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MFA branch in Japan needs new vision

The Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts in Japan.

Kasho Kumagai for The Boston Globe

The Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts in Japan.

NAGOYA, Japan — When the Museum of Fine Arts decided to open a sister museum in Nagoya, Japan’s fourth-largest city, it was out in front of an expansionist trend in the world of major museums.

“This is a model for the entire world to look at and admire,” Malcolm Rogers, the MFA director, said at the 1999 grand opening of Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the only Asian branch opened by a Western museum. The MFA would lend artworks to Nagoya, and Nagoya would send back money the MFA sorely needed.

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But the Nagoya museum has been plagued by financial problems, fluctuating visitor numbers, and, increasingly, a missing sense of conviction about its purpose.

With six years of the 20-year contract between Boston and Nagoya remaining and negotiations about its future due to begin within the next year, MFA leaders face three options: They can quietly end the relationship; they can try to negotiate a new contract that keeps things much as they are; or they can find a way to give the relationship new life, by making it part of a vision to connect with Japan’s vibrant artistic culture.

For most of his tenure, vision has been missing from Rogers’s management of the MFA’s Department of Asian Art, which controls a collection famous throughout the world, including in Asia. The relative neglect is all the more glaring because, during this same period, much of the Western world has been reorienting itself toward Asia.

The American landscapes show at the Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts in Nagoya, Japan, attracted only 10,000 visitors after two months.

TSUTOMU FUJITA FOR THE GLOBE

The American landscapes show at the Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts in Nagoya, Japan, attracted only 10,000 visitors after two months.

Last year, China became the world’s biggest art market. The appetite for contemporary art, in particular — from Japan, China, India, and elsewhere in Asia — has exploded. Biennials, art fairs, and new museums have been springing up all over. Opportunities for meaningful and mutually profitable exchange abound.

So inevitably, one wonders: Has the MFA squandered an opportunity to do something bolder in Japan? And if it has, is there still a chance it could use its presence in Nagoya to establish something more interesting, something that is more meaningfully in tune with Japan’s culture?

“Boston of all cities had the potential to really be ahead of the curve in the Asian game,” said Vishakha Desai, a curator at the MFA between 1977 and 1990, when the Nagoya idea was first floated.

Desai, a special adviser at Columbia University, was until recently president and chief executive of the Asia Society in New York. She believes that Boston has a unique advantage over many other museums trying to connect with Asia because of the richness of its collections of Asian art and its century-old relationship with Japan.

Desai does not spell out what a deeper engagement might entail. But it’s not difficult to think up a few ideas: The MFA could engage specialist curators in Japan to organize shows of Asian art, old or new, that might travel to Boston. That way Boston audiences could learn about Asian art from a truly Asian perspective. It could commission new works by leading artists in Japan and beyond. It could mount shows that address the rich history of interaction between artists from Japan and America.

“That kind of to-and-fro would be excellent,” said Rogers. He points out that a relationship between Nagoya and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts has been established.

The problem, he said, is that the Nagoya museum does not have a collection of its own, so the relationship is necessarily “something of a one-way street.” Expanding the museum is not on his agenda: “It’s about the right size for their public and our capacity to lend,” he said.

From left, US Ambassador to Japan Thomas S. Foley and MFA officials Robert Henderson and Malcolm Rogers celebrated the museum’s grand opening in Japan in 1999.

KASHO KUMAGAI FOR THE GLOBE/FILE

From left, US Ambassador to Japan Thomas S. Foley and MFA officials Robert Henderson and Malcolm Rogers celebrated the museum’s grand opening in Japan in 1999.

But Desai is one of many who would like to see a more active and ambitious approach. “We have to get out of the mindset that global is a one-way street. Someone [at the MFA] needs to pay attention to it strategically. There’s no vision behind it now.”

In the new and highly competitive financial and geopolitical environment, she said, “you have to be aggressive.”

Rogers, for now, sounds less than aggressive about the partnership. And yet, he affirmed, “We would eventually like to see more made of it. We’d love it to continue beyond 2019.”

Unfortunately, when the MFA and Nagoya organizers signed a letter of intent to create a museum in 1991, the MFA was more concerned with short-term financial fixes than grand visions. It was operating with an annual deficit of $3 million.

“This is a creative solution to a lot of our Boston problems,” said Alan Shestack, then director, at the time. “It will make us a stronger museum here.”

What’s more, he said, it wouldn’t cost the MFA a cent. In fact, all of the funding to establish the museum and cover its operating expenses has come from Japan — from the City of Nagoya, the regional government, and local businesses, complemented by admission fees, memberships, sponsorships, and shop sales.

In exchange for the MFA’s commitment to lend, on an exclusive basis, exhibitions of art from across its collection, Nagoya promised the MFA $50 million in total payments, beginning with the signing of the letter of intent and continuing through the 20 years of themuseum operation, 1999-2019.

