"I would like to continue striving to help art museums rethink what they can offer and consequently have society recognize the meaning of their existence"

17 August 2020

Mami Kataoka, Director, Mori Art Museum, and President of CIMAM

Inteview — Mori Art Museum Director Mami Kataoka Tells How Museums will Change Post COVID-19

Written by Ayako Kurosawa and published originally by Japan Forward, 7 August 2020.

Face masks have become a must at exhibitions, as well as temperature checks at entrances, and avoidance of close-contact situations. With such measures, museums that were forced to temporarily close to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus are gradually reopening to the public. How will museums continue to change amid the new normal of a post-coronavirus society? Will the museum experience change? The Sankei Shimbun and JAPAN Forward sat down for an interview in early July with Mami Kataoka, Director of the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo’s Roppongi neighborhood, and president of the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art (CIMAM), to ask these questions.  

Excerpts of the interview follow.

How are you doing, now that the Mori Art Museum is finally reopening from July 31 with the new exhibition, STARS: Six Contemporary Artists from Japan to the World?

Now that reopening has finally been decided, I am feeling a bit relieved.

We have heard that some museums are managing visitor numbers to avoid creating close-contact settings, and incorporating online reservation systems that allow entrance according to designated time slots. Will the STARS exhibition be implementing this kind of system?

Depending on how the coronavirus situation changes, social distancing may somewhat loosen. However, I think the widespread use of online reservations for museums will continue to accelerate. I hear that for art museums in rural areas, the age range of visitors is relatively older, and many prefer to buy entrance tickets at the ticket window. So, I don’t think it will completely transition to an online system. But with a focus first on urban areas, I think it will gradually become adopted.

Do you expect to contend with the large numbers of visitors you had last year, when Mori Art Museum’s Shiota Chiharu: The Soul Trembles exhibition drew approximately 670,000 people?

As the second most visited exhibition since the opening of the museum in 2003, the Shiota Chiharu exhibition was a special case. Usually, contemporary art exhibitions don’t become crowded, even if left alone. Right now, museums cannot let visitors in above a certain capacity. However, museums also largely depend on admission fees [for funding]. The issue becomes how can visitor number goals be reached, while also maintaining social distancing? Large-scale exhibitions intended to draw crowds and those involving many media outlets may become quite difficult to execute [in the future].

When visitor numbers are limited, profits become jeopardized. Do you think there is a remedy for this?

There are ways to address it. For example, the exhibition periods can be lengthened. We decided to make the STARS exhibition continue until January 3 of next year, and thereafter extend the running period of exhibitions by planning for about two per year. By decreasing the number of exhibitions, the organizing and investment costs can be curbed. That is one approach we are trying. 

If that is the case, will planning capabilities become a challenge?

Yes, you’re exactly right. Exhibitions that don’t draw visitors will still not attract visitors if the period is lengthened. There will be a demand for strong exhibition content that can endure extended periods. 

Do you think that the overall exhibition admission fees will gradually increase?

That might be a possibility. It’s also possible that the kinds of exhibitions that used to bring crowds and long lines might be enjoyed with more flexibility, increasing the quality of the visitor experience. But at any rate, from now on, every institution will be exploring various sustainable management models, such as adjusting exhibition lengths, opening times, and admission fees. 

Are there different risks for international exhibitions?

Japanese art museums tend to emphasize temporary exhibitions. But I think they can also try enriching their collections and permanent exhibitions, changing them into spaces that provide more consistent stimulation, but where “that one artwork is always there.” For example, a specific artist or field’s so-called best of the best can be gathered together from the collections of individual domestic institutions, and then go on tour. New initiatives that make the most of these permanent collections can be considered. I also think that as each institution’s collection expands, the purchasing of works by domestic artists has to be considered in order for Japan’s art scene to recover. As you know, the Mori Art Museum is known as a contemporary art museum with an international focus. We plan to continue displaying exhibitions that reflect global movements. 

During temporary closures, online museum activity stood out, with institutions offering content that could be enjoyed at home on official websites and social media. The Mori Art Museum also set up MAM Digital and launched STAY HOME, STAY CREATIVE, a limited-time program that was open until July 31. Do you feel that there are many possibilities with online programs?

The Future and the Arts exhibition ended earlier than scheduled, but its 3D virtual walkthrough and ARTISTS COOKBOOK BY MAM, which introduces recipes on social media from artists all around the world, drew lots of attention. Online programs can broadly be categorized into something that presents documentation, such as video artworks and talks, and then into content that offers suggestions for making something. During the lockdown, many art museums offered free digital content to those staying at home. But in reality, quite a lot of funds are needed for content development. In order to maintain quality, I think paid content may become unavoidable. 

What do you think about the possibility of online content becoming a source of high revenue?

I cannot clearly tell yet. But I do want to be thinking about the collaboration of exhibition tickets and paid online programs. For example, for exhibitions that focus on video artworks, timewise it’s quite common that everything can’t be seen at once, right? But what about the possibility of experiencing the essence of objects in a venue’s wide-open space, while also viewing the overall story online. A collaboration such as this, where the real exhibition and physical experience unites with an online program and its information, is quite possible. 

At the end of April, the CIMAM, an international gathering of individuals involved in modern and contemporary art museums, promptly presented 20 items that art museums operating under the pandemic must be aware of. What can you tell us about those?

Even now, we are continuing to proceed with sharing information internationally through online meetings. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has unavoidably caused temporary suspension of various systems of society, the previously unseen, fragile parts of society’s structure have surfaced. This includes movements such as Black Lives Matter, which advocates for the eradication of racism towards Black communicates. From now on, as an art museum, we will be in a situation where we must inevitably face and handle such social issues. I think this will become reflected in the future artworks as well. 

What would you say is the future role of art museums?

Even while many people are currently confronting hardship due to the coronavirus, I am still reminded of the phrase, “Man shall not live on bread alone.” Provisions for the body as well as emotional wellbeing are certainly necessary, and the balance is vital. Right now, amid the pandemic, many people are reflecting on the everyday, and on life and death. Essential and fundamental questions that are usually not thought about are simultaneously being examined. It is a very particular time, and the role that must be accomplished by the arts under such circumstances is not at all minor. I would like to continue striving to help art museums rethink what they can offer and consequently have society recognize the meaning of their existence.

Mori Art Museum

  • Where:  Roppongi Hills Mori Tower, 6-10-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo Japan (Ticket counter on 3rd floor)
  • COVID-19 Alert: Coronavirus avoidance measures are in effect at the museum. Visitors to the museum are limited as a result and all tickets must be purchased in advance of visit.
  • Find Exhibitions and Information:  The Mori Art Museum’s website contains information on current, future and past exhibitions, including what is available online or by visiting the museum, at the link here

Author: Ayako Kurosawa, Culture Section, The Sankei Shimbun