Working with a belief that art has the power to change the world

20 September 2022

Kataoka participates in a Curator Talk event for the Another Energy exhibition in April 2021, at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. | TATSUYUKI TAYAMA / MORI ART MUSEUM, TOKYO

Written by NOBUKO KOBAYASHI. Originally published by The Japan Times.

This series explores topics surrounding women who began their careers in Japan following the implementation of equal opportunities employment legislation in the mid-1980s. With many now reaching the age of retirement, it is hoped their stories can provide insight and lessons for women in Japan’s professional world today.

The Mori Art Museum, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year, has never been your grandfather’s contemporary art museum. Not only is it internationally recognized for its generous coverage of a wide range of contemporary art, but a visit to the museum is also an experience in and of itself.

First, you can’t simply stroll into the museum directly from the street. You must be elevated to the 52nd floor of the futuristic Roppongi Hills Mori Tower complex. Your ascent entails a ride up a dedicated escalator feeding straight into the museum, much like a sacred promenade rising up to a shrine.

Inside, the atmosphere is young — the target audience is in their 40s and younger — and comfortable to urbanites. It is open until 10 p.m., except for Tuesdays, and the audio guide is provided via web app. Suhanya Raffel, director of the M+ visual culture museum in Hong Kong and a board member of the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art (CIMAM), called Mori “the most interesting art museum in Japan” in an interview.

On a scorching day in August, I enjoyed the museum’s current exhibition, “Listen to the Sound of the Earth Turning: Our Wellbeing since the Pandemic,” which features 16 artists, including Wolfgang Laib and Masatoshi Naito. By chance, I ran into Mami Kataoka at the exit, as she was greeting visitors from overseas. Wearing her large signature earrings, she was dressed in a colorful, flowing outfit and comfortable flat sandals. The museum’s director had the air of a relaxed hostess welcoming a friend to her house; the Mori Art Museum is her baby and home — a place she has dedicated the past two decades to.

Kataoka, who joined the Mori Art Museum in 2003, served as its chief curator from 2009 to 2020, after which she became its director. She said that her career has been led by a higher calling.

“Through art, I want to create a society where we respect individuals, irrespective of their identity and associated biases,” she said in an interview.

Her drive is purely internal — “So what if I am a museum director?” she asked with mild bewilderment, “Fame and status never interested me. I simply try to deliver my best vis-a-vis the task that happens to be in front of me.”

And the diligence has paid off: “Mami uses her deep knowledge in the most productive way,” said Raffel.

During Kataoka’s tenure, lesser-known Asian artists, including Japanese and female artists, have benefited from Mori’s advocacy springboard. And her own success coincided with the global shift to recognize female leaders in the art world. Kataoka’s accomplishments as director of the Mori Art Museum and CIMAM President are the product of a marriage of her unwavering drive, inclusive leadership style and fortuitous timing of the world’s evolution synchronizing with her core beliefs.

“I spent my first 20 years of life in a church,” said Kataoka, who grew up near Nagoya with an Anglican priest for her father. While no one in the family was an artist, she knew early on that she would “go see the world.” The family often hosted visiting Anglican priests from other countries — borders meant little to Kataoka who, in her childhood, mingled with a global community of clergy who were family friends.

Her father instilled a moral compass for life within Kataoka. “He taught me what it means to live — I am here to do something,” she said. “Through art, I want to offer alternative value systems to people. It is not a medical or societal reform, but a mindset reform.”

Influenced by her mother, who enjoyed paintings and children’s literature, Kataoka chose to study art at Aichi University of Education. Contemporary art presented itself as her vocation in New York, when a government scholarship sent her to study there in 1985 and ’86.

“I’d never imagined becoming an artist myself,” she said, “but in New York, I witnessed how art could work to pivot perspectives on existing authorities (and) change the value set. I wanted to study more.”

After setting her sights on contemporary art, Kataoka cut her teeth as chief curator at the Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery — a position she took on in 1997 during her mid-30s. Her mission was to introduce cutting-edge art to Japan. It was a fight against an “art lag” of two years at the time, which put the Japanese art scene on the back foot.

“I knew exactly what I needed to do,” said Kataoka, “I contacted and invited artists around the world and curated the exhibitions that I wanted to go and see myself.”

