Fumio Nanjo is a world-leading authority on contemporary art who currently serves as director of the Mori Art Museum, Japan's foremost contemporary art museum. Here he sits down to talk about creativity, his time at Keio, and his prolific career as a leading authority in art today.
Well, my father was a big artistic influence on me when I was a child. He worked in sales, traveling all over the world for a special metals manufacturer, but in his free time, he was also an amateur artist who loved to paint. I remember when I was a little kid and he would take me, paints in hand, to see the historic heart of old Yokohama, filled with its red brick buildings and expatriate cemeteries. I can still picture him stopping off to buy art magazines along the way before going to paint. Our house was filled with all kinds of magazines and books that my dad would bring home—a complete collection of masterpieces from around the world. Back then, art books were printed in black and white, not color. I spent so much time looking at these colorless masterpieces that before I knew it, I had gained a natural understanding of the concept of perspective.
From elementary school onward, I was always the best in my class at drawing and got top marks in art class all through high school. At Keio Senior High School, I was actually a member of the mandolin club but had so little talent that I didn’t even get to play in our final graduation concert and instead designed the cover of a live album we made. I went on to study economics at university, but it would have been no surprise to anyone if my first degree had been in art instead.
-So why did you choose the Faculty of Economics?
Conventional wisdom at the time was that you couldn’t do anything with an art degree. My parents worried about their art-obsessed son, repeatedly telling me that the arts were no way to make a living and that I could consider anything but becoming an artist. I eventually convinced myself that the world of art was off limits [laughs], which was when I made up my mind to study economics at Keio. But I knew art was something I would always be interested in, and once I got to university, I found my own ways of doing it on the side—getting together with other art and literary types to make zines and rent out galleries to put on amateur exhibitions in Ginza. Back then, I wasn’t that interested in traveling outside of Japan, but after seeing so many friends from university go abroad—one of them eventually moving to Germany to become an artist—I decided to take a whirlwind trip to Europe just before graduating from the Faculty of Economics.
-Was that the first time you traveled outside of Japan?
It was, though my trip ended up being a bit different from the usual graduation trip. With a copy of art historian Shuji Takashina’s The Light and Dark of the Renaissance in hand, I decided to explore the many art museums of France and Italy. It was a powerful experience to see firsthand all of the relics of Renaissance culture I had read about in the book, and I realized just how little I knew about European art and culture. It was a real wake-up call for me. Looking back, that trip was one of the catalysts that inspired me to join the art world.
-After graduating from the Faculty of Economics, you joined a major trust bank.
Yes, though it was immediately clear that I wasn’t cut out to be a banker. When I first started, I would regularly go to collect money from clients. Whenever I returned to the bank, other employees my age, many of whom had been working there since high school, would be crunching numbers on abacuses and calculators. I was no match for them. Every day was torture. I started thinking to myself, what am I doing here? This was at a time when computers had just been introduced at banks, and I had a feeling that they would eventually be able to handle much of the work that we were doing. That’s when I decided I wanted to go back to school and study art.
-Were your parents on board with you leaving your job after only a year?
I’m pretty sure they weren’t. [laughs] I told my parents that the whole idea of banking as a steady job was just an illusion. I told them that the times were changing and pleaded with them to invest once more in my education. I don't actually remember much of what I said, but years later my mother made sure to remind me of exactly how I tried to persuade them. At the time, I thought it was more important for me to pursue the lifestyle that I wanted rather than look for a job at some big-name company. That’s why I decided to go back and study at Keio again. Though I also had an interest in philosophy, I ended up choosing the Aesthetics and Science of Art major, focusing on the history of contemporary art, which is still relevant to the work I’m doing today.
Our professors even tried to frighten us, warning that there were no jobs in art history, but that turned out to not be the case. It was just around that time that Japan was experiencing a museum boom, and local governments all across the country started building facilities of their own. Keio graduates ended up flooding the art world during Japan’s bubble economy in the 1970s and ’80s because there were only a handful of universities in Japan teaching aesthetics and art history at the time. We weren’t organized in any way, but we stood out to the point that we were given the unfortunate moniker of the "Keio Mafia." That said, I didn't start working in the art world right after graduation, but instead became an editor at a travel magazine where I had interned as a student. I traveled the world with my trusty camera and was eventually assigned a major job as deputy editor-in-chief. That’s when I finally felt like I was getting somewhere as an editor.
Then at some point, I heard that the Japan Foundation was looking for an art specialist. I had my reservations about leaving my job at the magazine, but I knew this was my chance to break into the art world, a world that I had always wanted to be a part of. I took a chance and applied, and luckily they offered me the position.
-And this was your first definitive step into the art world?
