‘The object is to create a space for people to talk about the art, think about the art’: the reopening of the Fujita Museum
In 2017, the Fujita Museum sold a selection of its prized collection of Asian artworks at Christie’s New York, resulting in a record-breaking auction totaling $269 million. Christie’s caught up with Mr. Kiyoshi Fujita on the heels of the museum’s reopening in April of 2022
Located in Osaka, the Fujita Museum, which was founded in 1954 to preserve and exhibit works collected by the entrepreneur Fujita Denzaburo (1841-1912) and his sons, Fujita Heitarō and Fujita Tokujirō, ranks among Japan’s most eminent cultural institutions.
Part of a new breed of industrialist collectors who emerged in Japan in the 19th century, Fujita Denzaburo — and his sons after him — seized all opportunities, acquiring a collection of more than 4,000 Asian works of art, including nine National Treasures and 53 Important Cultural Objects, designated by Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs. Among those featured are exceptional Japanese and Chinese works of art, including paintings, bronzes, textiles and tea utensils.
In March 2017, the Fujita Museum sold a selection of 27 works from its impressive collection in Important Chinese Art from the Fujita Museum at Christie’s New York. The record-breaking auction totaled $269 million, well above the pre-sale estimate, single-handedly surpassing any previous Asian Art Week total.
Fueled by funds raised from the sale, the museum underwent an extensive five-year renovation in collaboration with Taisei Design Planners Architects and Engineers, reopening to the public in April 2022.
Below, Mr. Kiyoshi Fujita, the director of the museum and heir to its collection, reflects on the institution’s achievements since the record-breaking auction and its ambitions moving forward.
The Fujita collection was started by Fujita Denzaburo — what was his mission as a collector?
Mr. Kiyoshi Fujita: ‘In the beginning of Meiji era, around the 1870s, many Japanese artworks were being shipped overseas. Fujita Denzaburo devoted his personal fortune to collecting art for the future of Japan. He not only loved these works; he wanted to convey and pass them on to the next generation. His family founded the museum, which opened after he passed away, to keep the cultural property and preserve and enhance the value of the artworks. His collections to be seen publicly, to be appreciated and to leave a legacy for the future was his incentive, mission and dream.’
The Fujita collection comprises of more than 4,000 Asian works of art. What advice would you give those interested in collecting Japanese and Chinese Art?
KF: ‘The artworks we hold from ancient China and Japan are very fragile: made of paper, wood, and textiles. Temperature and humidity control, as well as proper installation, is extremely important in order to conserve these works.’
‘More than that, the key is to enjoy the artworks and just love them — holding them in your hands or looking at them — maybe not using them, but it’s critical not only to maintain an object’s condition but also to find opportunities to cherish it in daily life. That, to me, is the true meaning of the preservation of properties.’
The museum is known for its nine National Treasures and 53 Important Cultural Properties. Can you speak about the importance of preserving these objects and making them available to the public?
KF: ‘It’s such an honor. I am so proud of the nine National Treasures and 53 Important Cultural Properties; however, all the objects that my predecessor collected, regardless of registration, are precious to my family and me. They need to be passed on to the next generation.’
In 2017 the museum decided to sell a selection of works at Christie's. How difficult was it to part with pieces from the collection?
KF: ‘My personal feelings and those as a public museum director aren’t so different. I, myself, am not a collector, but I felt a great deal of sadness at the thought of things going out of my hands, and I wondered if it was really okay to let go of them.
Of course, deciding to let go of these items was very difficult, although we had one goal to achieve. Each one has a memory and is so meaningful.’
What did you hope to achieve with the sale?
KF: ‘It’s pretty common for Japanese private museums not to carry enough cash for a large-scale renewal. Selling a few of our properties to raise funds was a necessary action to achieve what the museum and I wanted in order to move forward. Looking back, I would highly recommend the auction as a method of fundraising. It’s not so common in Japan at the moment, but I think it should be more so.’
The sale performed extremely well. The top lot — a Southern Song Dynasty handscroll entitled Six Dragons — sold for $48.9 million, while a world auction record was set for an archaic bronze vessel that sold for $37.2 million, over $30 million more than its projected presale estimate. What was it like to see these exceptional objects soar beyond expectations?