It all seemed simple, and highly advantageous. Or it did until Japan’s economy took a turn for the worse in 1991, the very year the letter of intent was signed.

Nagoya’s concerns about how to come up with the money delayed completion of a contract by several years. The Nagoya Chamber of Commerce and Industry had made the initial approach to the MFA, after the MFA let it be known it was looking for a partner in Japan. Behind the scenes, it tried to secure funds from city and regional governments.

Attracting large audiences became increasingly vital to Nagoya’s success. There were reports that the body established in 1995 to run the museum, the Foundation for the Arts, Nagoya, was arguing with the MFA about what kinds of shows would do that job.

Nonetheless, the Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts opened in 1999 on three small floors of a high-rise hotel and office building fronting a small plaza and a train station. The first show was an exhibition of Impressionist landscapes that drew in 448,031 people over 4½ months. That figure has not been approached since.

By 2003 the Nagoya museum had an accumulated deficit of $34.8 million. Its annual attendance had dropped from a first-year high of 600,000 visitors to less than half of that.

“Am I concerned about that museum?” said Katherine Getchell, the MFA’s deputy director at the time. “Sure. Yeah. It’s a major project for the museum to try and improve their visitor numbers.”

Back in Boston, curators at the MFA were perennially frustrated by having to work on exhibitions that served no purpose other than to fulfill the contractual obligation to supply Nagoya with art. In Nagoya, meanwhile, the feeling persisted that some of the MFA offerings were underwhelming.

Both parties were concerned that the relationship might not make it to the end of its scheduled life. So in 2006 the contract was rewritten. In exchange for what Rogers describes today as “a little financial relief” (Nagoya’s payments were reduced by $10 million), the MFA “gained more flexibility.”

Both sides had to acknowledge, said Rogers, that “the economic environment had changed.” Under the revised contract, Boston is no longer obliged to make Nagoya the exclusive venue for the shows that go there. Nagoya, for its part, is allowed to take exhibitions from other organizers.

The MFA has increasingly used Nagoya as merely one venue among others for touring exhibitions that are mostly designed to bring in money. And it has tried, intermittently, to loan Nagoya more of what it wants: big-ticket artworks that draw large crowds.

In 2009, to mark the halfway point in the 20-year agreement, the MFA lent its most celebrated masterpiece, Paul Gauguin’s “Where Do We Come From? Who Are We? Where Are We Going?” The work was displayed for nine weeks, and attracted 2,693 visitors per day, more than any show since Nagoya’s opening exhibition. By contrast, attendance failed to reach 90,000 for either of the next two years that followed.

The conclusion you come to is that the whole arrangement between Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts and Museum of Fine Arts/Boston is not quite full-throated. It was clearly a mutually convenient arrangement when conceived, but its time seems to have passed.

The Nagoya-Boston deal, said Desai, “was a deal made for money. The idea was, ‘You pay the money and you can get what we have.’ The strategy was almost — and I hate to use the word — neocolonial.”

There were signs even before Nagoya opened that it could have turned out differently. Under Jan Fontein, the director who preceded Shestack, the MFA had become ever more intimately entwined with Japan.

At the time, Japanese collectors were snapping up Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings for record sums, and Japan’s own museums were attracting crowds unmatched anywhere in the world. “This was Japan’s moment,” said Desai. “It was experiencing a boom . . . Jan [Fontein], for better or for worse, latched onto this aspirational aspect of Japan, this idea that Japan was the answer!”

During Fontein’s tenure (1975-1987), the Asian department at the MFA was considered by many to be the most prestigious in the museum. Money flooded in, from Japan especially, to help renovate the MFA’s Asian galleries, conserve the collection, and establish a department library.

Over the following two decades, however, the department of Asian art lost considerable prestige. Galleries were left to languish; masterpieces remained in storage. Only recently, thanks to a spate of small gallery renovations, new hirings, major loans to Asian museums, and Rogers’s first trip to China and Korea, have more encouraging signs emerged.

If Boston’s foothold in Nagoya is to play a role in any kind of renaissance in the MFA’s celebrated department of Asian Art, MFA leaders may need to try to make more of it. The Nagoya museum was supposed to have autonomy, and not to be in the relationship, as Tadao Ogura, a former director of the Nagoya museum put it, “of headquarters to branch.”

But the reality is that the Nagoya museum has no specialist curators in the conventionally accepted sense — no one actively organizing exhibitions with Japanese audiences in mind. They are given choices, but they are totally reliant on what the MFA decides to make available.

Things may change. According to Alan Strassman, who joined the MFA’s Board of Trustees in 1991 and led those early contract negotiations with Nagoya: “Over the last decade, the MFA has been increasingly committed to taking a global stance, and more and more interested in cultural and artistic exchanges . . . We’re going into these negotiations with a very different attitude than we had 20 years ago.”

Globe art critic Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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