Roppongi 'art triangle' paints new museum picture

by Kazuko Ide

Kyodo News

When the National Art Center Tokyo was inaugurated Jan. 21, it was expected to attract about 1.5 million visitors in its first year.

But the facility, which has become part of a trendsetting “art triangle” in the fashionable Roppongi redevelopment area, has already cleared its target.

An exhibition of Claude Monet, a founding member of the Impressionists, drew about 700,000 alone.

The center remains a draw more than six months after its opening, with the number of visitors to the museum and its cafe topping 1.8 million as of late July.

The sheer volume indicates that three museums — the art center, the Suntory Museum of Art and the Mori Art Museum — are making a statement.

The front-desk staff at the art center say they are frequently asked for directions to Tokyo Midtown — the site of the Suntory Museum — and the Mori Art Museum in the Roppongi Hills complex.

Tokyo Midtown, which opened March 30, comprises five buildings, including a 248-meter-tall hotel and office structure. Roppongi Hills unveiled compound facilities, including a 54-story office and housing building, in 2003.

The three museums are located within an easy walk of each other and form a triangle. They are helping convey culture in the capital, but with what museum traditionalists might view as unconventional methods.

This is because they have plenty of exhibition space but little in the way of permanent collections.

Suntory has about 3,000 items, including antiques it has collected under the theme “Art in Life,” but it displays only some of them when it holds an exhibition.

Mori, which has drawn about 5.5 million visitors since it opened in October 2003, did not collect artwork at first. However, last year it started accumulating contemporary Asian art in earnest.

“We’d like to play a role in supporting young artists by purchasing their works,” said Fumio Nanjo, curator of the Mori Art Museum. “But we have no plan at present to hold a permanent exhibition. It would rather be suitable for us to hold planned exhibitions to convey new culture. We can always make our place stimulating.”

The art center’s policy from the start was not to own a collection. Its original concept was to maintain facilities for displaying pieces solicited by such organizations as the Japan Fine Arts Exhibition.

Its exhibition hall measures 14,000 sq. meters, of which 10,000 sq. meters are earmarked for exhibitions of works assembled by the JFAE or other groups, and 4,000 sq. meters for planned exhibitions.

It has worked out 10 planned exhibitions this year, including one featuring Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675).

“The merit of not owning a collection of artwork is that it gives the museum discretion in its activities,” curator Hideki Hayashida said. “I think our museum is carrying out a show-window role in Japanese art activities to enable a tremendous number of people, including foreign media people and those relevant to culture, to see exhibitions.”

Purists might view the base of an art museum as comprising four parts — collecting, keeping, exhibiting and studying artwork — and space for a permanent display is actually the true value of a museum.

However, Roppongi’s museums are setting a new trend as places where beauty is consumed briefly.