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Women in Business: Nana Onishi, Founder and Owner of Onishi Gallery and the Onishi Project

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Born 1968 in Japan, Nana Onishi, founder and owner of Onishi Gallery and its arts management program, Onishi Project, began her career as a fine artist. She graduated from Japan's prestigious Kanazawa College of Art, and moved to NY to earn her Master of Fine Arts degree at NY's Pratt Institute in 1997. In 2001, her artwork was exhibited at the Venice Biennial followed by a solo show at Italy's Arte Ricambi Gallery in 2003.

Onishi worked as a curator in Japan, Italy and New York before opening her own gallery in NYC's Chelsea district in 2005, with a unique focus that caters to art collectors and museums. Her work connecting Japanese traditional creations with contemporary artists resulted in a ground breaking project for the fifth anniversary of 9/11 called the Kuyo Tree, which earned her the accolade from Newsweek Japan in 2009 declaring her one of the "Top 100 Japanese that the World Respects." Nana launched the Onishi Project program and with an expansion to her gallery space in 2012.

Onishi's philosophy as a gallerist has been to embrace and fuse her Japanese roots with her passion for contemporary art, and to identify good business and finance opportunities as well as she does excellent imagery, craftsmanship and original artistry. Her Onishi Project is a springboard for galleries and artists who don not have space or representation in New York City.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I started out as an artist with a passion for contemporary art in a very traditional Japanese family. I attended a prestigious art college in Japan, Kanazawa, but it felt very closed and limiting to me despite the excellent training. My English professor inspired me to find a way to the U.S. I was able to get myself to New York and enrolled at the Pratt Institute for their Master's Program, which really changed my life and perspective, and ultimately led to my work being exhibited at the Venice Biennale. Through those early experiences, I learned that whatever I dreamed, I could make happen with enough effort, determination, and maybe some sheer luck. Because of Pratt, I also landed an internship at PS1, a nonprofit contemporary art institution, and part of MoMA, just at the time when the great Takashi Murakami was in their art residency program and becoming well-known. Just before my Visa was about to expire, I took a job at a restaurant that I turned into an opportunity to launch an art gallery and sell artwork within the restaurant, which not only gave me my first taste of what it is like to run a gallery within the safety net of the restaurant, but also of how to dream up and launch a new business initiative and sell people on it.

Being in New York, free to make choices, gave me the confidence to express who I was and what I was passionate about, no matter what the circumstances. This enabled me to launch the career as an entrepreneur who nurtures emerging artists that I have today.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Onishi Gallery?
As a gallerist, it has helped that the first part of my career was as an artist. When my own work was exhibited, that gave me a great experience about how the business end of the art world works.

I also gained a lot of insight through an internship I got at the start of my career at the Bronx Museum and especially at PS1 in my second year at Pratt. By working with curators at those museums, I was able to learn how the constructed their exhibitions to cater to each individual show. It's important to do thorough research before any written materials are made. I leaned that exhibitions are always created by teamwork which is what I am doing every day at my gallery with my team.

I really got thrown into my career, however, almost by accident. I had graduated from Pratt and my visa to stay in the U.S. was about to expire. I needed a job to sponsor me so that I could stay, and applied to be a waitress at Sushiden restaurant in Rockefeller Center in NY. They needed an accountant at the time, and I had no experience with that whatsoever, but somehow I got the job. I was struggling to learn Peachtree, an accounting program, when a week into my time at Sushiden the owner of this restaurant chain, Tsutomu Sada, arrived there from Japan. I made an effort to meet him and told him that I was the new accountant, but that I was an artist by training. He was a huge fan of Japanese art and ceramics and agreed to let me start up a gallery within Sushiden. We had a storefront window to exhibit inside the restaurant, so I added this curatorial and sales duty to my accounting tasks, which was a quick way to learn business. Rockefeller Center was a great location for this, we had all kinds of successful people coming in, including the people working at Lehman Brothers who were next door and would come for lunch most days and buy art at the same time. Most of our shows sold out, and this is also how I started to build my client list. I ran the "Onishi / Sushiden" gallery at Sushiden for 6 years while I continued my accounting work for them -a pretty unusual but effective launch into running an art gallery, and running a business. I moved on from there to helping to launch a new gallery in Soho, when my next big break came. A very big company in Japan that makes shrines to honor ancestors, the practice of which is called Kuyo, wanted to sell these shrines in the U.S. and offered to sponsor a gallery space where I could do whatever I wanted in part of the space, and also sell the shrines in a separate area. That was just next door to my current gallery here in Chelsea, and led to a wonderful collaboration to create a Kuyo Tree, a sculpture made by an Italian artist, to commemorate the fifth anniversary of 9/11. The 9/11 Kuyo Tree received a lot of attention and press coverage, and eventually, allowed me to open my own space and launch Onishi Project.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Onishi Gallery?
One of the highlights at Onishi Gallery so far has been working with Mamoru Nakagawa, a Living National Treasure of Japan, and a master of zogan, or metal-inlay. Through Nakagawa's work, I also met a collector who I now consider a great friend, Diana Altman. Diana first came to know of Nakagawa's work when we had one of his pieces displayed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and after seeing the piece, Diana did some research and found us. She then connected with me about getting one of Nakagawa's pieces, but his art normally takes around 6 months to create, so she waited a year and finally got her piece. Eventually Diana and her husband visited Japan, and were able to connect with Nakagawa, and he showed them around Japan.

