With the opening of Tokyo Midtown on Friday, the Art Triangle Roppongi concept is now complete. Comprised of the Mori Art Museum, the new National Art Center (NAC) and the elegant new Suntory Museum of Art — part of the Midtown project — the idea of a new precinct for art in Tokyo is ready to be tested.
To be sure, the Mori over the last five years has hosted some of the more exciting and controversial exhibitions in Tokyo, bringing both newly found exhilaration to the Japanese art world and attention to Roppongi as a new source of culture. While some love the freedom of the Mori’s catch-all approach, and others find it to be overreaching, that there are such discussions being held suggests that it is doing something right.
The newness of the NAC makes for a more open question. As Monty Dipietro has pointed out in his column New Art Seen on these pages, the center has started, as the Mori did, as a museum without a collection. The Mori has gone to efforts to reverse the situation, purchasing works from some of the shows that have graced its walls.
The works that will come through the NAC’s spacious halls, exhibitions from Japan’s numerous amateur art associations, may provide the raw material for a collection that traces an alternate history of contemporary Japanese art. But even though it is great to see such creative drive in Japan’s general populace, much of the art produced by the associations is derivative, belonging firmly in the 20th or even 19th century. It is doubtful that a collection based on weekend artists would be able to compete with the world-class offerings at other modern museums or be of much interest outside of Japan.
The Suntory Museum of Art is more of a known quantity. The museum has been sited previously in Marunouchi and Akasaka Mitsuke, where it rotated works from its 3,000 piece collection of traditional Japanese art. The collection was started in 1961 when the museum was founded and predominantly features an eclectic selection of relatively modern glassware, ceramics, lacquerware and paintings (late 17th century to present day). While perhaps not as exciting as the works by artists sometimes brought together at exhibitions at the Heiseikan (Tokyo National Museum), Edo Tokyo Museum or even the Mori — as in its current exhibition, “The Smile in Japanese Art” — the Suntory trades in solid arts and crafts that are representative of Japan.
Architect Kengo Kuma designed the Suntory’s six-story outcropping in the Midtown project’s Galleria building, and the museum exudes a minimalist calm, all rectangular shapes in wood, glass and Japanese paper. The third floor entrance is a large, high-ceilinged room whose louvered windows illuminate the space. In contrast, the exhibition halls on the same floor and the one above are small, sleek and dark. On the sixth floor is a reception hall with an excellent deck overlooking the surrounding grounds, including Tado Ando’s 21_21 DESIGN SITE.
It’s a respectful design for the art that will be shown. The first exhibition, “Iwai: Arts of Celebration,” features mostly Edo Period paintings and objects. There are a few standout pieces on show, such as the Important Cultural Property “Birds and Flowers of the Four Seasons,” attributed to Tosa Hirochika (15th century); the louche “Merrymaking at a Mansion,” unattributed (17th century); and a scroll, “Scenes of the Twelve Months” by Tosa Mitsuyoshi (18th century), whose one visible scene suggests that, viewed in total, the miniature, decorative Rimpa-style images would show you something magical. Unless you are hard-core about your interest in Japanese objet d’art, though, the works start to blend together.
But this modest reach is what makes the museum a perfect counterpoint to the triangle’s two other locations. While the Mori goes after big ticket modern and contemporary shows, and almost two thirds of the NAC’s 15,000 sq.-meters seems to be ultimately dedicated to amateur art associations, the Suntory’s 1,000 sq.-meters of exhibition space can be where the traditional comes to Roppongi. No one knows whether Art Triangle Roppongi will end up being a hopeful marketing slogan or an actual transformation of the Tokyo art world. Though the pieces in place appear complementary, it is uncertain whether they will actually improve attendance numbers at the other spaces. Will those who hunger for the Mori’s contemporary works have any interest in what the Suntory will show? Will family members and friends of exhibiting artists at the NAC want to wander over to the Mori’s unique international shows?
What can be said is that, in comparison to the Mori Art Museum’s relationship to Roppongi Hills, the Suntory needs Midtown more than Midtown needs it. The museum in Roppongi Hills gives credence to developer Minoru Mori’s vision of a living center that offers not only commerce but culture. Midtown has coopted that idea of business, commerce and culture together, even if its real concentration is on design rather than art. But instead of the real estate tycoon’s further call to make Tokyo international, Mitsui Fudosan, the conglomerate behind Midtown, preaches the development of Japanese values. Though this makes the presence of the Suntory understandable, it is probably less important to the museum than the reality that its profile has just risen as it never would have been able to on its own.