In March, 2008, an event unprecedented in the history of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center will take place when eighty-six fine examples selected from its collection of Modern Art begins a five-museum tour of Japan under the auspices of Tokyo’s Art Project International and the sponsorship of the Sankei Shimbun, Japan’s national financial newspaper chain. The exhibition entitled Paris-New York: Modernist Painting in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: Masterworks from the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College will mark the first time that a collection of works of art from Vassar College will tour outside of the Western Hemisphere.
The exhibition will open at the Shimane Art Museum (March 7 – May 11) on the central island of Honshu, then move on to the Ishibashi Museum of Art (May 17 - July 20) on the southernmost island of Kyushu, followed by the Yamagata Museum of Art (July 30 – August 31) again on Honshu; the Fuchu Art Museum in a suburb of Tokyo (September 6 – November 3); and will conclude its tour at the Miyazaki Prefectural Art Museum (November 14 – December 14) back on Kyushu. The exhibition will feature a number of beloved and well known works from the collection such as Mark Rothko’s No. 1 (no. 18, 1948) and Jackson Pollock’s drip painting from 1950 but will also include works less often exhibited paintings such as the work of Jules Olitski, Theodore Stamos, and Grace Hartigan— artists whose aesthetic is of particular interest to the Japanese curators who selected the works in the exhibition.
While most of the exhibition is made up of paintings, a number of prints and drawings will also be included, particularly by American artists from the post-war period such as Ellsworth Kelly, Ad Rinehardt, Robert Rauschenberg, and Robert Motherwell. The theme of the exhibition and the selection of works were made by the curators from the Yamagata Museum of Art, one of the oldest and largest municipal art museums in Japan in consultation with us here at Vassar. The exhibition comes at a time when the Asian Studies program at the College is growing rapidly, more Vassar graduates are now living in Asia, and we are establishing more ambitious contacts with other Asian institutions, for example our recently created official exchange program with the Ochanimizu University in Tokyo.
How I came to Yamagata in order to start discussions on this project to begin with is a fairly involved story and dates nominally back to 1998. In that year a unique “museum” opened its doors in the small town of Naruto City on the southern island of Shikoku. Named the Otsuka Museum of Art after its founder, a chemical and beverage magnate, the museum (the largest physical space of any museum in Japan) presented to its public the 1,000 greatest paintings of Western Art history, selected by a Japanese panel of experts. The works were reproduced in full-size on ceramic boards with a proprietary technique known only to the Otsuka Chemical Corporation. Every aspect of the works was copied right down to their original frames and various thicknesses of paint application. Ambitious works of art such as the full Sistine Chapel decorations by Michelangelo, the Ghent Altarpiece of Jan Van Eyck, and Picasso’s Guernica were presented, as were other major artistic landmarks from the collections of the Louvre, National Gallery, London, and the Rijksmuseum.
A painting in Vassar’s collection, Mark Rothko’s No. 1 (no. 18, 1948), was designated one of the “top 1,000” and I traveled to attend the opening of the museum and see the reproduction of our work in situ. A friendship was formed with an Otsuka family member and, during subsequent visits to Japan, I was introduced to museum professionals and art dealers in various parts of the country thanks to my colleague. One evening in 2001, I attended a baseball game in Tokyo with my Otsuka friend. He also invited another friend, Mr. Minoru Yasuda, whose family formed one of the “Big Four” zaibatsu (government sanctioned industrial monopolies started in the Meiji period) and founded the now large Fuji Bank.
When I heard the name Fuji Bank, I thought back to my sophomore year at Vassar when I was struggling unsuccessfully with my German language course. That summer (1972) I enrolled in a Goethe Institut language course in a tiny town in Southern Germany and while there met a young trainee named Seiji Satomura from the Fuji Bank. After the language school for a couple of years, this young banker and I played chess through the mail and then we lost track of one another. Aware of the prevalence of lifetime employment among corporations in Japan, I asked Mr. Yasuda if my friend still worked for Fuji Bank. The next day he informed me that this talented now senior vice-president had recently accepted a job with another, regional bank in the northwestern Honshu city of Yamagata.
After renewing acquaintance via email with Mr. Satomura, we arranged a visit to Yamagata on my next trip and it was then that he organized a first meeting with the director and curators of the Yamagata Museum, all of who were very excited about American modern art. We promised to meet again and in the summer of 2004 we hatched what the Japanese would call the “Dream Plan” that would begin a cycle of cultural exchange between our two institutions and regions. The first step would be sending a portion of our exhibition to Japan, a group of nineteenth century and modern works selected by the Yamagata curators. During the summer of 2005 they arrived in Poughkeepsie and carefully scoured our collection for the obvious and the hidden gems.
After another two years of various negotiations regarding sponsors, additional venues, and the final checklist, the exhibition was prepared for shipment to Japan in early 2008. One might think that being without so many key works from the collection for ten months would inhibit our ability to serve our campus and general audiences. While this is, in part, true, it also became an opportunity to substitute the standard permanent installation with some more creative programming (particularly contemporary art) and seek out some interesting loans including a great Rothko from the National Gallery to replace ours and a group of eight key American nineteenth-century American masterpieces from the Metropolitan Museum of Art including works by Durand, Kensett, and Homer.
A buzzword for the new millennium has been “globalization” and among America’s most important exports is higher education. Creating a greater awareness of the quality of Vassar’s art collection and educational resources in Asia is a timely positive move. That this exhibition— through its evolution in incremental steps based on personal familiarity and trust, elements so important to Japanese business— should have curiously had part of its origin in my own struggles with the high standards of the Vassar German department is an irony of the most pleasant kind.