The departure of director David Elliott from the Mori Art Museum to take over the Istanbul Modern in Turkey is the first major leadership change at Japan’s largest privately endowed cultural institution. Though it was not without controversy, Elliott’s tenure saw the 3-year-old museum develop into what is arguably Tokyo’s most important new forum for contemporary art, and where it goes from here will be left to the incoming director, Elliott’s former deputy, Fumio Nanjo.
Nanjo, 57, is one of a handful of ambitious Japanese curators — among them Yuko Hasegawa of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo — who have over the last few decades worked to transform what has been a conservative, tradition-bound and in some cases moribund institutional arts scene into one of the world’s most progressive centers for the consumption and creation of contemporary art.
While big, predictable shows that present the work of long-enshrined artists remain the bread and butter of public museums, Nanjo has made a name for himself by introducing audiences to an enormous new range of creative activity.
Having begun his career putting on exhibitions with the Japan Foundation in 1978, Nanjo has gone on to serve as commissioner of the Japan pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1997, as co-director of the Yokohama Triennale in 2001 and as creative director for this year’s first Singapore Biennale.
After taking over at the Mori, Nanjo says he will focus on further establishing the museum’s relationship with local audiences, both Japanese and expatriate, and look further afield to develop the museum into a primary center for the arts in East Asia.
“I am not saying there has to be only one center, though the Mori should be one of the centers,” Nanjo told The Japan Times. “We have a unique ability to provide a lot of ideas from an East Asian point of view. Another word which may be appropriate is ‘platform.’ I hope this museum can become a platform of many people in the region, curators, artists, critics and so forth.”
This is certainly in line with the efforts of Elliott, as is Nanjo’s desire to introduce contemporary art from other regions of the world that is not well known to Japanese audiences, much as “Africa Remix” did in May when it opened at the Mori.
Where Nanjo may ultimately differ most from Elliott is in his professed desire to produce more self-consciously contemporary shows, as opposed to the highly contextualized productions that Elliott seemed to prefer, in which he offered compelling cultural arguments with the aide of a wide range of art from different times and places.
“David’s strength was that most of his exhibitions were put into some kind of art-historical context,” Nanjo said. “So he was always very concerned with history, which is in a sense a very authentic way of making an exhibition, and I respect that. But at the same time, I want to make exhibitions in a different way, more contemporary, or perhaps you could say more journalistic. I want to make exhibitions that look hard at what is happening here and now. As it is, the environment is changing. The new National Art Center is going to open and, along with being a rental space, they will certainly be showing a lot of established artists, so the Mori will have to more clearly identify ourselves as more avant garde, more contemporary.”
The National Art Center is scheduled to open in January, and will soon after be joined by the new Suntory Museum, which opens along with the large Tokyo Midtown Project that has risen not far from Roppongi Hills, where the Mori is located. Though there are plans for the two new institutions and the Mori to cooperate extensively, creating what has been branded “Art Triangle Roppongi,” the real effect their opening will have on the fortunes of the Mori remains to be seen.
In addition, other challenges now confront Nanjo. He needs to ensure the longterm position of the art museum within Minoru Mori’s real estate empire, which provides the majority of its operating budget, and to develop the small permanent collection that was begun under Elliott’s direction, which the museum hopes will become an important draw.
Nanjo is fiercely optimistic in the face of all this, and particularly keen to prove that a private institution such as the Mori can be exactly what is needed to turn Tokyo’s ambitions to become a cultural powerhouse and worldwide destination for contemporary art into a more convincing reality.
“I think in Japan private museums have much more of an opportunity to become outstanding international institutions,” said Nanjo. “At the same time, of course it is not an easy thing to achieve. David has done so well, so my task is maybe to keep the Mori at this level and also push it higher, in my way, in a different way. We are already here, everybody knows us now in the art world, but we still need to cultivate a real link with the society here and in other regions of Asia, and in many respects the whole world.”