David Elliott, a well-known British curator-writer and CIMAM president from 1998 to 2004, was an advisor to the Tokyo City Opera Gallery from 1998 to 2001.

“She was one of the youngest, brightest curators,” Elliott said in a recent phone interview. “She did her research well and was ambitious to take up emerging figures. She seized the moment, and this made a strong impact in the Japanese art world.”

“We ran two exhibitions a year,” said Kataoka. “I was working all the time.”

Kataoka’s next big break came when the newly opened Mori Art Museum invited her to join as a curator in 2003 to work under Elliott, the museum’s first director.

“(The opportunities are) like peaches floating down the river,” Kataoka said, referring to a Japanese folk tale in which an elderly peasant couple catch a giant peach in a creek. Inside the peach is the baby boy, Momo-taro, who grows into a valiant hero under the couple’s care. “Opportunities arrive, you catch them, and then you just do your best. The key is never to compare with other people. It is about measuring the outcome against your own satisfaction.”

The Mori Art Museum was founded by the late Minoru Mori, former chairman and CEO of the real estate developer Mori Building Company, whose portfolio includes Roppongi Hills. With Elliott as its inaugural non-Japanese director, the museum began as a high-stakes experiment.

“You need large, attractive, surprising exhibitions to attract a wide audience,” Elliott said. “On the other hand, you must also create space for young emerging artists. Mami made sure that this aspect of our work ran well.”

This approach can be risky, as was the case of Tsuyoshi Ozawa, a Japanese artist famous for his “vegetable weapon” photograph series in which young women pose with imaginary armaments assembled from vegetables — “these works were important because they skillfully and laconically expressed underlying tensions between genders and generations in Japanese society,” said Elliott.

The museum ran Ozawa’s solo show in 2004, which turned out to be a big success with highly reputed catalogs. Elliott attributes the success to Kataoka.

After Elliott’s departure to direct the Museum of Modern Art in Istanbul in 2006, and during her tenure as chief curator from 2009, Kataoka deftly combined established artists with the emerging generation — Ai Weiwei, Makoto Aida, Lee Mingwei and Chiharu Shiota, for example.

“Mami lifts and provides leverage for the emerging artists,” said Raffel. “By her amazing installations, Chiharu Shiota is much more well known. Mami refined the expression of Shiota’s rather dark view of the world. The result was breathtaking.”

Shiota’s exhibition, taking place just before the onset of the pandemic, brought 666,000 visitors to Mori, the second highest in the museum’s history.

“Museum curation must be attuned to the role of art in changing times,” said Kataoka. “In the ’60s, art played a big role in the civil rights movement, feminism and student activism. We are again in a pivotal moment where the existing value system is being questioned — think #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter. Art history itself is being rewritten from different perspectives.”

Finding voices of emerging artists to represent diverse points of view is Kataoka’s way of contributing to the new narrative. As she said, “I would like to make a change from within, without fighting.”

Against her pacifist approach, contemporary art often invites controversy because it confronts life’s uncomfortable and often unsightly reality. Such was the case with the Aichi Triennale 2019 arts festival, “After ‘Freedom of Expression?’” which saw a section of its exhibit shut down due to protests over a depiction of Korean “comfort women” — women who suffered under Japan’s military brothel system before and during World War II. The incident led to the national and international press questioning Japan’s approach to freedom of expression.

Kataoka took on the role of artistic director for Aichi Triennale 2022. The title of the event, a nod to the post-pandemic times, is “Still Alive,” with its focus on diversity, life and death, time, healing and care for others. The theme takes a cue from the cosmopolitan conceptual artist On Kawara (1932-2014), who has sent an annual telegram saying “I’m still alive” to his friends around the world since 1970.

“I want to show 100 takes on ‘still alive’ through the Triennale,” Kataoka said.

Kataoka’s resilience also manifests itself in other leadership roles. Immediately after assuming the role of president at CIMAM in 2020, Kataoka faced forced museum closures around the world due to lockdowns. Acting swiftly, in May 2020, she launched the Rapid Response webinar series for the CIMAM community, free of charge for its members, to disseminate tool kits for museums’ sustainability.

