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Koichi Watari, 60, has lived and breathed art since childhood, but whether he was always a fan is another story.

“You could say I positively disliked art, and it was in part because my mother would always take me and my sister to all these museums,” he says. “They were stuffy places and there was nothing fun about them.”

Watari’s mother, Shizuko, opened a small gallery in 1972 that was expanded in 1990 to become the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art, commonly referred to as the Watari-um. Since its early days as a gallery, the institution has been a champion of promoting conceptual art and other noncommercial artists in Japan and there are few cultural institutions here that can compare in terms of a willingness to explore new artistic ideas.

Although Watari didn’t share his mother’s tastes at first, a fortuitous trip to New York at 18 changed his mind. It was then he realized “how interesting and fun art could be.” Now, he and his sister, Etsuko, continue their mother’s legacy of cultural exploration as the curators of the Watari-um, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.

When the original gallery was still a commercial venue, Shizuko would showcase a range of conceptual artists such as Sol LeWitt and Nam June Paik, as well as more famous artists including Andy Warhol and Keith Haring.

“My mother was never interested in easily appealing art and sellable works,” Watari says. “She loved the kind of art where the idea is far more important than the actual work. She was never attracted to a beautiful object in the traditional sense. She had a taste for the quirky and the unusual.”

One artist that the Wataris got to know particularly well was Joseph Beuys, a German avant-garde sculptor and performance artist who saw art as a “social sculpture” with the potential to shape society and politics.

“He was a great influence for us,” Watari says. “Beuys saw himself first and foremost as a teacher, and teaching was his greatest work of art. He showed us that art could be many different things, so in a sense he opened our eyes. I learned many things from him, especially the idea that everybody is an artist.”

Inspired by Beuys’ ideas about the pedagogical role of art, the Wataris started their own educational programs, including workshops for students in kindergarten and elementary school, and lectures led by a variety of artists.

“What I like about these lectures is that we all learn together,” says Watari. “We sometimes choose subjects my sister and I know little or nothing about, and we do that on purpose so we can learn new things and maybe use the knowledge later for a future exhibition.”

Face of change: Koichi Watari and his sister, Estuko, run the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. | GIANNI SIMONE
Face of change: Koichi Watari and his sister, Estuko, run the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. | GIANNI SIMONE

During the mid-1980s, Shizuko’s gallery had become too small for the kind of projects she wanted to undertake, so she decided to replace it with a larger structure. The current Watari-um resides in a striking three-story building that was designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta and contains an exhibition space of almost 250 square meters.

“Someone at the time said that Mario was an eccentric choice, but we felt his ideas were just right for us,” Watari recalls. “I have to spend 10 hours every day in the museum and I can’t do that if I don’t really feel at ease with my surroundings. I feel a sense of peace and quiet here. We’re so satisfied with the result that in these 30 years we haven’t made any changes.”

The original expansion project was far from easy, however, as the Wataris had to overcome a number of problems.

“The project actually lasted five years, from 1985 to 1990, and Mario came to Japan 30 times to make sure everything went the way we wanted,” Watari says. “He did about 1,000 drawings just for the Watari-um.

“One of the main problems was lack of space because the plot of land is rather small and it’s shaped like a triangle. For Mario, it was his first museum and he was able to use the experience he had acquired here in his later projects, like the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.”

Thanks to Botta’s designs, one of the Watari-um’s notable features is that the building has a rather flexible structure that allows exhibitions to feel like multilevel installations.

“Mario infuses his buildings with a warmth that nicely offsets their outer look,” Watari says. “On one side you have these stern-looking concrete buildings, but they are also full of light and convey a unique human touch. For me, the Watari-um is like a second home. A guest curator may have some problems relating to this particular space, but for us it’s easy to develop a story around each artist and arrange the museum into different environments — a quiet space, a dynamic space, and so on.”

Over the years, Koichi and Etsuko have worked with many guest curators, but these days they prefer to do everything in house.

“For us, inviting other people was a way to learn how to do things,” Watari says. “Our very first exhibition was put together by Swiss curator Harald Szeemann who had been responsible for including performances and happenings at Documenta 5 in Kassel back in 1972. Then, at the turn of the century, we began to curate the exhibitions ourselves and focus more on younger up-and-coming artists such as Kyohei Sakaguchi.”

Of course, as a relatively small family-run museum, the Watari-um is constantly struggling to stay afloat while continuing to explore nonconventional art.

“We usually attract 7,000 to 8,000 people for young artists, while major shows attract up to 50,000 visitors,” Watari says. “The real problem is that the local and national government do not support contemporary art. We are lucky when we get an annual subsidy of ¥500,000 from the ministry. So we have to rely on corporate sponsors. However, as soon as the economy goes into a slump, like now, they cut their funds. That’s another reason for doing workshops and lectures. And of course the museum shop and cafe help us pay the bills.”

Despite the struggles of running a museum, however, the Wataris are buoyed by their mother’s legacy of supporting unconventional artists and enlightening society through art. This sentiment is evident in a book the Wataris published in 2012, titled, “Yume Miru Bijutsukan Keikaku,” which translates to “Planning the Museum of Your Dreams.”

“This wonderful book was inspired by my mother,” Watari says. “On one hand, she was a serious manager of the museum, but on the other hand she was a dreamer, always looking for unusual things. She surprised us more than once with her choices, always feeding us strange ideas and always challenging us to see things in a different way. I hope to continue her work for years to come.”

For more information on Watari-um, visit www.watarium.co.jp.

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