The Fate Of The Contemporary Art Museum In East Asia

Huw Fullerton

The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) in Seoul, and the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, are two of the 10 most-visited contemporary art museums in the world. Here, we explore what exactly makes them so successful, and what the next generation of museums in East Asia can learn from them – including the upcoming and eagerly awaited M+ in Hong Kong.

10,000 Moving Cities

Opening in November 2013, South Korea’s $230 million MMCA had a simple mission – to compete with the powerhouses of New York and London. And, according to museum spokesperson Soleh Choe, that’s exactly what they’ve done. He said: “In terms of scale, we are in line with the MoMA and the Tate.” And these aren’t idle words; since its mid-November opening, in just a few months over 160,000 people walked through the doors of the museum – not hindered by its fashionable location across the street from Seoul’s main royal palace, no doubt.
Some of this, of course, can be attributed to the current novelty of the new space – but there’s more to it than just a fad. One key to the MMCA’s success could be its adaptability: without any permanent exhibitions, the museum is forced to constantly innovate and imagine with regards to its acquisitions. The museum opened with five inaugural exhibitions: The Aleph Project; Connecting_Unfolding; Zeitgeist Korea; Birth of a Museum; and site-specific Art Projects. The wide variety of these exhibitions show the potential of the museum, both in the breadth of what it can achieve and, in the huge, translucent form of Do Ho Suh’s Home Within Home Within Home Within Home Within Home, the scale and style it can display in. This can also be seen in Marc Lee’s 10,000 moving cities (see above), which demonstrated the MMCA’s avant-garde and up-to-date capabilities.
The museum’s remit also insists on its global role, a move that has surely been a factor in MMCA’s success. According to the museum’s director, talking to the Korea Herald, “The new museum has set its role as a comprehensive museum integrating the past, the present and the future; a central museum for Korean art that stimulates exchanges with the international art scene.” Accordingly, the MMCA have already signed an exhibition contract with the Tate Modern, and plan to continue organizing exhibitions in a global context. Indeed, considering the surging development in China and other regional rivals of South Korea, the pressure for global recognition is particularly intense.
Some aspects of the MMCA’s success may be a little less ideological and a little more prosaic, however. Certainly, it should be noted that it has next to no direct competition. Other than the private art museum Leeum, owned by technology company Samsung, Seoul has no other large museum housing Korean contemporary art. Not a bad situation to be in, and yet this does put some pressure on it with regards to representing the whole region. More generally, the huge remit it’s set itself means that the MMCA has a lot to live up to – though it seems to be doing well for now.

Centre Atrium, Mori Art Museum

Interestingly, a lot of the advantages the MMCA enjoys for its success – newness, monopoly over the field, a good eye for publicity – are not ones experienced by the Mori Art Museum of Tokyo, Japan. Opening in 2003 as a cultural complex on the upper floors of Roppongi Hills Mori Tower, the Mori Art Museum celebrated its tenth birthday a few years ago with little fanfare, and generally generates far fewer column inches than many of its brothers across Asia. And yet, like MMCA the Mori Art Museum is operating on a global scale of popularity – and even more than MMCA, this success comes from a series of well-thought out creative decisions, past and present.

M+: Inflation! Sculpture Park

One reason for Mori’s success is probably the best one for a museum to have – fundamentally, it’s delivering great art. Like MMCA, Mori has no permanent collections, but delivers a constant flow of world-class exhibitions, usually focused on contemporary culture. The Andy Warhol exhibition (which travelled from its usual home in Pittsburgh) is a great example of the canny and iconic choices Mori has made over the years, running the gamut from rabble-rouser Ai Weiwei’s smashed ceramics to more gentle exhibitions on the relationship between medicine and art. Maman, the 1999 bronze, steel and marble spider sculpture by Louise Bourgeois is also a fine example of the museum’s good eye for a populist choice that is routinely included on ‘must-see’ attractions in Tokyo.

Museum Cone by night, Mori Art Museum

However, some believe that the root of Mori’s popularity also lies elsewhere, namely with its location. On one level, it’s part of the extremely popular Roppongi Hills complex, which can’t hurt footfall. On the next, its place on the 52nd and 53rd floors of the Mori Tower gives spectacular views, arguably among the best in the city – definitely worth a trip. And finally its location within a two-floor ‘experience’ area including a panoramic observation deck, bar, cafe and shop adds yet another incentive for art-goers. Basically, as with its art, Mori has made smart business decisions that will extend its popularity into the future.
But that future may hold some competition. MMCA and Mori are doing well at the moment, but the next generation of museums is always on the horizon. At the moment, these are epitomized by Hong Kong’s upcoming museum M+, which already looks set to be a strong contender on the global stage. M+, set to open in 2017, is the centerpiece of a multibillion-dollar redevelopment of the West Kowloon area of Hong Kong, accompanied by a number of other venues to help bolster Hong Kong’s burgeoning art scene. And already M+ is making waves by assembling a collection to rival the best that the global arts world has to offer. Just recently they purchased 1,510 artworks from Swiss collector Uli Sigg’s legendary collection of Chinese contemporary art, and they say that this is only the beginning.
Arguably, the rise in fresh museums like M+ could threaten to undermine the ‘newness’ that enhances the popularity of MMCA, and its financial clout could do the same to the innovation that the Mori Art Museum favours. However, M+ faces its own problems, primarily due to the lack of a museum culture in China as well as other domestic issues. And besides, such an attitude would be churlish. When East Asian museums like MMCA and Mori are straddling the world stage, it’s a good thing for the art world – it encourages fresh ideas, innovation and investment for the future. It is inevitable that the rankings will change over time, one way or another, but these museums can hold their head high. They’re doing good work – and hopefully that, at least, won’t change.

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