Fumio Nanio: Museums in Japan

Its development, now and future

Cover der Publikation »Contemporary Art and the Museum«
20. Oktober 2007, ZKM

Japan has experienced a long process of constructing museums that show modern and contemporary art for the last 30 years.

The first phase of such a process was to organize art exhibitions in department stores’ event space with the financial and administrative support provided by newspaper companies. This structure was very unique in Japan but it was a driving force for numerous art exhibitions including those of Picasso and American Abstract Expressionists. This phenomena started right after World War II and lasted until the end of 1980s when Japan’s bubble economy burst. Thereafter, slowly the construction of regional and national public museums started. First, in 1955, the Kanagawa prefectural government built the Museum of Modern Art in Kamakura. Then, the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo followed later in the same year. Since 1955, about 200 public museums were built all over Japan. The latest addition of the museum of art by a local prefecture is going to open in Okinawa in November this year. In addition, major local cities, the national government, and even ward governments in Tokyo have built their own and many museums.

All these museums have basically meant to be good opportunities of investment to stimulate local economy. These museums’ budget was always spent for construction rather than for operation. These museums usually stand in the peripheral of the city where land cost is cheaper or in the land already owned by the government.
After Japan’s bubble economy burst around 1990, local governments started to use museums as tools to revitalize the city center and its economy. Actually, in the recession period that followed the burst, a local city lost its traditional retail businesses at its center and often large-scale supermarkets were built in its outskirt reachable only by car. Therefore, the city center lost its visitors and economic vitality and became empty, and many shops were closed. In this way, a cultural institution has become one of the major devices to bring back visitors and vitality to the city center, stimulating its economy and even human relations of the local community. For this purpose, recently built museums tend to be located at the city center, often in a large-scale re-development.

For example, the Asian contemporary museum created by City of Fukuoka is located on the 5th to 8th floors of a building in a newly developed shopping center. Kumamoto Contemporary Art Museum is located on the 3rd to 5th floors between a shopping center and a hotel owned by Japan Airlines. The Kanazawa 21st Century Museum is also located in the city center at the former site of an elementary school, which is very close to the old shopping malls of the city. Meanwhile, the period of department store museums as a cultural driving force has ended.
Now, Japan is in the second phase of building museums. As explained above, the new tendency for building museums is heavily linked to the re-development of the city. This characteristic applies to Mori Art Museum, which is a flagship institution of the Roppongi Hills development in downtown Tokyo, which houses offices, apartments, restaurants, shops, 9 movies theatres, the Grand Hyatt Hotel, and the TV Asahi Station. The museum is on the top of the [54-storied] central building, combined with an observation deck, a conference center, and a private club. This example offers a quite interesting business model, providing a unique hybrid program for education, public relations and marketing for future museum audience.
Another unique museum in Japan is the Benesse Museum in Naoshima Island, located in the Setonaikai Inland Sea. It is owned by Benesse Corporation, a Japanese company that offers various educational services. Its president Soichiro Fukutake started the museum in 1995, designed by architect Tadao Ando, attempting to reflect his vision on contemporary art. The museum is also accompanied by a hotel of 17 rooms. Recently, in addition to the main museum, the company built a smaller museum, also designed by Ando, hidden beneath a hill in the small island. This newly built underground museum called Chichu museum houses the museum’s permanent collection of three artists, James Turrell, Walter de Maria and Claude Monet. In addition, the company has also bought several historical town houses in the island town and placed contemporary art in each of the houses. This practice has greatly contributed to maintain the old ambience of the town and create unique opportunities for audience to experience the local culture and contemporary art simultaneously.
Another unique museum in Japan is the Kanazawa 21st century museum, which was built by Kanazawa city and designed by architects SAANA (Kazuyo Sejima and Ryuue Nishizawa). This architecture has an extremely unique structure. Within the main circular building of glass walls, approximately 30 white individual cubic galleries are created. This structure provides an extremely unique possibility to the museum curators in a sense that it enables them to create numerous individual exhibitions with random access by visitors and time differences.

Early this year, three new museums opened in Tokyo’s Roppongi district, 5 minutes’ walk from Mori Art Museum. The major one is certainly the new National Art Center designed by Metabolism architect Kisho Kurokawa but this museum is meant to be a rental space for about 60 artists associations. The total floor space is over 10,000 square meters. They have only a few curators and do not have enough budget to do significant shows each year and some of the gallery space will be rent out by newspaper companies.
One of the two other new museums is the private Suntory museum designed by Kengo Kuma. This museum shows traditional Japanese art. The third one is the 21-21 design site run by fashion designer Issei Miyake and again designed by Tadao Ando. Both the Suntory museum and the 21-21 design site are located in the Tokyo Midtown development, which is a rival to Roppongi Hills, but this example again proves that now any large scale real estate development must include a cultural institution to establish its identity and secure it prosperity.

With the upcoming opening of The Okinawa prefectural Museum, which is in the most Southern island of Japan, the boom of construction of prefectural museums will be completed. But when we look at the operation and quality of exhibitions at these museums, they are not in a good shape with such a low budget, receiving not much interest from the general public.
In the near future, these local museums may have to go through reorganization and merger, and some might have to close. As a result, the number of the museums might become fewer but the surviving museum must become more active and important ones. Mori Art Museum is one of the activating forces of the stagnant situation of the Japanese museum world. It promotes a new venture with new ideas, new business models, new visions on exhibitions. They don’t attempt to copy Western models, but instead always try to propose a unique concept, a unique vision on contemporary art and its history. Besides Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan had already gone through the boom of museum construction, having built many museums in cities. Particularly Leeeum in Seoul, built by Samsung, and designed by architects Jean Nouvelle, Mario Botta, and Rem Koolhaas, is significant. Now China is saying that they will build 2,000 museums in next 10 years, and a lot of commercial galleries are being built. This mega wave of the museum construction boom will certainly hit South Asia and South East Asia such as India, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand etc. For example, Singapore has already decided to turn the old city hall to be a new art Museum and once it is built, it will certainly become a best showcase for art of the regions.

Now our agenda in Japan, as an advanced country of museums in Asia although it is not perfect, is how to create a network with the colleagues and how to help and advise for upcoming new museums in Asia. New museums in Asia must search their own solutions to the following question, that is, what kind of museum is appropriate now in a specific city and society.


Last update: 26-10-2007 15:37