One of the biggest challenges during my tenure at Onishi so far has been the difference in business culture between the United States and Japan. In Japan it is considered rude to only "talk shop," whereas in the U.S., "time is money." The two differing mentalities are a challenge to get used to when trying to bring business into the gallery. There is also the challenge of having the line between your private life and work life blurred. In Japan the line is more clearly delineated, but in a city like New York, the line can quickly become blurred.

What advice can you offer women who are looking to start their own business?
My advice to women who are looking to start their own business is to follow their gut, especially in New York City. New York City is fast paced and life here can get complicated, so it is always important to follow your gut and take chances. Whether the results are good or bad, you can learn from the bad results and turn them into good results the next time.

For any woman looking into getting into the gallery business, especially in New York, the key is to be different, and have something unique that differentiates you from other galleries. There are close to 400 galleries in NYC and you have to try and set yourself apart in order to get noticed. What you wear, where to socialize, and what you say in public can also affect the image of the gallery.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
It is easy for me to keep a work/life balance because my boyfriend and I share the same interests in art, music, food, and just general way of life. Most of the events I need to attend for work, meeting clients and collectors, he attends with me and it is better to attend as a couple. Having a partner with the same interests as my work just makes the balance easier to maintain. We both are surrounded by friends and associates who love art and it's a pleasure to experience cultural events together.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I think the biggest issue for women in the workplace is trying to get recognition and respect for what we accomplish. I have however, found that it is easier to garner respect and acknowledgement from American businessmen, than it is from Japanese businessmen. I am also lucky not to be working in an industry that is male-dominated.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentorship has definitely given me a lot of encouragement. My first mentor was my English Professor at Kanazawa College of Art in Japan, which was a very traditional place, closed to new ideas where I wasn't that happy. My professor, Yoshimasa Yokogawa, shared these feelings, and while he never left there, he encouraged me to follow my dreams and come to New York. Among the advice Prof. Yokogawa gave me, the most important piece was that he said good things do not necessary happen now, you will see them in the future, sometime in your life. When I was a college student in Japan, the only thing I was thinking about was getting out as soon as possible, but 12 years later when I opened the Onishi Gallery, I realized what he meant. In 2005, when I opened the gallery, there were already about 250 galleries in Chelsea and I had to choose a unique characteristic for my gallery to compete and to survive. I choose "traditional Japanese arts" as my focus. All of my early artists were Japanese artists from Kanazawa, where I went to college. Like Prof. Yokogawa said, good things came in much later and now I appreciate the rich, artistic, and refined culture that Kanazawa has and the fact that I spent my adolescent days there.
There was a woman even younger than I was at the time, Kaori Ito, who was already doing accounting work at Sushiden when I was hired there and it was her job to train me. When I arrived having absolutely no knowledge of accounting, and she could have been really spiteful or competitive with me, but instead she taught me Peachtree and was very encouraging and supportive of how quickly I picked up things. Kaori was a close colleague and teacher who gave me the support I needed to get the restaurant's gallery enterprise up and running, as well as later, when I helped them expand their catering business. The mentorship from Sushiden continues in the way that I continue to find new and interesting foods and drinks at my gallery's opening events and parties. The food experience at Onishi is closely related with my days at Sushiden.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Since I have begun working in the art and fashion fields I have always admired female fashion leaders, especially Diane von Furstengerg. She is elegant, dynamic, cultured, intelligent, successful, independent, sexy, and family oriented - needless to say, she is an icon among business women. I like how she lives her life and seems to know what kind of woman she wants to be and reflects that image onto her clothes. Other women want to wear her clothes, which means that other women like what she stands for - it's the strongest statement you can receive as a creator when you share with the world.

I also admire a number of my friends who are leaders in their specific field, one of them is Miwako Tezuka, who is the Director of the Japan Society Gallery in NY. It is great to see women succeeding and leading in industries all throughout the business world.

What do you want Onishi Gallery to accomplish in the next year?
I feel that art world is more and more accessible to people in general. Art is used to be a special field for just art professionals but now Chelsea has become more open to broader audience, especially the High Line which is right next to my gallery attracts many tourists all over the world. Galleries are becoming more mainstream and I enjoy finding new ways to make my exhibitions more accessible and enjoyable for visitors. I will enjoy introducing our Japanese arts and educating people with my expertise in Japanese culture in the next year.

The process we have initiated in our gallery of blending traditional Japanese arts with Western contemporary arts has been very successful and I want to continue that.

I also want to grow the gallery's profile around the world, partnering with galleries in other countries. We have already partnered with a gallery in Paris, Galerie 16 RUE DE LILLE, and have been exchanging artists. We just had one of our ceramic artists, Hideto Maeda's solo exhibition at the gallery. We will be participating in more art fairs in different countries in the next year. I want to introduce and establish a passion for Japanese arts to other countries around the world.

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