It looks, at first glance, like a refreshing case of “out with the old, and in with the new”: In late 2002 the Tokyo art community bade a teary goodbye to its Mecca, when the falling-down old Sagacho building, home for years to some of Japan’s most progressive gallery spaces, finally closed its doors for good. And now 2003 is here, with the promise of a bright and beautiful future in the form of the Mori Art Museum, set to open in October. Designed by architect Richard Glickman — who also did the Andy Warhol Museum and the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin — the nine galleries of the Mori Museum will occupy a total of 2,995 sq. meters on the 52nd and 53rd floors of the glittering new Roppongi Hills complex.

British curator David Elliot was lured from his position as director of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Stockholm to take up the helm of the new Mori, the first time that a foreigner has been put in charge of a Japanese museum. We on the local contemporary art scene should be overjoyed. So, why are many so cynical?

I swear the waitresses turned to stare and an abrupt silence hit the restaurant where I was having dinner a few weeks ago, when one in our party, asked about the new Mori, uncontrollably and angrily shouted out a word which can’t be printed in this newspaper. At the root of the outburst from this usually demur art-world professional was someone’s innocent reference to the Mori as “a museum.”

“What language are we talking here?” continued my friend, “Because unless the Mori goes out and builds up a permanent collection, it is no museum, it is nothing more than a high-priced showroom!”

Obviously, there is a matter of identity to deal with regarding the Mori — and in one sense my friend had some reason to be upset. For decades, prestige-seeking Japanese department stores and other commercial spaces have rented art shows from overseas, then plopped them into rooms passed off as “museums,” which, honestly, in the absence of qualified staff or permanent collections, they are not.

But I say let’s wait and see where the Mori goes with its mission. With regard to the question of a collection — or lack of — it is worth noting that unlike the world’s great old museums, which may send experts to scour the world for ancient artifacts, the Mori is only concerned with contemporary art, an increasing share of which (digital and video art, conceptually based installations) only takes temporary form.

And of course, the Mori is about prestige — in this case the prestige of Minoru Mori, one of the richest men alive, who is paying David Elliot and a staff of two dozen, and housing the museum in the crown jewel of his extensive real-estate empire. So best wishes to the Mori, which will be one of the largest contemporary art spaces in Asia. Nine months and counting to the opening.

A brief look back at 2002: The biggest disappointment was the Visions of Contemporary Art show at the Ueno Royal Museum, an annual showcase of young talent that took almost no chances, instead introducing some of the most predictable and lifeless art imaginable.

Among the shows that impressed me over the last 12 months were Takeshi Honda’s large, dense, charcoal-on-paper nature drawings at the relocated Gallery Gan in Harajuku; multitalented Tadanori Yokoo’s retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art; Yuumi Domoto’s breathtaking abstract paintings at the Gallery Koyanagi; Peter Bellar’s mocking minigolf installation at the Yokohama Museum of Art; and Lee U Fan and Naoyoshi Hikosaka’s ambitious “Vaporous Molecules” series of shows introducing young artists, at the Tokyo Gallery.

Speaking of the Tokyo Gallery, it has acquired a new space in Beijing, which debuted in autumn. The biggest market test for this region’s contemporary art came at the four-day Melbourne Art Fair, held in October. This year Melbourne attracted 21,000 visitors and recorded sales of A$6.3 million (423 million yen), up from the 2000 figure of A$4.5 million (302 million yen).

Among the Japanese galleries participating at Melbourne was the Mizuma, which also moved last year, to Shibuya. The Mizuma’s stock is rising, as it currently has two hot artists in its stable — Makoto Aida, a controversial fellow who seems to do a little bit of just about everything; and sometimes Tokyo-based Swiss photographer Mario A., who is creating a sort of neo-erotic japonisme with his nude photos of model Sachiko Hara done up as a wooden doll. Mario will also be taking his work to the Basel Art Fair’s new Miami Beach event, which opens Jan. 9.

Japanese contemporary art continued to do well internationally in 2002, with Takashi Murakami’s fiber-reinforced plastic sculpture “Hiropon” (1997) tripling its estimate to sell for $380,000 last May at Christie’s in New York. This was a record for the artist. Murakami also clinched a deal with French fashion house Louis Vuitton to provide mangaesque logos for their signature handbags.

Art dealer Kara Besher, who has been working in Tokyo for 15 years, says she is confident the successes will continue: “Along with the general rise in contemporary art worldwide, works by Yoshitomo Nara, Yasumasa Morimura, Mariko Mori, Yayoi Kusama and Hiroshi Sugimoto have been logging impressive sales prices this past year, and all these artists have top representation in New York and Los Angeles.

“And I’m seeing that emerging Japanese artists, who run the gamut from outrageous cartoonish pop to serene minimalism, seem to have a fresh appeal for international collectors.”

Every Tokyo gallery and museum I know of is closed right now, but if you must see a show this week, then go to the Watari-Um Museum, which has both one of the shortest New Year holiday periods and one of the best current exhibitions. If you haven’t done so already, drop in from this Saturday (Jan. 4) for the Henry Darger show there.

Best wishes to all on the Tokyo art scene for a prosperous 2003!

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