, staff, artists, and locals work together to create a successful festival. Omihachiman city also started supporting the festival this year. The sense of community is strong and omnipresent at this annual event.

The entire city transforms into a dynamic living museum. / image: Ayaka Matthews
“Sitting Giant” by Charlotte Gyllenhammar at Kanekichi Second House, which used to be a lumber dealer’s house. / image: Ayaka Matthews
“INTER-WORLD-DISTORTED” by Akihito Okunaka & Taira Ichikawa at Machiya Club, which used to be a sake factory. / image: Yuto HIRAKAKIUCHI
“Echinops setifer” by Kumpei & Taira Ichikawa at Machiya Club. / image: Ayaka Matthews
“Baobab plantation” by Taira Ichikawa at Machiya Club. / image: Ayaka Matthews
“Gift of light no. 02” by Hiroko Koshino & circle side at Machiya Club. / image: Ayaka Matthews
“A red-light district” by Takashi Tanaka & Hiromi Uno at Fukuromachi Former Red-Light District. / image: Yuto HIRAKAKIUCHI
“Carriers” by Yukihisa Ito at Teramoto’s House, which used to be a roof tile dealer’s house. / image: Ayaka Matthews
“True Romance” by Raita Ishikawa at Hikone Castle Nishi No Maru. / image: Ayaka Matthews

Since the Biwako Biennale started, it has created positive changes in Omihachiman. The art festival attracted commercial, retail, and restaurant businesses to the area. Most businesses renovated the old merchant houses to preserve the original structure. These changes have occurred gradually and spontaneously through the years, which has prevented the neighborhood from gentrifying. As a result, streets are lively, with residents and tourists coming from surrounding cities. This liveliness and integration between old and new are what tourists appreciate most.

One of the old houses renovated to be an antique shop, keeping the original structure and façade. / image: Google Street View

This new development was not a result of outside pressure. It was created through local efforts: the art biennale, civic activities, the government, and an understanding of local history. There are many local and government movements to preserve historic character. In 1991, Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs selected Omihachiman as a preservation district, and the canal and wetland area in the city were designated Japan’s first “Cultural Landscape” in 2006. This recognition has continued to expand local and public awareness of Omihachiman’s history—so much so that it is an important part of the city’s identity. In 2004, the city established laws and building codes to protect its historic houses. They even provide financial support to repair and renovate their houses. Many volunteer groups have been established and work to beautify the town as well. All these efforts have resulted in a democratic transformation of the town.

The positive effect of the biennale on local regeneration was evidenced this year in a survey. 93% of survey respondents stated that the art festival makes the town more attractive. Many stated they noticed the beauty of traditional Japanese houses through the exhibitions. The Biwako Biennale has provided an opportunity to open the town and its history to the public. 66% of visitors were from outside Shiga prefecture, from urban areas such as Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo. Many of them also commented that they want to revisit this town and the festival. Also, some business owners in the historic district came from other cities or returned to the town, which could be a result of the art festival. Economically, 76% of retailers in the historic district had more customers than usual, and 80% of retailers are willing to support the next festival.

Moreover, local people, neighbors, artists, and people from outside of the city get to know each other through the festival. This art festival provides a “third place” for the community, artists, and tourists. This is especially important where communities have been disconnected as people are looking for a place to belong. The biennale is an example of a local effort that transcends its borders. And works to connect a larger community across cultural and geographical borders. Art festivals have the power to connect people and build and regenerate cities and towns, as seen through Japan’s Biwako Biennale. The issue of aging and abandoned houses is still a serious one, but I hope this regenerative power will prove to be steadfast.

Volunteer staff welcoming tourists at the front desk. / image: Ayaka Matthews
Local volunteers helping cleaning up after the festival is over. / image: Ayaka Matthews

The next Biwako Biennale will be held in the fall of 2022. Please visit the festival if you have a chance to travel to Japan then. I am sure that it will be a great experience and an opportunity to touch the living history, culture, and community through art. I am also helping them build a virtual museum tour with a support by Theasys, and it will be launched in April on the biennale website, so please check that out if you are interested.

“Beyond the Ocean” by the author & Sayuri Hayashi Egnell at Machiya Club. / image: Ayaka Matthews

Ayaka Hosogaki Matthews is a landscape architect and an Associate with SWA Group and an instructor of landscape architecture at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. She participated in Biwako Biennale 2020 as an artist “Saiho,” and exhibited an art installation called “Beyond the Ocean” with the music composer Sayuri Hayashi Egnell. She also observed the art festival from a city planning and landscape architectural standpoint, and this post is a report from her experience of the festival. Ayaka is also involved in landscape planning as an advisor for Omihachiman city.

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