High Art: Tokyo's Mori Art Museum

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Perched at the top of the Roppongi Hills complex, with one of the best views in the city, the museum is far better than it needs to be.

Odds are, most of the people in the line snaking slowly toward the ticket counter at the Mori Art Museum are here not to see art but to experience one of the great views in Tokyo, a 360-degree vista from the top of the 54-story Mori Tower.

“We have a unique ticketing system to drive traffic,” Yoshiko Mori, the institution’s chairwoman, recently told the South China Morning Post. “People who only buy tickets for the observation deck can usually just walk into the museum when they come out, and around 70 percent of them do.” If that sounds like a bluntly strategic approach to running a museum, that’s because it is. Mori doesn’t hide that she and her late husband, Minoru, opened it in 2003 in part to draw visitors to the $4 billion Roppongi Hills business-residential-retail-leisure complex his company was developing. (Taikichiro Mori, the firm’s founder and Minoru’s father, was once the richest man on the planet, and the family name is about as ubiquitous in Tokyo as Trump is in New York—comparisons end there.) The couple didn’t even seriously collect art until after they founded their own venue.

Because there is no permanent collection, only a succession of shows on two floors, the museum has no fixed identity. And yet from those inauspicious beginnings was born a respectable institution that regularly puts on exhibitions as crowd-pleasing as they are curatorially sound. This is largely thanks to museum director Fumio Nanjo, who oversees the contemporary offerings—including last winter’s hit, “The 500 Arhats,” Takashi Murakami’s first major show in his homeland in 14 years. Exhibitions downstairs are generally organized by outside curators, and often focus on more classical themes and artists such as, recently, Vermeer and Rembrandt. Visitors can stop by the gift shop on their way out and then continue on through the shopping center on the lower levels. In fact, that’s the idea. Roppongi Hills Mori Tower 53F, 6-10-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku; mori.art.museum.

For more on the Mori Art Museum, see our Tokyo City Guide »