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Thursday, June 26, 2008

INSIDE ART

Few grab the reins that government set free


Rarely has a law with such potentially far-reaching consequences been greeted with such indifference and, apparently, had so little effect.

A 2003 amendment to the Local Autonomy Law, which delineates local governments' authority, gave them the right to outsource the administration of their sports facilities, art and history museums and libraries. Not only that, but the law guaranteed for the new private enterprise administrators the right to charge the public to use the facilities and to take a profit from them.

In other words, taxpayers would be milked by corporations to use facilities whose construction they paid for via their taxes.

On the face of it, it smacked of scandal. And yet, paradoxically, the veritable yawn with which the amendment was greeted essentially vindicated its implementation. The problem was this: Few people bothered to use the facilities anyway, especially the art museums.

According to an Agency for Cultural Affairs survey published in January, Japan's local governments — in other words, prefectural, city, town and village governments — possess a whopping 558 art and history museums between them. Fully half of those were built in the bubble-economy-fed construction boom between 1972 and 1991.

Unfortunately, when the bubble burst, most found they lacked the funds to fill their galleries. That in turn led to a drop in programming quality and visitors abandoned the facilities in droves.

The Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (MOT) is often held up as an example. In 1999, its annual visitor intake was about 260,000 — half what it had been just two years earlier.

To combat the malaise, local governments could think of few solutions besides the overly simplistic (Tokyo kept hacking away at MOT's operating budget, almost halving its curatorial staff between 1995 and 2006) or the overly drastic (Hyogo Prefecture's Ashiya City very nearly sold its museum).

With such extreme measures under consideration, it was hardly surprising that the central government came up with its own solution: adding a little corporate knowhow to the mix. Surely, it reasoned, Japan's corporate barons would have a solution to making culture popular and self-sustaining, if not profitable.

The 2003 amendment, however, was not a top-down directive. It gave local governments the option of handing over the keys to their museums for set periods of time (generally up to eight years).

Funnily enough, very few took up the offer. As of January 2007, just 17 percent of the eligible museums were operated by "appointed administrators."

What happened? Well for a start, Japan's business sector didn't bite. Some local governments, Ashiya City included, were unable to find any groups willing even to bid for the right to manage the city's museum. They ended up scrapping the idea and leaving the facility with a not-for-profit outfit.

Similar stories played out around the country. Just seven of the 93 museums subject to the new system ended up in private hands.

The rest of the appointed-administrator contracts went to specially established "independent foundations" consisting largely of the museums' original staff.

This is what happened at MOT last year. Only two groups were interested in administering the facility: a private consortium and the Tokyo Metropolitan Foundation for History and Culture — the same people who have run it for years.

The judging committee not only awarded the eight-year contract to the foundation, but scolded the private consortium for not appreciating the importance of "promoting culture."

So what, exactly, has been achieved? Not much, it would seem. Staff at those museums that have adopted the system now live with the threat that they could all be ousted when their contract comes up for renewal — hardly helpful considering exhibitions take years to plan.

In the meantime, of course, the economy has improved, curators are gradually learning to make the most of their lean budgets and, low-and-behold, visitors have started to come back. MOT increased its intake to about 550,000 last year, topping its 1997 high — and its appointed-administrator contract doesn't kick off until next year.


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