Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Art Opens

by Georgina Adam

NAGOYA, JAPAN - Fluttering from flagpoles, plastered on hoardings and adorning subway trains, the delicate pink-and-blue hues of Monet’s 1891 Grainstack are everywhere in Nagoya this summer. The painting is the star of the inaugural exhibition at the Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which opened in April in Japan’s fourth-largest city.

The establishment is one of a new breed of multi-national museums and a pointer to the way museums are evolving. The Guggenheim has been very active in setting up such out-stations, with the magnificent Bilbao museum its most notable achievement - and there are other deals in the offing. Most are still at the discussion stage, but a London/Hermitage Museum link-up has been agreed, and a Tate/Tokyo artist’s residency pilot scheme starts next year.

What distinguishes the Nagoya/BMA is that it is the first example of an American museum having a "sister" in Asia. The deal seems like a marriage made in heaven. Boston, one of the US’s premier museums, has a new home in which to display some of its 500,000-strong collection, most of which it has no room to show - and gets paid into the bargain. Nagoya, a bustling industrial town, gets a prestigious new museum and the chance to shake off its image as a cultural backwater.

Over the next 20 years, Boston will send 4 five-year shows and 20 six-month shows to Nagoya. Monet’s haystacks features in the first of these regular exhibitions, "Monet, Renoir and the Impressionist Landscape" while the first long-term display showcases "Art of the Ancient Mediterranean", with a fine display of Egyptian, Greek and Roman art.

The project was first conceived in the late 1980s, when Boston was mired in debt and actively seeking corporate sponsorship. With a long tradition of contact with Japan and a world-class collection of Japanese art, its eyes naturally turned East. Japan was riding high on an unprecedented economic boom and hungry for art. Nagoya was eager to improve its profile and its businessmen (through the local Chamber of Commerce) were happy to commit to the scheme, which included a $300 million hotel and office complex with the museum and a payment of $50 million to Boston for the 20 year contract.

The whole plan almost came to grief however when Japan’s economic bubble burst. In 1995 Ritz-Carlton pulled out of running the hotel, while local businessmen and Nagoya taxpayers blasted the cost of the deal. Only a dramatic last-hour intervention by the local government, which put up $30 million, saved the day.

"To be honest, we’ve finally made it, it’s been a long way," admits Ryuichi Kato, Chairman of the Foundation which runs the museum, adding that there were "many unhappy moments" before the deal was finalised.

Funding was not the only problem. The Japanese wanted to borrow mainly from Boston’s magnificent collection of Impressionist and Modern paintings, a sure-fire draw in Japan. But the Americans were determined to present all 10 of the museum’s departments. They prevailed, and so Nagoya will see, after the current exhibition ends in September, Asian art, followed by Native American pottery and celebrity photographs by Yusef Karsh.

"We want to broaden people’s horizons in Japan," explains Boston’s director Malcolm Rogers. "Unlike the Guggenheim/Bilbao museum, which mainly shows Western art to a Western audience, we are bringing something very new to Japan. In addition, the building is very important in Bilbao, whereas here the emphasis is on what is inside the building."

He puts a good face on the N/BMA building, a plain granite-clad 3-floor block which abutts a 30 storey hotel and office block in an out-of centre location in an area currently undergoing renovation. Curiously, considering the fame of Boston’s holdings, Japanese art is banished to a discrete, easy-to-miss "Corner" which will display one or more items on a rotating basis. Mr Rogers points out however that the next exhibition will feature Japanese and Chinese art collected by Okakura Tenshin, curator of Asiatic art 1904-1910.

The price of the deal is still ruffling feathers in Nagoya and in particular what will happen after the contract ends in the year 2019. "If all goes well, and I am sure it will, then I hope we will continue after that," says Mr Rogers. So certainly, does Nagoya, which is pinning its hopes on attracting some 330,000 visitors to its new prize every year.

First published in The Art Newspaper, June 1999


Georgina Adam is a Tokyo-based freelance art writer and correspondent for The Art Newspaper and The Asian Art Newspaper.
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