Departing director created a new platform for contemporary art in Tokyo

by Joseph Badtke-Berkow

It would have been difficult to find a more dramatic backdrop for last week’s press conference announcing that Mori Art Museum’s British-born director David Elliott will be leaving after October, and that his second-in-command, Fumio Nanjo, will take over the helm of Japan’s largest privately endowed art institution.

The conference was scheduled for the late afternoon in a westward-facing conference room near the top of the Mori Tower in Roppongi. As Elliott, Nanjo and Yoshiko Mori, the museum’s chairwoman and wife of real-estate developer Minoru Mori, took stock of how far the young, ambitious institution has come in the last three years, a setting sun appeared behind them, blazing forth for almost exactly the length of their speeches before disappearing behind distant mountains. And, just like that, the era of Elliott came to a rather abrupt end.

Elliott, 57, made history as the first foreigner appointed to head a museum in Japan. Drawing him away from his position as director of Moderna Musset in Stockholm, the Moris handpicked Elliott to create a progressive international center for the arts that would fit into Mori’s millenarian conviction that he is not in the business of making buildings, but of “building cities.” The ambitious experiment would take pride-of-place on the top two floors of Mori Tower, the high-rise centerpiece of the $2.25-billion city-within-a-city Roppongi Hills.

Given the scale of Mori’s projects, it is little wonder that the developer’s buildings, scattered across Minato Ward like so many colossal golden bricks, have their share of critics. At Roppongi Hills the young men and women in designer clothes who work in the complex’s signature tower and play at its astronomically expensive restaurants, have been christened Hiruzu Zoku — “The Hills Clan” — a moniker that inspires either envy or contempt depending on who you are talking to.

Many have pointed disapprovingly to the fact that while the Mori Art Museum started with two floors, it was quickly and quietly confined to the 53rd floor as the 52nd became an event rental space called the Mori Arts Center Gallery, which has recently hosted exhibitions such as “Pixar: 50 Years of Animation” and the “Da Vinci Code Museum.” But despite the embarrassing presence of such bland displays of corporate self-promotion, the museum proper has put on one compelling show after another, backed by a large endowment, impressive ticket sales and Elliott’s distinctive ability to present subtle ideas in ways that both inform and entertain.

“One should give credit where it is due,” Elliott told The Japan Times a day after his farewell press conference. “Mr. Mori has his name on a cultural institution, and the whole idea is about the company’s social responsibility and giving something back, as well as providing a focus for this whole development. You take the museum away and Roppongi Hills is very nice, but it is just another shopping mall with some offices and other stuff attached to it. You put a museum on top of it and it becomes something else entirely.”

Elliott, who has directed museums since he was 27, has a background in art history, and it shows. He comes across as the thinking man’s director, prone to long intellectual musings at exhibition openings that are generally ignored by the Tokyo glitterati who come to sip champagne in incomparable style high above the city.

Though one failing may be that he doesn’t boast a crowd-pleasing charisma, Elliott has, in his own quiet way, staked out an important position for the Mori.

“We said what we would do in the beginning, and we actually went out and did it,” says Elliott. “That’s something museums are very bad at for the most part. Most will say, ‘we collect work and show exhibitions,’ that’s it. But we’ve been much more specific about what we were trying to do, which is creating a platform for Japanese and Asian artists. And more generally, I think what the museum has changed is that we have created a standard for showing contemporary exhibitions in a consequent way, which wasn’t there before. There were a number of good shows, of course, before we ever came along, but they weren’t joined up in anything resembling a policy.”

Elliott has followed through on the museum’s commitment to showing contemporary Japanese and Asian art with shows like “Roppongi Crossing,” which introduced a new generation of Japanese contemporary artists, and “Follow Me!” which did the same for their Chinese peers. There have also been a series of flashy exhibitions such as the hugely successful inaugural show “Happiness” in 2003, which drew over 730,000 visitors. Though not all have won unanimous praise from critics, the exhibitions show a commitment to doing things a bit differently, which Elliott points out is both largely lacking among most contemporary art museums and incredibly important.

“The question is, ‘Is the job of a museum of contemporary and modern art just to follow the market?’ ” Elliott asked. “Is it to show the best hits and to rehash them and then whoever else floats by to pick them up before they become really famous? That way is very much allied to the market. But I think museums must be bestowers of value as well as reflectors of it.”

“I am always working from art outwards, not from demand, or what people would like. I don’t particularly care what people would like in that sense, because they don’t know what they like — they haven’t see it yet! I am interested in making something that they might like, but which for them doesn’t exist yet.”

Despite an impressive list of successes, at 3 years old, the Mori remains a very young institution. Many are questioning the wisdom of allowing the director who has guided the museum since — as Elliott has put it — “it was just a hole in the ground,” to leave at such a critical point. But, regardless of why such a drastic step has been taken, after the retrospective of American video artist Bill Viola opens, Elliott will head out to become director of Turkey’s first museum of modern art.

The Mori remains a museum that many love to hate, though that seems to have less to do with a lack of quality than with the fact that, despite its youth and relative size, it is the only museum in Tokyo that comes close to holding its own with Western institutions such as the Tate Modern in London or MOMA in New York. There can be little doubt that, in such comparisons, the Mori comes off worse, but that such comparisons can be made at all is thanks to the leadership of Elliott.