Published  05/02/2004

Interview with David Elliott, Director of Mori Art Museum, Tokyo

Interview with David Elliott, Director of Mori Art Museum, Tokyo


Since it opened in October 2003, the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo has attracted 750,000 visitors for its inaugural exhibition 'Happiness: a survival guide for art and life'. This figure is surprising considering that the Mori Museum does not have an art collection of its own. All the art works for the inaugural exhibition were loaned from national and international art institutions and private collectors.

British director of the Mori Art Museum, David Elliott

The fact that the Mori is situated on the top two floors of the 53-storey high Mori Tower - situated right in the middle of the capital with direct access from the metro and the dual attractions of the museum and the breathtaking view of Tokyo from the observation deck (both situated on the 52nd floor) - no doubt helped the museum to get a stronger attendance despite an entrance fee of £8. The museum's bold decision to open late (until 10 pm on weekdays and until midnight at the weekend) also helped to pull in a new audience. For the office workers who work in the Mori Tower, being able to pop in and have a look at what's happening in the museum must be truly convenient.

The museum has benefited from extensive media coverage from TV, newspapers and magazines of all sorts. It has also proved popular with the overseas residents of Tokyo. The Mori Museum has certainly created an alternative choice to put on the Tokyoite's cultural nightlife calendar along with the cinemas and theatres.

It is quite ironic to consider that it is a foreigner who has grabbed the heart of the Japanese public. The man who has orchestrated the museum's howling success is Mori Director David Elliott - a Brit and the first foreign director in a Japanese art institution. Elliott is well known for his remarkable past successes in the UK, culminating in his period as Director of the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford.

The strong attendance at the Mori underpinned all that David Elliott said during our meeting. In his own words, 'The Japanese public are intellectual and do have an interest and mind for contemporary art but the art institutions in Japan seemed not to have been able to provide an appropriate way to introduce contemporary art to them'. Since taking his post in November 2001, David Elliott has strenuously visited museums and galleries in Tokyo and has actively attended the gallery openings, talking to young artists, art critics and the public. He must have been fully aware that in the minds of the majority of Japanese people, art is still stuck in the first half of the 20th century 'Modern' art. The Japanese public flock to museum exhibitions which bring art collections from renowned or established museums. The MoMA exhibition held in Tokyo in 2001 attracted 500,000 visitors over four months. More recently, the Monet/Renoir exhibition had 2,300 visitors on an average day, an immense figure considering that it was held at a regional museum and when exhibitions on contemporary art in the capital have an average attendance of only 300 to 400 a day. Even frequent museum visitors in Japan are happy to follow what the authorities define as 'important' art without ever questioning it. Amid such circumstances, it must have been a huge challenge for David Elliott to take the helm of directorship and open a museum dedicated to contemporary art.

First, the Mori's decision not to have its own art collections quite shocked the art world. David Elliott points out the current dilemma surrounding modern art museums - that they have art collections which are of value but that those collections can sometimes hamper a museum’s activity. Of course, museums can use their collections for guaranteed display but the point about contemporary art is that it is so wide-ranging - from fragile thread to mechanical machines, paintings to dead animals, installations to architectural works - that issues about conservation and storage have to be considered. And the thing about contemporary art is that it is always in a state of flux. As David Elliott says, 'Once we start collecting, the more you have, the more it gets valuable and that will stop us from responding to the present and taking on new ideas what the artists are doing now.' But he does not rule out the possibility of having collections in the future.

Elliott hopes the Mori will function as a mediator of contemporary art: reacting to what is going on 'now'. In his opinion, 'We are concerned with the relationship between art and life. Contemporary art is only intelligible in terms of its relationship to our life. We would like to communicate to the public that there are many things about contemporary art which is related to our life.

'One thing I realised through my visits to galleries and exhibitions in Japan, was that although the quality of Japanese contemporary art is very high, there do not seem to be enough discussions among the artists, critics and the audience about contemporary art.'

