The Ohara Museum of Art is in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, one of Japan's provinces, and was the first private museum opened in 1930 in Japan to exhibit modern Western art. The foundation of our collection was laid by Kojima Torajiro, a Japanese painter in the Western style, and Ohara Magosaburo, a wealthy industrialist, who financed the museum.
Kojima Torajiro was a gifted painter. The people around him wanted to send him to Europe to study since, in early 20th century Japan, there were few opportunities to see original Western paintings. It was Ohara Magosaburo who financially supported Kojima's studies in Europe. It is also said that the two became best friends because they were only one year apart. When Kojima arrived in Europe, Impressionist artists were flourishing. Kojima, who had rarely seen original Western paintings, was so impressed by this new movement of Western paintings that he wished other young Japanese painters could also see them. Thus, Kojima told Ohara that he wanted to purchase some paintings.
In his letter to Ohara, Kojima wrote, "I want to purchase paintings, not according to my own taste or for my own amusement, but for the future of Japan.” Ohara sympathized with Kojima's vision and provided him with funds.
Thus, while he was studying European art, Kojima began collecting paintings. He often went to see the artists to negotiate the purchases of their paintings directly. For example, among others, he met with Leon Frederic, Claude Monet, and Henri Matisse. These artists are considered celebrated masters today, but they were living artists. In other words, he purchased works by his contemporaries. When Kojima returned to Japan, an art museum to display his collected works had not yet been built. Therefore, they were exhibited at a local elementary school. This pivotal exhibition, which provided a rare opportunity to see Western paintings in Japan, attracted many visitors not only from all over Japan but also from neighboring countries. And, more importantly, this happened not in big cities like Tokyo or Osaka, but in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, a regional city. Since the beginning of its history, the Ohara Museum of Art was determined to offer people the opportunity to see original artwork. When, during World War II, Japan became a battlefield, some works had to be relocated for safekeeping due to the danger of air raids, but the museum continued to display many paintings in its galleries and readily accepted visitors who wanted to see them during those difficult times. The museum kept its door open throughout the entire war.
Bearing this historical background in mind, the Ohara Museum of Art has always supported contemporary artists and has continued to provide a place where one can encounter art. This is because our museum was established with the guiding philosophy, "If in the future this museum contributes in any small way to society, it will fulfil its purpose". With this guiding principle, the museum was established to serve society perpetually. We believe we received this prestigious award in recognition of these founding values. In social isolation during the pandemic, we believe there was a renewed recognition of the importance of real-life encounters with art. As an institution that continually supports living artists, we believe Ohara Museum of Art’s mission is now more important than ever.
The ways in which our museum activities were financed during the COVID-19 pandemic are worth mentioning. These efforts cannot be attributed to any single person but were the result of all the museum staff asking themselves what the Ohara Museum of Art should do in these challenging times.
Before COVID-19, 90% of Ohara Museum of Art's income came from admission fees. In other words, the museum operated without significant support from individual supporters, companies, or national or local government. Therefore, when the number of visitors fell to 20% of the pre-pandemic level, we faced a crisis. We had numerous discussions focusing on the future of the museum. Our staff words were exactly what was stated in our charter: “It is important that we continue to exist forever, serving society”.
The year 2020, when the pandemic began, marked the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Ohara Museum of Art. Under the slogan, "My Museum for Everyone”, the Ohara Museum of Art began re-evaluating its financial model, which relied heavily on admission fees. However, we reaffirmed that even small individual contributions can communally support a great institution. Therefore, we started crowdfunding and achieved an unprecedented level of support.
Of course, crowdfunding is not the only way we fund our activities. Because we have been hosting local preschoolers and elementary school students in the museum for more than 30 years, local elementary school students asked their schoolteachers and friends to donate to the Ohara Museum of Art. In fact, the elementary school student who came up with this idea was a child who could not attend class due to psychological issues (part of a social issue called “futoko”). This marked the turning point for him to start going to school again. Meanwhile, local young people started raising funds to support art even in the face of the COVID crisis, and with these funds, they invited futoko children to visit the museum.
In addition to these individual donations, the government also offered special covid-19 loans. Although public interest foundations like us were not, generally, eligible for this loan, we specified that our income structure depended heavily on admission fees, and we succeeded in obtaining a loan. Local businesses also supported the museum. More than 150 companies offered their support. It is unusual for a Japanese institution to receive support from so many companies, and we are proud of this achievement.
Although we were not able to do much to commemorate our 90th anniversary due to the pandemic, we did hold an online forum for discussions about what it means to be “real”. We created a space where the real and the virtual intersected. This forum became an event where people asked themselves, “What is real?” and” What is art all about?”. As for our activities with artists, we also had an exhibition of works of a particular artist. Because the exhibit was held during the early days of the pandemic, not many visitors came to view this exhibition. We are therefore planning to have another one early next year.
These efforts are based on our founding principle of serving society. The Ohara Museum of Art was not established solely by Ohara Magosaburo, the industrialist, and not solely by Kojima Torajiro, the painter, but as the fruit of their friendship. Their shared purpose was to contribute to society. The Ohara Museum of Art has achieved this purpose because all our staff had a clear understanding of and commitment to the role of our museum and pride in its accomplishments. Of course, many museums around the world share a similar value, and this increasing awareness of the role of museums in serving their communities is an important step forward.
Not only pandemics, but many other disasters could befall us in the future. Even under such critical situations, the Ohara Museum of Art will strive to look to the future and continue to ask itself how, as a museum, it can best contribute to society. We are steadfast in these guiding principles and will continue to work with local communities in Kurashiki. A museum must collect, conserve, research and exhibit works of art, and conduct educational activities for visitors. We have continued these activities for over 90 years, even during difficult and challenging times, and will continue to do so in the future.
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