Minneapolis Institute of Art curator Yasufumi Nakamori oversees a collection of more than 13,000 photographs. But he also has a lifelong interest in architect Kenzo Tange, who expanded the museum with a modern addition in the 1970s.

By Joel Hoekstra

Minnesota was mostly unfamiliar to Yasufumi Nakamori when he moved here in 2016. But at Mia, also known as the Minneapolis Institute of Art, where he had just landed a curator position, he discovered a comforting presence. The museum bore the fingerprints of Kenzo Tange, the master architect who had planned cities and designed numerous modern buildings in postwar Japan, including in Osaka, where Nakamori had spent his childhood.

“As a teenager, I was obsessed with Tange’s work on Expo ’70, which was Asia’s first world expo and took place about a mile from my house,” says Nakamori. (Tange designed the expo’s master plan and the enormous space-frame roof for its main plaza.) “Much later, I picked the expo as part of my doctoral dissertation subject.”

Today, Nakamori interacts daily with Tange’s 1974 addition to the museum’s original McKim, Mead & White building. Hired to head Mia’s Photography and New Media Department, he is charged with producing exhibitions that appear in the museum’s Harrison Gallery, which sits in the Tange wing. He recently opened New Pictures: Omer Fast, Appendix, an exhibition that pairs the contemporary artist and filmmaker’s work with 25 portraits by pioneering German photographer August Sander (see sidebar below).

“The exhibit demonstrates Yasufumi’s global interests,” says Mia director Kaywin Feldman. “He’s very well connected and aware of what’s happening in art around the world.” What’s more, she adds, Nakamori’s curatorial and scholarly output is astonishing: “We’re all completely stunned by his productivity.”

The son of a Japanese businessman who was an amateur photographer and collected prints and drawings, Nakamori developed an interest in art early in life. But his path to curatorial work was circuitous. He studied politics and economics in Tokyo before moving to Madison, Wisconsin, to earn a law degree. He practiced law in New York City and Tokyo, specializing in corporate finance and securities law, for seven years—until 9/11. “I had just come out of the subway near the towers when the first plane hit,” says Nakamori. “The experience made me realize how life can be cut short.”

He quit law, earned a degree in art history at Hunter College, and completed a PhD at Cornell University. His dissertation focused on two generations of architects in postwar Japan, beginning with, of course, Kenzo Tange. Winner of the 1987 Pritzker Architecture Prize, Tange rose to international fame for melding modernism and traditional Japanese design in buildings such as Tokyo’s St. Mary’s Cathedral and Yoyogi National Gymnasium, the latter built for the 1964 Olympics.

“Tange was also a photographer,” says Nakamori. The architect owned a Leica camera, and he took a special interest in the intersection of photography and building design—the play of light and shadow, the juxtaposition of forms. In fact, Tange served as a picture editor for the 1960 publication Katsura: Tradition and Creation in Japanese Architecture, which showcased images of Japan’s Katsura Imperial Villa taken by Ishimoto Yasuhiro, a photographer affiliated with the Chicago Bauhaus movement. The volume featured text by Walter Gropius and cover design by Herbert Bayer.

“But Tange significantly cropped many of the photos,” notes Nakamori, to make visual connections between traditional Japanese design and modern architecture. In 2010, Nakamori, then associate curator of photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, published, for the first time, Ishimoto’s uncropped images alongside Tange’s edited versions in Katsura: Picturing Modernism in Japanese Architecture. The book, lauded as an “astutely, impeccably produced catalogue” that “rehabilitates Ishimoto’s initial vision of Katsura,” won an award from the College Art Association in 2011.

Tange’s master plan for Expo ’70 positioned the festival as a city, and Tange’s students designed many of the buildings, including an art gallery, which later became the National Museum of Art, Osaka. As a youngster, Nakamori often toured the collection with his father, and the experience gave him a strong sense of the importance of art museums in cities. Today, he sees the same design philosophy in Tange’s 1970–74 master plan for the Minneapolis Art Complex, which now includes Mia, the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and the Children’s Theatre Company. The complex was one of Tange’s first commissions outside of his homeland—and one of only two projects he completed in the U.S.

The architect saw the campus as an important part of the urban fabric, says Nakamori. “Art and artists and arts education had to have a place in the city,” the curator says. “For Tange, designing both an art school and the museum’s expansion was important because teaching art to a future generation of artists and preserving art from the past were two equally important functions, for art to become truly meaningful in contemporary society.”

Nakamori says he especially appreciates how Tange integrated the buildings into the city’s Washburn–Fair Oaks neighborhood. “From the steps of the original McKim, Mead & White building, you can see downtown Minneapolis,” says Nakamori. “Tange also emphasized that connection by adding windows in the new wing that look out to the same view.”

Tange’s addition revitalized the institution in the 1970s, and Nakamori says that it serves as a daily reminder that he and Mia have a duty to showcase the work of new artists, and to present the work of past artists with fresh perspectives. “Showing work from the past in relation to new work by contemporary artists who may be critical of the past is extremely important to me,” he says, “and in some ways it’s related to how Tange reimagined the institute and its future.”


New Pictures: Omer Fast, Appendix
Minneapolis Institute of Art, Harrison Gallery
Through February 11, 2018

This exhibition features two films by the Berlin-based Israeli artist Omer Fast (born 1972), along with more than 20 portraits by the German photographer August Sander (1876–1964) from his series People of the Twentieth Century, selected from Mia’s and other Minneapolis-based collections. artsmia.org