“It’s a transmission station,” says David Elliott of the Mori Art Museum, which opened to the public Oct. 18. “It’s a beacon beaming things out to the rest of the city, intimately connected with it.”

Elliott’s comparisons aren’t fanciful. The museum of which he is director occupies floors 52 and 53 of the Mori Tower in Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills, commanding a panoramic view of the capital and beyond.

“Socially engaged” art has been a constant theme in Elliott’s career. He is an expert on art and ideology, particularly the avant-garde art, photography and film of Germany and the Soviet Union.

Here, the 54-year-old Briton shares his views with The Japan Times.

What is your view of the relationship between art and society?

Art is closely related to life but it is not quite the same thing as life. So it’s like a conversation, or a reflection of what is going on, or a comment on what is going on. It is that distance which is so interesting.

For me that is the essence of what art has now become. It’s not a painting of a saint, or a sculpture of some great personality. It’s something that is feeding back into our own culture.

You’ve said that “mediation” is important to you as a curator. What do you mean by this?

What I mean by mediation is providing people with the tools whereby they can approach contemporary art, but not telling them what they should think or feel. . . . A bad museum is totally uncritical in its attitude toward what it is showing, and doesn’t add anything. A good museum gives an added value to what it shows . . . in terms of its intellectual capacity, its ability to mediate. If it doesn’t do that, if it’s choosing brand names and recycling them, it’s a very passive activity and that doesn’t interest me in the slightest.

We want to stimulate a constructively critical debate about contemporary art. I think this is very important, and it is something rather lacking here in Japan. There are many, many good artists, architects and designers — but there isn’t this debate about quality the same way.

Creatively, there’s no shortage of talent. But there is a kind of shortage of infrastructure to pick up on that talent. By infrastructure, I mean museums, public support systems, governmental support, grants and purchasing bodies, commissions.

How are you going to attract visitors?

Show good art. If people aren’t interested in good art, you can’t force them. Or all you can do is tell them why it is good and why they should be interested.

So publicity becomes important.

Publicity, marketing, education — they have to be linked. Accessibility, attitude, mindset. We are going to hold classes from the middle of next year. At the moment, we do workshops, we work with schools, community groups and companies. We have guided tours, we have gallery guides, we have symposia, we have lectures.

Is there any particular museum you’re seeking to emulate?

No, because I think museums of contemporary art have to be reinventing themselves as contemporary art changes. I think a lot of museums tend to get stuck in the decade in which they were created. Or they get weighed down by their collections. So we really need to think about what kind of museum we would like to be in 20 or 30 years’ time. And we start now.

It’s very likely that within four or five years, we will be opening another museum in Shanghai, and we will also work with other like-minded institutions in Japan and Asia.

At the moment you don’t have a permanent collection. What’s the difference between a museum that owns art and one that just shows it?

Well, there is a big debate going on about this at the moment. How fundamental is it for a museum to have a collection? There’s this, in my view conservative opinion, that says without a collection you cannot be a museum. To an extent, it is true, and I am very much in favor of collecting.

But museums also do other very important things, such as discrimination, research and mediation. By discrimination, I mean selection. They cannot do everything, so they choose what they do. And I think they have to say why they choose to do some things and not others. Making the value system of a museum transparent. And that is important.

Do you feel any pressure as the first foreign director of an art museum in Japan?

Not particularly. There are big advantages to being a foreigner just as there are some disadvantages. As we try to build something new, it’s better to be from the outside, because I don’t have to play by the rules.

Will you use that freedom as an outsider to plan any controversial exhibitions?

No. You know, controversy for its own sake is pointless. Maybe some of the things we hold will be controversial . . . It comes from the art. Artists see things in interesting ways and sometimes they see things very, very straight when other people edit it out, censor themselves. And that can be “controversial.” But very often one person’s controversy is another person’s commonplace.

What do you think is the great strength of your museum at this stage?

Its very contemporary, open attitude toward art, which reflects how art is, rather than how a lot of people think it ought to be.

So you want this museum to reflect art and society?

To reflect reality; reflect real attitudes toward art.

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