Art

The man who turned his modernist home into an art museum

by John L. Tran

Special To The Japan Times

It’s not all roses being the director of an independent art museum, but for Toshio Hara, the human interaction of the art world is still a more attractive prospect than that of being a businessman. In 1979 he turned the family seat — a small cluster of white modernist buildings in a quiet residential street in Shinagawa, Tokyo — into the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, which has been one of Japan’s foremost venues for exhibiting art ever since. An inherently eclectic and informal space, the museum celebrates its 35th anniversary this December and its director shared some thoughts with The Japan Times.

Firstly, is there a question that you dislike answering?
Questions about the future of art. The art we deal with is extremely individualistic and reflective of the society around it. The many ways art can change depends on the societal changes that occur in each era. I feel great pleasure when I encounter something totally unexpected.

What are the memorable highs and lows of being the director of the Hara Museum over the last 35 years?
If I had to name a low, it would be that museums cost money to run. Museums here are either public institutions with pre-allocated funds, corporate museums operated as a public service or museums built to showcase an art collection. The Hara Museum was founded as a personal endeavor. Its goal is not merely to show art but to provide a venue for the creation of new values. For us, it is important to be a place where all kinds of encounters are possible. But no matter what we do, the first thing that is required is money. And it’s not that we have a large fund — at times, we have to scramble to find sponsors. The funding we receive, however, has no strings attached, so we remain financially independent. As for a high, that would be being able to provide the best programming without compromise. We’ve been able to continue for 35 years as a result of that.

Part of what makes the original Hara Museum distinct from other venues is that it is an intimate space, which allows a more personal interaction between visitors and the artworks. Aside from the frequently put forward idea that Japanese homes are too small to have art in, do you have any thoughts on art collecting in Japan?
A great many artists are attracted to the transformation of the Hara Museum from a private home into a public museum, as well as to its unique spatial design, so it has been possible to do exhibitions here that would be impossible elsewhere. Because the space is cozy, people can interact with the artwork without formality. I have often been struck by how more vivid the same artwork looks in the Hara Museum compared with a “white cube” space.
As for the question about collectors, the truth of the matter is there are many collectors in Japan, but the inclination has always been to keep a low profile.

Your museum is a space that draws the viewer into complicity with your choices as a collector. The feeling is more “Have a look at this, I found it interesting” rather than, “You should like this work, it’s important.” When you choose work to exhibit, how much of it is a cerebral process and how much is intuitive?
Intuitive, absolutely. Thank you for your comment about our space and how we exhibit work. It makes me happy because, for me, the museum is a place where I can express my sensibilities, much like an artist does through their work. I also think viewers should bring their own sensibilities when viewing a work of art, and not be influenced by background information or what other people say. Because this is how I think, I want them to experience art without imposing my ideas on them. If it gets a reaction, then I’m happy.

You have a background in economics and business, can you tell us about what attracted you to move into art, and how your feelings have changed or developed in the intervening years?
Art has always been exciting to me from the start, and it still is now.
I studied economics in Japan and in the United States. After that I traveled to various regions of the world and encountered many cultures. Over time I became interested in mutual understanding and international exchange. At one point, I happened to meet a few overseas collectors of contemporary art and got a big shock. Unlike the world of business where your position at the company means everything, art is all about person-to-person relationships. I felt this was a wondrous world.

There is a long-running radio show in the U.K. called Desert Island Discs, in which a guest is asked what pieces of music they would bring with them if they were stranded alone on an uninhabited island. In a similar vein, I would like to ask which work of art, which book or what item of sentimental value would you take?
Nothing. I would leave everything behind and try to find something to do on the island that suits me and is unique to the island. Then I would enjoy my time on the island by doing that thing.

Is there a question you would like to answer that no one has ever asked you?
What is art for? Art is for the spirit!

Hara Museum of Contemporary Art is open Tue-Sun, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Wed. till 8 p.m., except on public holidays); ¥1,100. For more information, visit www.haramuseum.or.jp