Asia Society Names New Leader

Yasufumi Nakamori, a senior curator of international art at the Tate Modern in London, will become director of the Asia Society in New York, the museum announced Monday.

The position of director has been vacant since Michelle Yun Mapplethorpe departed in June 2022 for another job. Nakamori will start in August.

Asia Society is one of the country’s pre-eminent institutions exhibiting and collecting artworks of Asian heritage, including Chinese and Korean ceramics, Indian bronzes and Southeast Asian sculptures. Founded by John D. Rockefeller in 1956, it has a growing contemporary collection of video, animation, photography and new media art by Asian and Asian American artists.

“I want to bring power and dynamism to the museum,” Nakamori said during a phone interview, adding that he was already developing a strategic plan that would include new commissions from contemporary artists, efforts to bring local communities into the museum and a curatorial emphasis on shows that explore Asian influence on other continents.

“It is important that we fill the gaps in the history of Asian art,” Nakamori said. “I want Asia Society to be an interlocutor and instigator.”

Nakamori started his career in New York as a corporate lawyer nearly 30 years ago, before he transitioned to the museum world with a Ph.D. in art history and curatorial positions at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Minneapolis Institute of Art. During his tenure at the Tate Modern, he curated an exhibition of the South African artist Zanele Muholi, which has traveled to six museums across Europe.

“We have found in Yasufumi Nakamori a leader who will guide the Asia Society Museum in making the case for the vital importance of Asian art and artists to visual culture globally,” said Emily Rafferty, a trustee who helped lead the search committee.

During Nakamori’s interview phase last spring, the museum became embroiled in a censorship controversy when images of the Prophet Muhammad were blurred out on the online portion of a recent exhibition. Museum officials said it was a mistake; nevertheless, Islamic art scholars criticized the decision as an ethical breach. Many Muslims object to depictions of Muhammad as sacrilegious, and the subject of how to show Islamic art in context has become a flashpoint for institutions.

Christiane Gruber, a professor of Islamic art at the University of Michigan, who contributed to the exhibition and opposed the blurring of images, said that Asia Society now had a chance to improve its handling of Islamic art and hire a curator with expertise in that subject matter.

“Just like most other museums, Asia Society needs somebody with a vision about how to move Asian art forward,” said Gruber. “Islamic material has been something of a lacuna for them.”

Nakamori said the museum had fumbled its handling of the material. “I don’t think the images should have been blurred,” he said. “What happened came from a lack of internal consensus, perhaps because there wasn’t a clear and steady leadership.”

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