The Mori Art Museum’s director, David Elliott, will leave his post at the end of October to take a position as the new director of the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art in Turkey. The news was announced Wednesday at a press conference at Roppongi Hills, where Elliott spoke of his five years in Tokyo working as the first foreign director of a major museum in Japan, focusing especially on the three years since the Mori’s opening in October 2003.
Located on the 53rd floor of the Mori Tower in Roppongi district, the museum, backed by powerful real-estate tycoon Minoru Mori, is the largest privately owned and endowed art institution in Japan.
British-born Elliott, 57, has led efforts since the museum’s opening to invigorate the fine arts scene in the city, focusing on Asian, and particularly Japanese, contemporary art. He has also put on a string of slick, thematic exhibitions such as the Mori’s 2003 debut,”Happiness”; “Tokyo/Berlin-Berlin/Tokyo,” a look at the creative ties between the German and Japanese capitals; and this summer’s “Africa Remix,” which offered a unique survey of new art from the continent.
Elliott leaves at an uncertain time, however, as the museum is struggling to make a profit, and two new major museums will open in Roppongi next year. The large National Art Center Tokyo will open on Jan. 21 and the Suntory Museum in spring as part of the Tokyo Midtown project. A mixed-use commercial and residential complex built by the large construction company Mitsui Fudosan, the development’s own centerpiece 54-story tower has risen in recent months to its full height within clear sight of Roppongi Hills.
Though the Mori and the two new museums have said they will work together to promote Roppongi as the new center for art in Tokyo, how these new developments will actually effect the Mori and the Roppongi Hills complex remains to be seen. What is apparent is that three years after its much-hyped opening, new challenges are in store for the museum.
Those challenges will now be the concern of Fumio Nanjo, who has served as deputy director under Elliott since the Mori’s opening and will take over from his former boss on Nov. 1.
Nanjo is widely recognized as one of Japan’s most ambitious curators and has enjoyed a high-profile curatorial career in Japan that, in addition to his appointment as deputy director at the Mori, has seen him organize the Yokohama Biennial last autumn, and head the inaugural Singapore Biennial, which opened on Sept. 4, as it’s artistic director.
Elliott’s move to the Istanbul Modern, Turkey’s first museum devoted exclusively to modern art, appears in keeping with his interest in working to develop top-quality institutions in cities and countries looking to take their place among the world’s contemporary art powerhouses. Before taking up his current position at the Mori, Elliott served as director of the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, England (1976-96) and then as director of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Stockholm, Sweden (1996-2001).
Elliott will arrive in Istanbul at a time when its cultural scene has begun to attract a great deal of attention abroad. The city has long been an important meeting point between East and West, and is today home to a thriving population of young creators, especially fine artists and musicians, who have in many ways benefited from living in an open, cosmopolitan urban center in such close proximity to so many of the world’s most sensitive cultural fault lines.
Istanbul Modern will prove to be a very different institution to lead than the Mori. In sharp contrast to the Mori’s focus on profits and high-profile, big-budget exhibitions, Elliott’s new assignment is at a non-profit organization that relies entirely on the support of private and public donors for its financial well-being. In nothing-is-for-free Tokyo, entry to the Mori Art Museum generally costs 1,500 yen. At Istanbul Modern, entry is 500 yen, and free on Thursdays.