This applies not just to contemporary art but to art in general. Art education in Japanese schools lacks a curriculum that facilitates students’ involvement and interaction with art. Elliott believes that, 'The educator and the public need to have an opportunity to discuss why certain art is important. Unless you are a born connoisseur of art, you will not be able to judge by yourself why certain art is superior to other art'. As his statement emphasises, the Mori Museum is on a mission to become a platform for discussion on the art and culture of our time. Obviously the exhibition is an important part of the Mori’s activity, but the exhibition will not be a stand-alone. It will be complemented by discussion with the audience, which the Mori aims to do in the form of symposia with the participating artists and curators, or workshops given by the artist. By doing so, the Mori Museum aims to let the audience itself become an important element in the process of creating art.

Elliott continues, 'I agree that contemporary art may not be simple to understand, but if it is presented in the right way people can enjoy a lot. We want people to experience art and think about it. The art reflects our time, it is about our culture. We may not like our times or many aspects of the time we live in but that is not the fault of art as such'.

To reach out to as wide audience as possible, David Elliott will realise extensive thought-provoking programmes to encourage public involvement. The inaugural exhibition 'Happiness', flowed out of the museum’s white cube and extended to an open-air 'Happiness' flea market, to a cookery workshop, and to schools programmes, all of which aimed to help new art audiences access contemporary art by blurring the boundary of what is art and what is daily activity. The flea market was a success, attracting shoppers who may well have had no previous interest in contemporary art. The newest exhibition, 'Roppongi Crossing: New visions of Contemporary Japanese Art 2004' is a showcase of 57 Japanese contemporary creators working in diverse genres from fashion, music, media art to design and architecture. It takes an interactive approach inviting the public to participate in the exhibition by voting for their favourite work and awarding a prize.

During his career as the Director of the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford and the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Stockholm, David Elliott organised exhibitions on non-Western art such as Japanese post-war avant-garde and African art, which at that time were still marginal for audiences in Europe, and so played an important role in introducing those arts to the West. When asked what exhibitions he plans to stage over the next six months, Elliott says, 'We will organise exhibitions and public programmes which will communicate with the audience, trying to illuminate and make clear what the relationship between art and our life is. We will not tell the audience what to do, people can make up their own minds. But we will give people the tools with which to experience art better if they want to and let people have the freedom to approach art of their time'.

Over the next two years, he will curate exhibitions such as 'Modern Means: Continuity and Change in Art from 1880 to Now' (which will be a loan exhibition from MoMA) 'Hot’n’spicy: Contemporary Art from Asia' as well as organising travelling exhibitions such as 'Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Where is our place?' and 'In and Out of Africa: Contemporary art from Africa and beyond', all with the aim of being shown not only to the Japanese public but also to an international audience.

The Mori is also committed to discovering and promoting young international artists and giving them an opportunity to show their creativity to the wider public. Similar to the Moderna Museet Projekt which he established in Stockholm, David Elliott has rolled out the Mori Art Museum (MAM) Project to make the Mori a production site for art. Curated by one of the Mori curators each year, the MAM project will be an ongoing scheme to commission four or five international young artists a year to produce works and to ultimately show their works in the form of a solo exhibition, using not just the interior of the museum but the public spaces for a venue. The first MAM Project has just opened to the public, showcasing the work of Milwaukee-based artist, Santiago Cucullu. As part of finding young talents in art, David Elliott himself has been actively participating in an external competition, acting as a judge for the artist-scouting festival organised by Takashi Murakami and an international competition on the 'Art of Martini glass design'.

As a Japanophile from the time he was an art student at Oxford, David Elliott has a strong interest not only in Japanese art of Edo period but also in classical Chinese, Indian and East Asian art that, according to Elliott 'was totally unknown in the West in the 80s'. It could be said that 'Happiness', his first exhibition in Japan was an attempt to offer to the Japanese audience the same experience and fascination he had when he first came across Asian art.

'I think it is about time for Tokyo to show its presence as a cultural centre to the rest of the world'. David Elliott is already starting to plan ahead to set out where the Museum will be in the next ten years. It will certainly be worth watching in the future, and other museum directors will be keen to know what David Elliott is planning and what they can draw upon in the increasingly competitive forum of contemporary art.

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