The Museum of Modern Art announced Thursday that it has agreed to serve as the "principal cultural partner" in a project by Japan's leading real estate developer, billionaire Minoru Mori, to create an art museum atop a 54-story office tower in Tokyo.
Under the 10-year agreement, America's best-known modern art museum will lend its expertise to help Mori design and run his privately funded Mori Art Center "to the highest international standards" at a time when a lagging economy has caused other museums to close around Japan.
While MOMA's director, Glenn D. Lowry, hailed the arrangement as marking "an important new era in MOMA's history," he said the New York museum will not have an ownership or naming interest in Mori's facility--thus stopping well short of the recent expansionist thrust of the cross-town Guggenheim Museum, which has opened high-profile branches in Bilbao, Spain, and elsewhere around the world.
Whereas the Guggenheim has viewed globalization as a way to increase its profile, share the costs of special exhibits and display works from its collection otherwise in storage, Lowry said MOMA's role was as a well-paid "artistic advisor" to the Japanese museum, one that did not even commit it to shipping over any of its renowned collection for "long-term loan."
"Will we be lending outstanding works of art? Possibly," said Lowry, whose museum houses such treasures as Van Gogh's "The Starry Night," Cezanne's "The Bather" and Henri Rousseau's "The Dream." "But this is not a 'branding' event. This is not the 'Bilbao Phenomenon.' This is a local initiative."
While Lowry was intent on distinguishing MOMA's consulting role from the Guggenheim's unabashed expansion, he did tout the fact that the Japanese facility will open just a year before MOMA's new enlarged museum is unveiled here, combining to "enhance and expand our capabilities for exhibitions and programming." A year ago, MOMA expanded in a different direction, merging with the warehouse-sized P.S. 1 Contemporary Arts Center in Queens.
Neither Lowry nor Mori would say exactly what MOMA is being paid for its help, but the deal is sure to be lucrative for the New York museum, which currently is in the midst of a $650-million fund-raising drive.
MOMA's participation is expected to lend cachet to Mori's expressed desire to use the museum to "help revitalize the cultural scene in Japan." The soft-spoken developer, one of the richest men in the world, said Thursday that he has also recruited advisors from the Royal Academy of Arts in London and the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris. He is resisting pressure to automatically hire a Japanese person to head the museum, instead launching "a worldwide search for a director . . . regardless of nationality."
The museum--slated for opening in early 2003--will take up the the top five floors of an office tower that will anchor Mori's ambitious $2.5-billion redevelopment project for Roppongi, a well-located but slightly bedraggled section of midtown Tokyo that is best known as a night-life spot for foreigners.
Mori, who has long been intrigued by the utopian planned cities of the pioneering 20th century architect Le Corbusier, has been planning the Roppongi project for more than a decade. A series of renowned architects has been recruited to work on different portions of the 27-acre project, including the Los Angeles area's mega-mall expert, Jon Jerde, designer of Universal City's CityWalk, the Westside Pavilion and Glendale Galleria.
New York Architects Prominent in Project
Signed up to create the museum itself is New York architect Richard Gluckman. He will work with the designers of the office tower, Pedersen Fox Assoc., a New York-based firm recently honored for its design of the World Bank headquarters in Washington. Gluckman's firm has gained a niche as a designer of modern art showcases, including the converted warehouses of the Dia Center in Manhattan's Chelsea district, the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, the Georgia O'Keefe Museum in Santa Fe and the Mueso Picasso Malaga in Spain.
"Our mandate was to design a world-class museum on top of a world-class building . . . a building within a building," Gluckman said of the plans, which are still at an early stage. "The tough issue is the identity of the museum--we don't want it to become a museum in an office building."
Part of the answer, Gluckman said, is to create a distinct "iconic structure at the [street-level] entrance," then--when visitors take elevators 50 floors up--take advantage of the setting by using natural top lighting, having "a panoramic observation gallery" and completing the 65,000 square feet of exhibition space by designing two unique telescoping areas that offer a "different experience."
Made of "a matrix of steel and glass," these galleries will be like "translucent glazed boxes that extend into the facade of the building," Gluckman said.
Though the details are yet to be determined, he said some of the art might be "projected onto a screen" outside the office tower.
The Japanese art community seems ready to embrace the 65-year-old Mori--who has yet to be caught failing at anything--as a major player in the nation's demoralized museum world.
The Japanese economic boom gave birth to a flurry of new art facilities in the 1970s and 1980s as various tycoons wanted to display their collections. But with the economic retrenchment of the '90s, about 30 large private museums have gone belly-up, including several run by prominent department stores. Perhaps 100 smaller regional museums have also perished, as have galleries, art publishers and exhibit designers, according to Jun Teshigahara, head curator at the Setagaya Art Museum in western Tokyo. Public museums have had their budgets slashed by 10% to 20%, he said. And Tokyo's only major museum for contemporary art is on the far outskirts of the city, where it is poorly attended.
"The Japanese art world as a whole is critically ill," Teshigahara said. "Japan is short of leaders with a strong interest in culture, so when I heard about this project, I hoped [Mori] could become one."
Mori and Lowry said that no specific exhibits will be planned until after a museum director is named this year. But the art center is expected to host exhibits on everything from contemporary and modern art to architecture, city planning, design, fashion, film and multimedia shows, along with Japanese traditional and modern arts.
Mori said there are no immediate plans for the museum to acquire its own collection, but that he himself may buy some of the artworks once purchased by his countrymen. Mori's personal passion is for the works of French and Swiss artists, especially Le Corbusier, whose lithographs, paintings and sculptures line the halls on the 31st floor of Mori Corp. headquarters in Roppongi, not far from the new site.
His hope is to transform that property into a trendy testament to the urban planning that has been badly neglected in postwar Japan. The area today is a jumbled maze of tiny homes and stores--many smaller than a Southern California garage--crammed together on narrow alleys and not far from a strip known for pricey bars and cheap prostitutes.
Big Plans for Roppongi Hills
By 2003, the Mori Corp. promises, Roppongi Hills will be a gleaming complex that includes a walkway from the newly renovated subway, a theater, a Grand Hyatt hotel, the headquarters of TV Asahi, one of Japan's major networks, condominium towers, a Japanese garden, underground parking for 2,500 cars, several mixed-use buildings and the 54-story office tower with the museum on top.
Mori said it is hard to separate out the cost of the museum, but estimated it would account for 3% of the project's price tag, or about $100 million.
In Tokyo, where land prices are among the world's highest even after a decade of economic stagnation, it is not uncommon for museums and galleries to perch atop skyscrapers. What is rare is for a developer to gain control of such a large chunk of land in the center of Tokyo.
Mori Corp. spokeswoman Keiko Horioka said that Mori has done it, as in past projects, by persuading the 600 residents to band together and negotiate as a unit. Each landowner was offered not only cash but a berth in the new condominiums--or a pre-purchased plot of land on the less dense outskirts of town.
The project has been in the planning stages since 1986 and groundbreaking is expected later this spring.
Paul Lieberman reported from New York; Sonni Efron from Toyko.