Art Island: The new Chichu Art Museum

(this article first appeared in the july 19, 2004 issue of newsweek international)

A Japanese tycoon opens a new museum to share his dazzling private collection. Just don't miss the boat.

Newsweek InternationalJuly 19 issue - Soichiro Fukutake was strolling through a Claude Monet exhibition at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts when he arrived at a large, never-before-exhibited two-panel canvas of waterlilies. He was mesmerized. A little plaque on the wall indicated that the painting was on loan from a Paris gallery. Great news, he thought; the piece wasn't confined to a permanent museum collection. That was in 1998. Today "Water-Lily Pond" (1915-26) hangs in Fukutake's Chichu Art Museum, opening this Sunday on the picturesque island of Naoshima in western Japan. "The painting was begging me to take it with me," deadpans Fukutake, chairman and CEO of Benesse Corp., a Japanese education-services empire. "What else could I do?"

He could have bought the show's catalog like other people, but that's not his style. Fukutake, 58, is the most visible and vigorous art collector in postbubble Japan. Unlike the country's 1980s investors, who paid millions of dollars for Picassos, Renoirs and van Goghs that they promptly stashed away in storage, Fukutake believes passionately in sharing his collection. But only to those willing to travel: Naoshima is a 20-minute boat ride from Okayama, the nearest big city, which itself lies 700 kilometers southwest of Tokyo.

It's worth the trip. The Chichu is merely the latest installment in Fukutake's scheme to turn remote, hilly Naoshima into a major international center for art. Those who know the collector say he leads a modest life?no flashy cars or designer suits -- except when it comes to art. His Okayama-based company -- which operates correspondence courses for kids, nursing homes, lifestyle magazines and the Berlitz International chain of language schools -- bought the southern part of the island in 1987 for 1 billion yen. Fukutake thought that after decades of preoccupation with economic expansion -- and the ensuing recession -- Japanese needed to rediscover themselves with the help of fine arts. "Art is a medium that helps a person reflect on himself, but it requires a certain environment," he says. "I believe in the power of art."

He hired the Japanese architect Tadao Ando to design Benesse House, a museum and small hotel rolled into one, which opened on Naoshima in 1992. The place soon housed 20th-century masterpieces by such artists as Jasper Johns, Jackson Pollock, David Hockney and Bruce Nauman. Then Fukutake began hiring international artists like Jannis Kounellis, Richard Long, Cai Guo Qiang, Tatsuo Miyajima and James Turrell to produce unique pieces that fit the setting. Kounellis, for example, used Naoshima's driftwood for his sculpture, while Miyajima restored a 200-year-old house into a walk-in installation called "Kadoya." "Commissioning site-specific works has given the island a new identity," says Yuji Akimoto, director of the Chichu Art Museum.

As Naoshima's reputation spread, art lovers from around the country began pouring in. Since 1990 the number of annual visitors has grown sevenfold, to 74,000 last year. That's a welcome change for the island, where the population has dwindled along with its main employer, a copper refinery, from 8,000 in the 1960s to about 3,600 today.

After Fukutake ran into the big Monet in Boston, and bought it for an undisclosed sum in 2000, he decided to build another museum, the Chichu: literally, "underground." All three stories of the museum, also designed by Ando, are buried in the earth. Fukutake says the idea came about while he was discussing the relationship between art and nature with artists and the architect; Ando stepped aside to let the artwork and Naoshima's scenic beauty shine.

The museum's permanent exhibition contains only nine pieces by three artists: Monet and the contemporary artists Walter De Maria and James Turrell. But each work is absorbing and requires a long time to take in. De Maria's installation "Time/Timeless/No Time" (2004), for instance, occupies an entire room and has a solemn, cathedral-like quality. A flight of steps leads to a landing where a large, black granite sphere rests. Spaced at different elevations along the walls are gilded wooden posts that recall the pipes of an organ. Above the sphere is a rectangular skylight. The highly polished ball reflects the sky, the gilded posts and visitors, throwing off an image that keeps changing. In the Mo-net gallery, the monumental diptych of waterlilies awash in soft blue, pink and purple sparkles in the natural light that comes through slits in the ceiling. Four other Mo-nets surround the gorgeous centerpiece.

Fukutake is already planning to expand his art empire?but it will require another boat ride. Within the next few years, he hopes to open a museum on nearby Inujima island, which he bought in 2001. Fewer than 80 people (average age: 70) live there, and the transportation is even spottier than Naoshima's. But the challenges don't faze him. "Inconvenience was never a problem before," he says. It just gives him another chance to test the alluring power of art.

(c) Newsweek

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