Few Japanese museums get such unanimous praise as the privately owned Hara Museum of Contemporary Art. The creation of a dapper and urbane aristocrat, Toshio Hara, the museum has consistently been at the forefront in introducing avant-garde art to Japan, both through its fine permanent collection and an innovative exhibition programme. This month brings the opportunity to see a selection of the permanent collection, in a show dubbed “Untitled”, which features unnamed works by both Western and Japanese artists—from Tàpies to Toeko Tatsuno, from Sol LeWitt to Leiko Ikemura.
Mr Hara, who is now in his early 60s, created the Hara Museum with family money in 1979. “When I started buying years ago”, he says, “there was not a single contemporary art museum in Japan. Even at that time, I knew my collecting was for a museum—contrary to the normal practice here, which is to form a collection and then finally make a museum for it.”
The museum is housed in Mr Hara’s grandparents’ home, an ivy-covered Bauhaus-style house designed in 1938 by Jin Watanabe in the residential Gotanda district. The building has a faded, relaxed charm, and, includes a surprisingly casual garden-cafe where visitors can sit over a drink among an eclectic mix of sculpture.
In 1988, when the Japanese economy was booming, Mr Hara added ARC, a museum outside Tokyo, with a spacious park for showing sculpture, more room for exhibitions and a chic building designed by Japan’s well-known post-modernist Arako Isozaki.
From the beginning, Mr Hara knew that “I didn’t want to be local, I wanted to collect beyond the borders.” A trip to the US in the late 1970s triggered his passion for postwar American art, particularly Rothko, Warhol and Johns. “Until then, like all Japanese I went to the Louvre,” he says. He also wanted to escape the confines of his family construction business: “I realised that modern and contemporary art were the best channel to the most interesting people.”
“I wish I’d started collecting earlier,” he says. “At that time contemporary art was not as crazily expensive as it became later.” In one year he bought more than 100 paintings, prints and sculptures by fifty-two artists. Today the spread of the permanent collection encompasses America (in the broadest sense), Europe and Asia, with over 700 works.
These include Cesar, Yves Klein, Rothko, Tinguely, Pollock, Jim Dine, Boltanski, Kenneth Nolan, Mapplethorpe and many more (the full list is on the website) as well as contemporary Japanese artists, among them Shigeko Kubota, Yayoi Kusama, Yukinori Yanagi and Yasumasa Morimura.
The Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki installed two rooms in the museum with his controversial snaps of naked and sometimes rope-trussed young girls. A white tiled room at the top of a stairway was commissioned from the French artist Jean-Pierre Reynaud, and a windowless semi-circular area holds Tatsuo Miyajima’s 1989 “Time link”, with diode numbers flickering and changing around the walls. Sculpture is exhibited in the museum’s garden, including Sol LeWitt’s “Incomplete cube” and Isamu Noguchi’s “Pylon”.
The museum is particularly noted for its exhibitions programme, with both Japanese and foreign artists. With imaginative use of the rather limited exhibition space, Mr Hara has put on some splendid shows: the most recent was Sophie Calle’s “Exquisite pain”, and others include “Primal spirit”, organised with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; “Photography and beyond in Japan, Yasumasa Morimura and Katsuo Tachi”.
The exhibitions programme is a severe drain on resources, says Mr Hara. “It costs more than buying art, particularly as we put emphasis on installation.” As a result, “We don’t have much funding for acquisitions. We are collecting young artists, we might help them make the works that go into a show and acquire that way.”
“Financing is a great problem,” he admits. “We have no State support, but this is also a big advantage. We can listen to our own sensitivity and proceed with our own programmes, we don’t have to please anybody.” The family business still provides some cash, and Mr Hara relies heavily on corporate sponsors as well as running an active membership programme. “We want to make members feel part of the museum, it’s not just a question of getting a pass,” he explains. The Hara programme offers educational talks, studio visits and other activities—a rarity in Japan, where such initiatives are still in their infancy.
The Hara museum is very much a one-man band, and none of Mr Hara’s four children seems likely to take on the baton. “I started the museum and my motivation is still private. I don’t know who will succeed me, but I will not demand that that person does the same as me,” he says. “Private” is indeed the summing up both of the museum and the person. Toshio Hara is pleasant, easy and elegant, but he remains politely distant. The museum is his public face, and a very fine one it is too.
o “Zhou Tiehai Project”, Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, 4-7-25 Kitashinagawa, Tokyo 140 (24 October-April 2001) Tel: +81 3 3445 0651, fax 81 3 3473 0104 www.haramuseum.or.jp Mr Hara has modelled his membership club on European and American models, of which he has extensive experience, sitting on boards or councils at the Tate Gallery, Santa Fe Art Institute, Seattle Art Museum, Japanese Council of Art Museums and a slew of others.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'A great private enterprise'