PRINT Summer 2001


the Mori Art Museum

COME OCTOBER, THE SWEDES take over the Japanese capital with a two-week cultural festival dubbed “Swedish Style in Tokyo.” Over in the Roppongi district, the Mori Arts Center Project Space will honor the event in an area called the “New Tokyo Life Style Roppongi Think Zone” while the nearby G'Martini's bar welcomes “the brave and sleepless.”

If this doesn't pave the way for David Elliott, nothing will. The British cultural historian and director of the august Moderna Museet in Stockholm takes the reins at Tokyo's Mori Art Museum on November 1. The Richard Gluckman designed facility won't open to the public until 2003, but that doesn't dissuade Elliott; In fact, it's a main attraction. When asked why he'd want to leave the helm of one of the great modern art museums to join a startup, he responds, “Why not? Moderna is a great museum, but I've been there for five years now. . . . It's arguable whether the next five would be as creative. The Mori is a tremendous challenge. I've never started with a museum from scratch before.” Elliott—who speaks about as much Japanese (one word) as he did Swedish when he went to Stockholm from the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford—is nevertheless something of a Japanophile; At Oxford, he mounted (with Kazu Kaido) “Reconstructions: Avant-Garde Art in Japan 1945–65” and followed that with a Yayoi Kusama survey in the late '80s.

Language may not be Elllott's only obstacle. MAM will occupy the fifty-second and fifty-third floors of a skyscraper in Roppongi Hills, a sprawling cultural, commercial, and residential complex (underwritten, incidentally, by developer Minoru Mori, uncle of Mariko Mori). What of the logistical problems in hauling say, a Serra, to such towering heights? “It was one of the first questions I thought about,” Elliott says. “Obviously, massive pieces would be impossible to install; however, there's space around the museum where such works will be placed.”

While the unpretentious Elliott is probably the perfect choice for the job, the composition of the advisory committee that selected him gives one pause. The committee included two compatriots (Norman Rosenthal of London's Royal Academy and the ubiquitous Nicholas Serota of the Tate) as well as fellow directors Alfred Pacquement of the Musee Nationale d'Art Moderne at Centre Georges Pompidou and Glenn Lowry of New York's Museum of Modern Art. A persistent whiff of capital-E museum Establishment is compounded by the fact that the Mori Museum was first made public in press material emanating from MoMA, identified as the Mori's “principal cultural partner and artistic advisor.” Elliott seems unfazed by the affiliation that had the eyebrows of the art world cocked. “I don't think there's any intention that the Mori Museum would become a kind of Tokyo branch of MoMA on the Guggenheim model.” Let's hope not. Known for the independent course he charted at Oxford and in Stockholm, this captain, if forced to play company man, might find that G'Martini's bar a welcome refuge.

Peter Plagens is a contributing editor of Artforum.