What contribution can artists make to the future of cities? According to Mori Art Museum director Fumio Nanjo, the potential is limitless.

Ahead of the upcoming Innovative City Forum, at which he will participate in a range of discussions on art, urbanism and the future, Nanjo said that he believes the key to artists’ contribution lies in their focus on creativity.

“At the core of any discussion of creativity or innovation is art,” he explained. “It is the one field of human endeavor in which there really are no restrictions. When one does art, there are no frameworks, no rules to which one must adhere.”

At the mention of art, the Japanese public is likely to first think of Picasso’s oddly deformed portraits, or the giant polka-dot installations of their own Yayoi Kusama. According to Nanjo, the very existence of such artwork encourages freedom of thought and expression in its viewers.

“Think about the impact that one of Kusama’s installations has on children. Children think, ‘This is possible, it’s OK to make something like this,’ ” he said.

The same would go for Picasso. In art, there is no “correct” answer to how a person should be portrayed; there is only a question: What would you do?

“The more we can create a society in which people seek their own answers, in which people address problems without allowing existing practices to restrict them, then the sooner we can create a truly innovative society,” Nanjo said.

But art’s contribution is not limited to the long-term nurturing of creative thinkers. Art also has an impact that is immediate.

“Look at the way that developers these days try to incorporate large sculptural pieces in their properties. Why would a company pay Yayoi Kusama, for example, to provide a giant sculpture to be installed in its building?” he said. “It’s because art has the power to attract people.”

Whether permanent or temporary, works of art in public spaces have been shown to alter the way the public experiences an environment. Roppongi Art Night, a celebration of art in public spaces in Roppongi for which Mori Art Museum is one of the organizers, brings crowds to the Tokyo district each March. Similar events have had a comparable impact in Paris and elsewhere.

Another example in Japan is the Aichi Triennale, the second edition of which is being held through Oct. 27. In that event, thousands of people are drawn to an area of Nagoya they had likely only ever passed through, Chojamachi, as well as the city of Okazaki, Aichi Prefecture, 30 minutes from Nagoya by train. The Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale and Setouchi Triennale have also been successful in attracting thousands of visitors from around Japan and the world to two very isolated regions: the mountains of Niigata Prefecture and the islands of the Seto Inland Sea.

Art’s impact on cities can be even more direct. “Artists can make concrete proposals regarding shapes, colors — the formal elements of a city, too,” Nanjo said.

Nanjo widens this to encompass practitioners of the applied arts — designers and architects. “With new technologies, architects can now propose building shapes that were unthinkable before,” he said. “Why should a building be rectangular? Why should a city be designed on a grid?”

Nanjo makes note of one recent example of the Dutch artist-designer Daan Roosegaarde, who this year will be experimenting with the use of photoluminescent paint to make roadway markings — a project that, if successful, could render streetlights unnecessary. “If the road markings can be made to glow for up to 10 hours at a time then drivers won’t need the roads themselves to be illuminated,” Nanjo said.

The key for Nanjo is that Roosegaarde is neither a city planner nor an infrastructure specialist. He is an artist whose work in the past has included such diverse elements as clothing and bed frames.

“Precisely because artists such as Roosegaarde don’t have specialist knowledge, they can approach a problem without any preconceived notions. Where a specialist will be working from a position of understanding logistical or technical limitations, an artist will think only of ideals — what is the best solution?” Nanjo said. “That is why real innovation can occur.”

Nanjo believes that Japan currently faces problems that artists and creators could help solve. “The world is changing so quickly that the past is no longer much of a guide for the future,” he said.

What are required are the kinds of innovative approaches that artists — or artistic styles of thinking — can provide.

“How is it possible to nurture creativity in a society? How to utilize that creativity? How to prepare society for looking at things creatively? Only art has the answers.”

Making it happen through creative thinking

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