We are having another thrilling museum opening in Seattle this month! The renovated Asian Art Museum opens to the public on Saturday February 8 after three years of remodeling. The museum’s stunning 1933 Art Deco building has been restored to its former glory, along with the glass doors in the entrance, and outside, the original fountains and Olmstead pathways.
I went to a preliminary presentation by Ping Foong, Foster Foundation Curator of Chinese Art; Xiaojin Wu, Curator of Japanese and Korean Art who created the inaugural installation Boundless: Stories of Asian Art, a complete rethinking of the museum that took three years.
They started with asking “What do we mean by Asia? Where is Asia? Who is Asia?” Rather than follow traditional geographical designations, they created twelve themes from ancient to contemporary. They brought in Darielle Mason, an outside expert on East Asia from the Philadelphia Museum, as well as working with senior scholars and community groups in advisory sessions.
They divided their twelve themes into two larger ideas: the South Galleries focus on the sexual and the spiritual and the North Galleries on the material world. Since the themes are based on so much creative thinking, I think it is worth recording them all here.
In the South, the themes are “Awakened Ones” (in a darkened room with several Buddhas, as a meditative pause), “Divine Bodies,” “Sacred Places” “Bringing Blessings,” and “Spiritual Journeys.” In the North, the themes are “Are We What We Wear?”, “What is Precious”, “Color in Clay”, “Writing Images, Painting Poems”, “Picturing Nature”, Sharing Stories” and “Fashioning Eternity.”
Needless to say, the critics listening to this idea were skeptical that the general public would be lost without the geographical identities of the different works highlighted. They cautioned that the diversity would be flattened. The curators said that they were not tied to these themes, they could be changed, but they wanted to try a new approach. I was dubious at first, given the great failures I have seen at the Museum of Modern Art when thematic approaches were used. But those were big obvious themes, like still life and portraits, while these two young curators, based on three years of hard work, have produced a brilliant group of ideas that will be thrilling to experience. I will elaborate on this theme once the Museum actually opens.
In the Garden Court they installed a work by Kenzan Tsutakawa the grandson of our famous George Tsutakawa, composed of LED lights. It creates a delicate canopy and connects to the outside world.
Finally Be/longing: Contemporary Asian Art, the installation of contemporary Asian Art includes 12 artists from 7 countries, all of whom work outside Asia, many from the Museum’s permanent collection and familiar to us, such as Shirin Neshat (the stunning videos) and Do Ho Suh (that big piece with dog tags). The 5000 square foot gallery will enable changing traveling exhibitions. It is also the new space projecting into our beautiful Volunteer Park, causing great concerns on the part of park lovers. We will see if it enhances or intrudes once it opens.
Also, impressive will be new Asian Paintings Conservation Center, led by Nicholas Dorman, SAM’s Chief Conservator, which the press release claims to be the only such center in the Western United States.
Seattle’s commitment to young museum goers stands out nationally, and at the Asian Art Museum there will be an expanded community and student learning center. Also reaching out to all ages is a smart phone tour, and interactive multimedia in the galleries. Hopefully, the smart phone tours won’t be too distracting from looking at the physical work.
Our Asian Art Museum reflects an exciting and innovative era of Seattle collecting, especially by its founding director, Richard E. Fuller; the collection includes over 8500 works!
The deep ties of our contemporary city to Asia makes this exciting new expanded Asian Art Museum particularly timely.
~Susan Noyes Platt