You could say so. But even then I wasn’t involved in art right away. I spent my time building frameworks to facilitate international understanding of Japanese culture, organizing projects and events that showcased Asian music and introduced avant-garde butoh dancers like Tatsumi Hijikata to international audiences. After five years, I was transferred to the art division. That is where I started coordinating international exhibitions like the Venice Biennale. My first foray into contemporary art curation was when I worked as the performing arts coordinator for an event to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Japan Foundation. I invited a group of five contemporary artists—including the likes of Daniel Buren, Joseph Beuys, and Giulio Paolini—to join an exhibition at the Laforet Museum Harajuku in Tokyo. I assembled a team of contemporary art curators from across the country to gather data and provide commentary on the exhibition, which allowed me to build a network of contemporary art experts and gain recognition in the art world as an expert myself.
It just so happened that the Laforet Museum Harajuku was a Mori Building development, built by Mr. Minoru Mori, later the founder of the Mori Art Museum. While we never met during the exhibition, we would end up working together more than twenty years later. In many ways, this exhibition was a departure for me, a turning point in my career.
Yes, I had built up a network of contemporary art contacts during my tenure there and thought it was time to strike it out on my own to work more independently. I later established an NPO that specializes in contemporary art curation and education. One thing I realized while working at the Japan Foundation is that in order to connect Japan with the international community, you need strong cultural ambassadors, people who are committed to communicating their cultures. That’s why I think it’s so important to train the next generation of contemporary art professionals and one of the reasons why I have let younger staff take over the NPO.
-Do you think it was your experience and passion for Japanese contemporary art that led to the establishment of the Mori Art Museum?
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons. Mr. Mori had already come up with the idea of establishing the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills when he invited me to come and work on the project as a member of its preparatory office. I had heard that he wanted to build a museum focused on contemporary art, but I suggested that we could instead focus on impressionism if we wanted to attract visitors. Yet Mr. Mori insisted on building a contemporary art museum, which is when I decided to do whatever I could to help him achieve his vision. At the behest of Mr. Mori, we invited British curator David Elliott to become the first director of the Mori Art Museum. David was then the director of the Moderna Museet (Museum of Modern Art) in Stockholm and was the first foreign national to become a museum director in Japan. Coincidentally, I had invited him to Japan years before when I worked at the Japan Foundation, so you can imagine my surprise when I found out that I would be working alongside him at the Mori Art Museum as deputy director.
-In 2006, you were appointed as the museum’s second director.
That’s right. Mr. Mori and his wife Yoshiko modeled the Mori Art Museum after The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. They wanted it to become Tokyo’s MoMA, and today it is a must-see for visitors from abroad when they come to Tokyo. I believe that my role as director is first to fulfill the museum’s mission and build its reputation abroad and secondarily to help grow an international network for contemporary art.
Our goal as a museum is to be as friendly and publicly visible as possible. The other day I was invited by the ruling party to a discussion on the role of art museums, where I was asked why the Mori Art Museum is so popular among tourists. While there is no single answer, we are constantly improving multilingual support. We are always developing programs for international visitors. Our museum staff, including Mrs. Mori herself, provides information to visitors in English. When VIPs come from abroad, we hold cocktail parties. These are just some of the ways we connect with the public and make the Mori Art Museum more visible.
-Could you say a few final words to current students?
I want young people to live creatively. You don't have to do big things right away. What’s important is to stop doing what everyone else is doing and try something new and different. As you do these little experiments, you may fail occasionally. In fact, you’ll probably fail more often than you succeed. But it’s the people that experience countless small failures who can take risks and make big decisions. Thinking about ways of doing things differently is the first step to living creatively, and being creative is one of the best ways to live the life you want to lead.
-Thank you for your time.
Director, Mori Art Museum
Fumio Nanjo graduated from Keio University’s Faculty of Economics in 1972 and joined a major trust bank after graduation, only to quit one year later. He returned to Keio, entering the Department of Philosophy at the Faculty of Letters to major in Aesthetics and Science of Arts and graduated once again in 1977. After serving as deputy editor-in-chief for a travel magazine, he found himself at the Japan Foundation, where he was responsible for projects in fine art and the performing arts. Since then, he has built a successful career as a freelance curator and director of many international exhibitions, including the Japan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale and the Yokohama Triennale. In 2002, he was involved in establishing the Mori Art Museum, where he became deputy director upon its opening in 2003. He has served as director since 2006. He is the author of Living Art (Kadokawa Shoten) among other works.
*This article originally appeared in the 2019 winter edition (No. 301) of Juku.
*All affiliations and titles are those at the time of publishing.
Photo : Kimiharu Sato