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Ōmura Satoshi’s Art Museum: A Nobel Winner’s Generosity Staff [Profile]


Ōmura Satoshi, emeritus professor at Kitasato University, has cemented his reputation as a world-class researcher by becoming a joint winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

He is also known as a lover of fine art, though. In 2007 he donated a considerable collection of artworks, along with a new museum to house them, to the city of Nirasaki, Yamanashi Prefecture, where he was born in 1935. This project cost Ōmura as much as ¥500 million, but he describes it as “an investment in young people” and a way to express his gratitude to his hometown.

A Generous Art Fan

Ōmura has long been an avid collector of art ranging from paintings to earthenware and sculpture. The “Ōmura collection” is estimated to include some 3,500 pieces in all, paid for with the bulk of the patent licensing fees he received for his medicinal discoveries. More than 1,500 of these are now housed in the Nirasaki Ōmura Art Museum.

Kitasato University, where Ōmura did most of his research, has earned an estimated ¥25 billion in licensing fees for the patents based on his work. In Japan it is common for the organization to reap the benefits of its members’ work—something that previously led to strife involving Nakamura Shūji, who sued his former employer Nichia for a larger share of the profits resulting from his work on blue LEDs (which won him a share of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics).

Ōmura had a much warmer relationship with his research organization, though. He is reported to have said “I only need enough to get by on” and let most of the income stay with the university, which put it to good use in shoring up its financial footing and building a hospital. Of the money that did make its way to Ōmura, much went toward his art purchases.

The Nobel Winner’s Gift to Nirasaki

The Nirasaki museum is Ōmura’s gift to his hometown.

The Nirasaki Ōmura Art Museum, a two-story structure with three exhibit spaces, was built near the site of Ōmura’s childhood home. The museum is currently exhibiting works by Suzuki Shintarō (1895–1989), winner of the 1960 Japan Art Academy Prize for Western-style painting, and a selection of works by celebrated female artists including Noguchi Shōhin (1847–1917), the first woman to be appointed an imperial household artist, and Uemura Shōen (1875–1949), the first woman painter to join the Imperial Art Academy.

Ōmura has described the hundreds of millions of yen he spent on the museum and its collection as “an investment in young people.” Why make this investment through the channel of art? “Works of art are the common property of all humankind. I want to share the joy of viewing these works with everyone.”

(Originally written in English on October 6, 2015. Photo credit: Eddy Chang.)

  • [2015.10.06]

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