by Satoru Nagoya

In the last column I pointed out the decline of art criticism in Japan, which has scarcely existed so far. Now I will focus on the rise of a dispute among art people regarding national museums.
Since early last year, many art experts, including current and former curators at national and other public museums, have been disputing the Japanese government's plans to "privatize" national museums. The idea emerged in late 1997 as part of the national government's sluggish project to reform its administration. If the project is carried out with no further hindrance, the seven currently state-run museums in Japan are expected to be reborn as what will be called "independent administrative corporations" by the beginning of the 2000s. That is to say, the museums, including the Tokyo National Museum, the Kyoto National Museum, the Tokyo National Museum of Modern Art, the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo and the National Museum of Art in Osaka, will become quasi private organizations independent from the Agency for Cultural Affairs and the Ministry of Education which currently control such museums.

The discussion over whether "privatization" is welcome or not has grown since two Japanese-language bimonthly art opinion magazines, titled "LR" ("live and review") and "Dome" ("document of museum education"), conducted a joint questionnaire on the matter early last year, covering some 30 art experts, including museum curators and art critics.

Preceding the questionnaire, the editor of the two magazines, a former curator at a prefectural museum, had exposed the government's intention of "privatization" to the members of an e-mail circle he runs; then the members, consisting mostly of curious and keen museum-visitors, began spontaneous discussions on this matter. Following the two magazines, some major vernacular dailies took up the matter, and an organization of art historians -- many of whom are curators at public museums - also discussed the issue in its public symposiums late last year. However, the "privatization" issue has been almost undisclosed to foreigners, except for those who can read Japanese or have an acquaintance among Japanese insiders.

The better part of those who have expressed their stances towards "privatization" in the magazines' questionnaire seem to be opposing.
Only a few people are clearly in favor of this new idea.

The opponents' point of view could be summarized as: "The government should not abandon cultural support under the pretext of financial restructuring"; and, "Once 'privatized' and ruled by capital, museums might become unable to sustain activities that won't yield profit, such as research and conservation of cultural assets. Instead, they might be focussing on crowd-pulling exhibitions only." Those who favor "privatization" cite among the merit freedom in budgetary affairs and other policies (multiple-year budgets, unrestrained fund-raising etc.) as well as possible improvement in service. All of them are rightfully claiming that the government should clarify in which way an "independent administrative corporation" should be structured, so they can scrutinize the pros and cons of "privatization" more carefully.

What also should be taken into consideration when discussing this matter is: Even if "privatized," the museums will probably be granted a certain amount of government subsidies; the better part of the exhibitions being held at the present national museums are already sponsored by such private corporations as major newspapers and television companies (otherwise the museums can't afford such big exhibitions anyway). The real concern of many national museum staffers seems to be how their present safe and stable status as government employees will be affected by "privatization."

The primordial belief of many Japanese art people seems to be that "national museums" are something to be established by the state -- and then granted to them, an attitude quite contrary as is the case in the United States. There, the National Gallery of Art for instance was founded by the initiative of a devoted wealthy "national" collector (Andrew Mellon) and then "given" to the national government as an institution for the nation.

I suspect that Japanese "nationals" such as museum curators and art critics are anxious about "privatization" because they fear that after a while they might not really want to run those costly and troublesome museums anymore. "Privatization" will continue to be a big issue this year. Stay tuned in this column!

Satoru Nagoya is a free-lance art journalist living in Tokyo.
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