KF: ‘I had high expectations for the bronze vessel. I was aiming to raise $50-80 million total at that time; however, many lots went for much more than I expected. It was brilliant. There was very active bidding, and it was a very exciting sale.’
‘I was sad to let the works go; I knew I would miss them, but on the other hand, I felt pride seeing these works collected by Fujita Denzaburo at a worldwide auction in the center of the art world in New York. They were finally being appreciated by the international market and recognized in museums. In such a worldwide professional market, it was gratifying to see these works highly praised — not only in price but for their art historical significance. I felt very proud of my ancestor.’
Did you have a personal favorite moment?
KF: ‘I was viewing the sale online from Japan, on Christie’s Live, so I was not onsite at the time. What I remember the most is that I was hoping to raise about $80 million total to upgrade the museum, but then the accumulated hammer price reached that point by the seventh or eighth lot! I felt so relieved that we would have enough funds already.’
At the time, the auction was the most successful sale in the history of Asian Art Week.
What was the Fujita Museum able to accomplish from the results of the sale?
KF: ‘The initial goal was to renovate the museum building, which we achieved. It took five years from conception to completion. But this is just the start. After all, we have so much more surplus than expected. The sale had such an amazing result — now we’re thinking, what else can we do?’
The museum closed to undergo several years of renovation with the Taisei Design Planner's Architects and Engineers. Can you describe that process? How did you find a balance between the very traditional objects in the collection and contemporary design?
KF: ‘Of course, we wanted to modernize the building, but our main purpose is to preserve and guard the artworks so they can be passed on to the future and to present them in the best way to attract visitors.’
‘Working with Taisei was a collaboration. I had lots of ideas, and they understood how to incorporate them into the building.’
‘We not only wanted to create a clean modern-looking building but to mix in usable parts from the previous building. For example, the black iron door in the very front of the new building came from the old warehouse. It was also very important to me that we employ craftsmanship from Japan.’
How did it feel to reopen this past April? What has been the response?
KF: ‘The reopening has been very well received. It’s not the largest museum, but we have lots of visitors — 250 to 700 a day. When we arrived at 9:30 this morning, 30 minutes before the museum opened, there were people lining up already. And there are more younger visitors compared to before, which has been exciting to see. In the first several months, we exceeded the number of visitors we had in one year before the renewal.’
Do you have plans to expand the collection within this new setting?
KF: ‘At the moment, we have a collection of over 4,000 artworks, but only 500 are currently on view. So, rather than adding more objects, first I would like to exhibit the rest of the collection we have.’
In past interviews you have mentioned that adopting new technologies is an important part of the Fujita Museum’s development. What technologies are you most excited about?
KF: ‘It’s not state of the art, but we have a special cooling system with sensors, so the cool air comes down right where it’s needed. It’s better for CO2 emissions and sustainability.’
On the museum’s website, there are livestreams from cameras installed throughout the museum for users to view the different exhibition spaces online. What was the original intention for this inclusion?
KF: ‘In addition to giving people around the world a peek inside the museum, these live camera feeds allow would-be in-person visitors to make their own choices. They can see what’s happening and how crowded the museum is, which is very important in light of the pandemic.’
As you mentioned, the museum has attracted wide appreciation on an international scale — from the New York auction to the ability for people around the world to tap into the museum’s live cameras. How do you plan to continue to reach global audiences?
KF: ‘Now that COVID restrictions are beginning to ease, there will be more travelers coming into Japan, it’s time to think about how we can take a broader approach. It’s important to present the most precious works from the collection that will attract people not only in Japan but from overseas.’
‘It’s also critical to have educational programs for everyone, regardless of nationality, gender, or age, so that anyone who visits can understand the exhibition.’
Looking forward, what are your ambitions for the museum, both short and long term?
KF: ‘In short, I am looking to create a space without boundaries, where communication is very active, and of course to have great, high-quality exhibitions and educational programs. To provide such opportunities for visitors is an ongoing mission, however I would like this space to be for everyone. There could be live painting, lectures, music, anything to provide a space with no restrictions. The object is to create a space for people to talk about the art, think about the art, anything they want to do. I think the museum itself can be the place to do that.’