“It was pragmatic: How to exhibit without artists being present; or dos and don’ts for the museum website, for example,” said Raffel. “Starting with China, Japan and Singapore, we shared best practice exhibitions voted on by CIMAM members.”

It is fortuitous for Japan to have Kataoka as the first Asian and first Japanese president of CIMAM — her international visibility can only benefit Japan. And if promoting different perspectives through art is her life’s mission, refocusing on views slipping below the “art radar” is her most natural project.

“Japan’s position in art is quickly deteriorating in Asia, surpassed by Hong Kong and Singapore,” Kataoka said. “While traditional Japanese beauty continues to be appreciated, the country is losing power to push its contemporary art out.”

In this vein, Chiharu Shiota’s solo exhibition curated by Kataoka has been touring around the Asia-Pacific region — it is one of the few examples of a production originating from Japan.

“After all, status and power must be used to maximize impact on the outside world,” Kataoka said of the move. “They are not two kinds of ends in themselves.”

Kataoka takes part in a School-Museum Program event, involving the Shiota Chiharu: The Soul Trembles exhibition in June 2019 at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. | TATSUYUKI TAYAMA / MORI ART MUSEUM, TOKYO

Raffel doesn’t hide her joy over Kataoka being the first female, non-European president of CIMAM. The art world, despite its progressiveness, is far from gender-equal.

“It is a male-dominated world all around, and art is no different,” Kataoka said. “Museums are boys’ clubs.”

As art history evolved around white men, over 87% of museum collections today are by male artists, according to Artnet. Ironically, the bottom of the pyramid is predominantly female — women account for 73% of art-related faculty students. As for art-related professorships, however, men account for 87%. The structure is also mirrored in the world of museums.

“We have a big reservoir of female talent in curators, where men are a minority,” said Elliott. According to a government survey, only 10% of museum directors in Japan, however, are women.

The situation is changing from the top, argues Raffel, saying that, over 60 years of CIMAM, membership has shifted from being predominantly Eurocentric and male to the current 70% female makeup.

“We are a part of the shift,” Raffel said, pointing to Kataoka, the president, and herself, a board member, “and artists bring the topic of diversity and equity to the table.”

While Kataoka agrees that diversity, along with sustainability, is an irreversible force in the physical world as equally as in the art world, her thoughts reach beyond the dichotomy of gender.

“While fixing existing inequality, we must try and see the essence of a person, penetrating the haze of identity labels,” she said. “Gender is but a spectrum. My bosses were always men who wholeheartedly supported me. At the same time, it is categorically untrue that all men are brilliant.”

Based on her journey, Kataoka’s career advice is fiercely self-reliant: “Do your homework 120% and your outlook will unfold itself. But never expect from others.

“You cannot expect others to change their views. If you are stuck, I’d recommend switching your environment to where they appreciate you.”

Perhaps her strongest conviction in the power of diversity manifests itself in her on-the-ground work style. She admits to the fear that “the richer your experiences are, the narrower your strike zone gets.” To continue to innovate, she urges younger staff to voice their opinions on the execution of the Mori Art Museum. It helps connecting with its targeted younger demographic whose “definition of cool is different (from that of older generations).”

“Good ideas are age-free,” Kataoka said. “I know I grew professionally because my bosses gave me space.”

In preparing the current exhibition at Mori Art Museum, she collaborated with two junior curators.

“We worked as equals,” Kataoka said. “It only makes sense to co-curate, as you benefit from multiple perspectives.” The flat team approach works for her private life as well. Her husband, a freelance designer, “does all the dishes” while she enjoys cooking.

Kataoka’s enthusiasm for diversity is obvious to Raffel.

“In a CIMAM board meeting, all of us are full of opinions,” Raffel said. Many of the 15 CIMAM board members are directors of renowned museums, from all over the world, such as such as Latin America, Berlin, et cetera.”

“Everyone talking in a hybrid annual conference,” Raffel said of one event. “And Mami quickly texted me on the side, ‘Isn’t it wonderful? I love my colleagues.’ She was seeing a moment of pleasure in this diversity.”

Nobuko Kobayashi is a partner with EY Strategy and Consulting Co., Ltd., Strategy and Transactions — EY-Parthenon. The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organization, nor its member firms.