Yuko Hasegawa delivers instructions to her staff in an even, polite manner that often belies the burden they impose. It’s a style perhaps more suited to a corporate boardroom than an art museum. But, since she took over as chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (MOT), in April last year, it has been Hasegawa’s businesslike efficiency that has proven most essential to her success.

Hasegawa ultimately answers to Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, and since about 2000 he has made a concerted and often controversial effort to introduce economic rationalism to the city’s museums. From the outset, the MOT was a key target. Citing its tendency toward academic exhibitions — which he dubbed “mental masturbation” on the part of curators — Ishihara made sweeping reforms: reducing its acquisition budget to zero; slashing its annual operating budget (in 2000 it was down to half the ¥2.1 billion it opened with in 1995); installing managers from the world of business in its director post; cutting staff (by 2006 they were down to 13 curators, from 21 in 1995); and, introducing a series of sure-fire, corporate-backed exhibitions showcasing everything from Maseratis and Ferraris to Ghibli anime and Disney.

“MOT came to symbolize what was known in the art world as the ‘winter years,’ ” said Hasegawa, referring to similar, though less extreme, ructions at other public museums.

Hasegawa spent that time outside of Tokyo, somewhat cocooned from the nationwide economic hardship, building a new regional museum — The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, in the predominantly tourist town of Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture. That museum opened in 2004 and garnered plaudits worldwide for its astounding circular, glass-walled building and its collection of contemporary art.

So, why would Hasegawa choose to leave her secluded hideaway for one of Tokyo’s most troubled museums?

Citing a desire to avoid “political talk,” she explained that a change in policy in the local Kanazawa City government made it “impossible to continue her exhibition program freely.”

On the lookout for other opportunities she “wondered which museum it was in Tokyo that was fulfilling the role of the Pompidou Center in Paris or the Tate Modern in London — a museum with a collection, mind you. I decided that all we had was MOT. It was a question of responsibility to the public,” she said.

But MOT had a long way to go before it could claim its place alongside such venerated institutions. Hasegawa set about working with the talented but somewhat brow-beaten staff to rejuvenate the museum.

“The first problem was the building itself. I find it a very authoritarian design,” she said of the angular steel structure. Careful to explain that building matters technically fall outside her brief, she said that she is making proposals to soften the museum, to “increase the hospitality zone — the buffer between the inside and outside of the museum.” She has enlisted corporate support to bring art into the museum’s vast but underused lobby spaces, which can be enjoyed free of charge. Financial-information provider Bloomberg is currently sponsoring the “Public Space Project,” which has seen up-and-coming young Japanese artist Kengo Kito create a colorful installation of looping hoses in one of the museum’s internal courtyards.

Hasegawa explained that for such projects it was essential to secure corporate sponsorship. “We have no funding from the metropolitan government for temporary events, such as exhibitions. We have been told to balance expenditure and income for such events by ourselves. This means that if we want to exhibit anything in an admission-free format, then we must get support from outside.” Hasegawa also alluded to MOT’s often-belittled location — 10 minutes walk from the nearest subway station in the essentially residential area of Kiba in southeastern Tokyo.

“We’d love for there to be some overarching plan linking the other cultural sites in this area,” she said, before noting that on this front, too, her powers are limited. (All she can do is lobby the Tokyo Metropolitan Foundation for History and Culture, the organization currently charged with managing MOT, on behalf of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government).

Another area of concern that Hasegawa identified was the museum’s exhibition program.

“It is important to be looking at what’s happening in the world. We have to be thinking about what we should be doing in response to those developments,” she said. In practical terms, that often means being able to act quickly.

“I was at a meeting of CIMAM (the International Council of Museums’ Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art) in November 2006, and I was talking to a representative of the Thailand Ministry of Culture. They said that they had an exhibition of modern Thai art, and so I decided to bring it to Tokyo.”

“Show Me Thai” opened at MOT five months later, an effective and critically acclaimed foil to the major retrospective of South African painter Marlene Dumas (also planned by Hasegawa) showing at the same time. But the exhibition had significance beyond its content. Not only was it put together in five months — unheard of in Japan’s public bureaucracies — but it had arisen out of Hasegawa’s participation in an international conference.

“Most Japanese curators don’t even go to the CIMAM meetings, because they are not willing to pay their own way,” said Hasegawa. With funding cuts eating into public museums’ budgets, very few institutions are willing to foot the bill for their curators’ trips abroad. The cost in terms of lost opportunities for cultural exchange are inestimable.

Yet even with a more international outlook, Hasegawa is not about to scrap MOT’s now popular exhibitions of family favorites such as anime. “We have an annual goal of 400,000 visitors per year,” she explained. “The Ghibli show we did this summer attracted 280,000. The Marlene Dumas show got 33,000.”

“By doing (exhibitions like Ghibli) we are able to do a more experimental type of exhibition which might not have so many visitors,” she explained.

Hasegawa has also sought to “breath new life” into the MOT collection, which had been without funding since 1999 but was allotted ¥80 million in 2006 and 2007. Along with the museum’s collection committee, she set about buying works by artists who had been included in some of MOT’s recent temporary exhibitions, and also buying Japanese Pop Art, which had burst on the scene during the very years that MOT’s acquisition activities were on hold. Thankfully they are now filling the gap with acquisitions of important works by Yoshitomo Nara, Makoto Aida, Shinro Ohtake, and Mika Kato. Takashi Murakami’s paintings are too expensive for consideration — with price tags often over ¥1 billion, just one would blow MOT’s annual budget.

Another important policy switch initiated by Hasegawa was to be more proactive in courting Japan’s private collectors, with the aim of convincing them to lend works on two-year contracts to the museum.

“If we explain to collectors that we’ve purchased a work by an artist and that we’d like to show their work in more depth, then they are generally happy to lend us works by those artists in their collections.”

In that way MOT has obtained many important works, including Makoto Aida’s masterpiece, “Beautiful Flag (War Picture Returns),” which it borrowed from the Takahashi Collection, and which is on display until next April.

Perhaps the biggest contribution Hasegawa has made thus far at MOT has been to steer it through what has become known as the shitei kanrisha seido, or “appointed administrator system.” In line with national government policy, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government allows private companies to bid for the right to manage museums — including everything from their collections to their research to their shops and restaurants.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Foundation for History and Culture (TMFHC), for which every current employee at MOT including Hasegawa now works, was forced to compete with conglomerates of private companies for the right to continue its work to date.

Earlier this year tenders were invited, for the period 2009 to 2016. Despite initial interest from 41 groups, the TMFHC found itself up against just one competitor in the final bidding. Perhaps keen to avoid a scandal should TMFHC lose, the judging committee was somewhat stacked with museum and academic types who came down heartily on the side of the current team. Still, the point had been made: Tokyo’s museums were now to run as businesses.

In interviews in the past, Hasegawa voiced support for the appointed administrator system, saying that in the “current economic climate it can’t be helped that we have to compete with private industry.” And when I spoke to her she evinced great pride that MOT had successfully negotiated the hurdle.

“These things serve as pressure, or catalysts, for changing institutions that might be stuck in their ways,” she said.

With her ability to function effectively within Ishihara’s new business-comes- first regime, Hasegawa is proving an effective catalyst herself.

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