"In the future, museums must reflect the complexity of our times." Interview with Mami Kataoka, president of CIMAM

At the end of 2019, Mami Kataoka, director and curator of the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, was appointed president of CIMAM. We caught up with her for an interview in which we took stock of her vision about contemporary art museums.

At the end of November, CIMAM (the International Committee for Museums of Modern Art), the leading international body of modern and contemporary art museums around the world, affiliated with ICOM, appointed its new president: Japan’s Mami Kataoka, director and chief curator of the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. She succeeds Elizabeth Macgregor (who was a guest contributor to Issue 4 of our print magazine Windows on Art on Paper) and will serve as president of CIMAM for the three-year term 2020-2022. The appointment came after CIMAM’s 2019 annual conference in Sydney, Australia. We caught up with Mami Kataoka and asked her a few questions about her vision about contemporary art museums and what their future will be. The interview is edited by Federico Giannini, editor in chief of Windows on Art.

Mami Kataoka, presidente del CIMAM
Mami Kataoka, president of CIMAM

FG. An important edition of CIMAM’s annual conference was held in late 2019: this year’s theme was “the museum of the 21st century”: what are the main topics of discussion that emerged on this occasion? What should a museum look like in order to be called a “museum of the 21st century”?
MK. The role of the museum is a really fundamental topic: recently there has been a clash between, on the one hand, those who think of the museum simply as the place where a collection is kept, and on the other hand those who want the museum to be a place for debate and discussion on many issues. Are these two views irreconcilable, or are they two poles that could find common ground, even in contexts where this is not easy, for example in a classical or archaeological museum? At the 2019 ICOM conference, the proposal for a new definition of the term “museum” was not adopted by the body’s members. Our world today is very complex, perspectives and value systems are multiple, and of course the museum field should reflect this complexity creatively. So, the definition of “museum of the 21st century” will have to continue to be discussed.

One of the goals of the conference was to address the discourse on museum narrative and the perspective of local, indigenous people. Over the past few months, museums have been busily discussing the issue of cultural decolonization. How are museums addressing this discussion? Are some countries moving faster than others? Will this debate become polarized, or is there room to move the discussion forward?
The discussion about decolonization in museums has recently begun. In 2017, French President Macron declared that he wanted to temporarily and permanently return African heritage to Africa in the years to come. This fact was important because it marked the beginning of the debate on how to realize his intentions and whether this idea should be shared by involving museums around the world on multiple levels. Meanwhile, the concepts of diversity and inclusion began to be reflected in the collections of modern and contemporary art museums and their exhibition programs. Obviously, there are different perspectives and different opinions, but as far as I am concerned, rather than thinking of the debate in terms of polarization, I think it should be thought of in terms of how to balance multiple levels and issues, and most importantly, I think we need to think about the key to achieving the optimal balance.

At the end of this year’s conference, you were appointed president of CIMAM. What should we expect from the three-year term in which you will preside over the body?
CIMAM, being an ICOM-affiliated organization, would like to work more closely with ICOM, especially on issues that the entire museum sector should discuss together, for example, sustainability and museum ethics. As for CIMAM itself, since there are many modern and contemporary art museums being established and built around the world at this time in history, our body should really function as a global organization and as an important common platform for professionals in the field. Through more organized working groups, council members aspire to work on different issues with a view to maximum sharing.

Speaking of issues such as sustainability and ethics: should a museum be involved in current events, in politics?
Since contemporary art reflects our contemporary society, it is inevitable that international current events appear in museum practices. In any case, there should be a well-defined line between pure political action and the museum: I see the museum as a place of encounter and dialogue between different points of view, and not as to a place to lead the world in a certain political or ideological direction.

During this year’s conference, a particular achievement of CIMAM last year was also discussed, namely the creation of “Museum Best Practices” for managing disputes. In this regard, what are the main disputes that a museum might face in the 21st century and how could they be resolved?
It should be assumed that disputes arise according to different socio-political contexts in different parts of the world. However, there is one difference from the 20th century, which is that we live in times of great complexity and with a different spectrum of value systems, which is why communication and dialogue for mutual understanding are, in this sense, the key elements. In terms of communication, in an age that is experiencing unprecedented growth in social media, clarity and transparency on the part of the museum (including transparency about funding sources) will become increasingly necessary, and efforts will also need to be made to understand the contexts in which episodes occur, rather than reacting on the basis of fragmented information.

Let’s talk about contemporary art. One topic that many are discussing (especially in Italy) is the transformation of the figure of the art critic into that of the curator. We have more and more curators, and less and less critics. Is the figure of the art critic destined to disappear? What, in this sense, is the contribution that contemporary art museums could make?
Continuing the previous discourse, we live in times that presuppose different methods of communication and tools than those of fifty years ago, and professions in the curatorial field have become more recognized and more solid in the last decades. However, I don’t think the art critic profession is disappearing, but there is certainly a debate to be had about redefining the profession, since it seems difficult to find a universal standard for evaluating contemporary art. That said, the museum is where professionals and the public meet, and museum professionals should look for new languages for the platform-museum.

One last question: in many countries the public seems to be increasingly interested in museums, but governments are disinclined to invest, and it is often the larger museums that attract most visitors, while many small museums are in crisis. What, then, do you think will be the future of museums in the years to come?
Museums should never be rigid: rather they should be fluid and prone to change, since the world is changing. There is a need to have responsibility in sustainably managing collections and programming, and therefore it is necessary to look for the best business and funding models according to the times.

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