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Japanese Studies Spotlight: The Japan Art Catalog Project: Facilitating Access to Art Materials at the Smithsonian and Beyond

by Paula Curtis on 2023-08-16T11:14:03-04:00 | 0 Comments

The NCC is collaborating with institutions and scholars to release a monthly series on our blog entitled Japanese Studies Spotlight. These features showcase exciting online collections available to researchers and students in Japanese Studies, introducing the archive or project, describing their contents, and demonstrating how they can be usefully engaged in research or in the classroom. If you are interested in submitting something to the series, please contact Paula R. Curtis, NCC’s Digital Media Manager, at

Reiko Yoshimura, Librarian Emeritus, National Museum of Asian Art Library, Smithsonian Libraries and Archives
Kit Brooks, Japan Foundation Assistant Curator of Japanese Art, National Museum of Asian Art


When researching modern Japanese artists or art movements, it is common to come across references to small exhibitions held in department stores, galleries, or small prefectural museums. In many cases, these exhibitions did not produce full-scale publications, but instead published brief pamphlets. Despite their brevity and informality, these publications can contain a wealth of information about the artists, the artworks, and the circumstances of the exhibition. However, they are often available only during the length of the exhibition and with very limited circulation, and so can be extremely difficult for researchers to access. One of NCC’s first major initiatives for expanding access to Japanese information resources was thus the Japan Art Catalog Project (JAC Project).

JAC Project shelves at the National Museum of Asian Art (photo courtesy of Dr. Kit Brooks).


The JAC Project was initiated in 1995, only four years after the founding of NCC. The objectives of the JAC Project are to strengthen Japanese fine art resources, especially resources on the post-Edo period, in North America by systematically acquiring catalogs of exhibitions held in Japan and Japanese museum collection catalogs and to provide nationwide access to the materials. The dedicated librarians and scholars in Japanese Studies who initially launched the project worked tirelessly to establish a relationship with ACE Japan (the Japan Association for Cultural Exchange) and, along with financial support of the Japan Foundation and private donors, established a system in which ACE-Japan collected art exhibition catalogs and sent copies to the National Museum of Asian Art (formally Freer | Sackler Library) repository.

Initially, ACE-Japan solicited exhibition and collection catalogs from 176 selected Japanese exhibition organizers (including museums, department stores, and newspaper companies) and collectively shipped them to the Smithsonian’s North American depository. ACE-Japan’s Art Catalog Library in Tokyo, which was launched in 1998, was the first of its kind. You can read more about these early efforts in NCC’s Fall 1996 and Spring 1997 newsletters, which provide details about the JAC Project’s launch.

Right: Announcement of the JAC Project in NCC’s Fall 1996 Newsletter.

As the project gradually expanded, it inspired institutions around the world, including Germany, France, and Bangkok, to establish similar programs and partnerships with organizations in Japan. Several other institutions have joined the JAC Project over the years, including Columbia University, Leiden University, and the University of Sydney. In 2005 the JAC Project was moved from ACE-Japan to a new project coordinator, The National Art Center, Tokyo (NACT), which opened in 2007. NACT also became a Japanese depository of exhibition and collection catalogs and represents the JAC Project in Japan.

Announcement of the National Art Center Tokyo’s launch in NCC’s Spring 2007 Newsletter.

As a part of the original team that launched the JAC Project and its long-time coordinator, Reiko Yoshimura (Librarian Emeritus, National Museum of Asian Art Library, Smithsonian Libraries and Archives) has been invaluable to its continued success. Her efforts at the National Museum of Asian Art paved the way for other institutions to follow and served as a model of what the JAC Project could achieve. One patron, a scholar of History, took the time in 2003 to express her gratitude for the unique offerings of the JAC collection and the convenience of RLIN, their cataloging system:

Excerpt from a patron letter to Reiko Yoshimura.

By 2006, Yoshimura had already coordinated the receipt of 3,476 catalogs from 453 Japanese museums and collections. Today, the National Museum of Asian Art Library has received some 10,000 volumes of Japanese and Asian art exhibition and museum collection catalogs.

Currently over 8,300 catalogs are available through Interlibrary Loan. The Library’s holdings are searchable in Smithsonian Libraries and Archives online catalog and also in WorldCat (OCLC FirstSearch). The National Art Center, Tokyo holds over 110,000 catalogs, remaining a core collaborator in the JAC Project, and our other partners continue to grow their own collections to maximize the availability of these important resources. As of 2023, Leiden University holds nearly 5,500 items, the University of Sydney holds 5,035 items, and Columbia University holds 2,800 titles.

Every academic and professional field faces its own challenges. In the art world, the release of these exhibition and collection catalogs might be associated with non-museum spaces such as department-stores or small galleries (画廊). Since their publications are not often sold through the regular book distribution system, it is difficult and time-consuming for those interested in the content to locate materials and verify availability. The JAC Project is therefore a unique and important international collaboration. The National Museum of Asian Art and its dedicated professionals are proud of the work that has been done over the years to make the Japan Art Catalog Project possible, and hope it will continue to expand in the years to come. To explore JAC Project materials at the Smithsonian Libraries, visit our online catalog. To locate JAC Project materials at other global institutions, visit the NCC JAC Project page.

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