Billionaire Builds Art Island

NAOSHIMA, JAPAN -- For billionaire Soichiro Fukutake, the best place to view contemporary art is not a white-walled museum in New York, Paris or even Tokyo.

Rather it’s an archipelago in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, where he has transformed what were dying industrial waste dumps into a glamorous destination for ArtKabinett collectors, and other high-profile patrons like French luxury-goods titan François Pinault, Greek industrial magnate Dakis Joannou and Los Angeles arts patron Eli Broad.

Every day. at Benesse House -- the $400-a-night hotel where many of Fukutake’s treasures are housed -- you can indulge in an experience unique among the world’s finest resorts.

With no guards or velvet ropes to block access, there are numerous blue-chip works to be explored: a 1962 Giacometti bronze, a David Hockney swimming pool painting, a whitewashed Jasper Johns alphabet work and, surrounded by a sloping walkway, a 10-foot-tall neon-light sculpture by Venice Biennale winner Bruce Nauman, flashing provocative aphorisms in red, pink, blue and yellow: “Feel and Die,” “Fear and Live … .”

Designed by Tadeo Ando

To build his legacy, he has collaborated with Pritzker Prize-winning architect Tadao Ando, known for his minimalist sensibility, improbable angles and liberal use of smooth, unpainted concrete.

Together they have created a complex of elegantly designed structures, three of them carved into the hills of Naoshima Island, a 5-square-mile outpost of rolling terrain, small villages and stunning views of the sea.

Ando’s most striking structure, the Chichu Art Museum ( chichu means “underground” in Japanese), is almost entirely below the earth but doesn’t feel that way, with its two courtyards open to the sky and the elements, surrounded by slanted walkways, and skylights in three of the larger rooms.

The Chichu houses work by just three artists, including five late paintings from Claude Monet’s water lily series. Before entering the space, visitors must don soft white slippers to avoid soiling the luminous white floor tiles made from Carrara marble. “Many people say that Naoshima is better than l’Orangerie,” says Fukutake. “In Naoshima it’s a spiritual experience.”

Japanese Media Mogul

Fukutake made his estimated $1.02 billion fortune through his share in Benesse Holdings, a company his late father founded in 1955 as Fukutake Publishing. After his father died of a heart attack in 1986, he changed the name to Benesse, from the Latin words for “well-being.”

Today Benesse owns the Berlitz language schools, correspondence courses and 275 nursing homes throughout Japan.

Under Fukutake’s direction, first as chairman and now as executive advisor, Benesse funnels 5% of company shares into the Fukutake Foundation, which supports the art site. He has also invested $240 million of his family fortune into the project.

Idyllic Three Islands

While Tokyo would be the obvious location for such a museum, Fukutake had come to see the city as a destructive center of money and stress.

In addition to three Ando-designed museums and the museum-cum-hotel, Fukutake has commissioned 20 site-specific works. In 1995 Benesse also established a prize at the Venice Biennale for an artist it would fund to produce a piece for the islands.

The first one, by Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, consists of a series of more than 20 rocks placed according to principles of feng shui on a grassy area surrounded by trees just off the beach. The artist set a hot tub in the middle of the work, and hotel guests can make arrangements to soak there while gazing out at the sea.

To determine the best spots for the outdoor pieces and museums, Fukutake flies his private helicopter over Naoshima and two nearby islands, Teshima and Inujima.

Finding the works of art scattered between the hotel and the Chichu museum a half-mile up the hill can feel like a scavenger hunt. One piece, by Japanese artist Tsuyoshi Ozawa, is a series of 88 Buddhas in bas-relief on bits of industrial slag. It lies across a pond in an easily missed curve in the road.

On Teshima, a beautiful, hilly expanse where Fukutake restored the rice paddies that cover the hillsides, there is another museum. Shaped like a giant teardrop and made out of white cement, it’s nestled in a shallow valley. Two ovals cut into the ceiling let rain fall inside.

Though the Benesse Art Site Naoshima is remote -- more than six hours from Tokyo, including three and a half hours on the wonderful Shinkansen bullet train, two different local trains and a 20-minute ferry ride from the sleepy town of Uno -- the hotel, which consists of the 10-room museum and three annexes with an additional 55 rooms, was almost fully booked in early June.

While both Benesse Holdings and the Fukutake Foundation administer and fund aspects of the project, all major decisions flow through Fukutake. Since 2010 the foundation has collaborated with the local government to produce the Setouchi Triennale, where temporary exhibits are scattered around a dozen islands. The next festival will start in March 2016.

Today's homepage Featured Art Video visits Benesse House.