Reorienting a trove of the East

Times Staff Writer

It's a few days before the Asian Art Museum opens its new home and the pressure is palpable. "There's a new challenge every five minutes," says director Emily J. Sano. "You are drilling through a piece of thick Plexiglas and the drill bit breaks. You can't move a piece of art through an area because the elevator is being used for something else -- for three hours."

No one said it would be easy to transform the 1917 Beaux Arts building designed as San Francisco's old Main Library into a museum, or to move 14,000 pieces of Asian art out of their former lodgings in Golden Gate Park. The task of selecting 2,500 objects for display and installing them in a coherent story line was also daunting. Spanning 6,000 years, the collection ranges from tiny jades to massive stone sculptures and encompasses ceramics, lacquer ware, textiles, furniture, arms, basketry and puppets.

But no one was prepared for all the complexities of the $160.5-million project -- $50 million of which was spent on seismic upgrading. Fifteen years in the making, the museum's new facility is in the civic center, facing City Hall and next to the new library. The project, which opened to the public last Thursday, was officially conceptualized in 1988 with the city's adoption of a plan to rework the library, but it didn't get off the ground until 1994 with the passage of a bond issue. Italian architect Gae Aulenti -- best known for converting a derelict train station in Paris into the Musee d'Orsay -- took on the challenge of preserving the building's primary historic features while adding a floor of galleries, V-shaped skylights and a glass-enclosed escalator.

As for installing the art, "it's a steep learning curve," says Sano, her jaw set and her voice tightening. "At the old museum my staff built everything and installed everything. Here we have these very professionally done cases designed by George Sexton in Washington, D.C., and manufactured by Design Production in northern Virginia. Everything has to be shipped from the East Coast and adjustments have to be made on the spot. And with an outside vendor, you have to coordinate six different trades. Six different trades. It's quite an undertaking."

But when Sano leaves her pristine office on the fourth floor, marches downstairs to the third floor and enters the galleries, the tension melts away. Here it's all about art. And the director -- who earned a PhD in Japanese art history from Columbia University and has led the museum since 1994 -- is in her element. Even though some of the display cases are still empty and dozens of painters, electricians, art handlers and curators are working feverishly to get everything right for the opening, Sano can barely contain her excitement.

Walking through two U-shaped floors of galleries, arranged geographically from India to Japan, she greets her colleagues with a cheerful "hi there" and stops to admire one artwork after another -- especially those that measure up to her idea of "drop dead" quality.

In the Chinese galleries, which celebrate the strongest part of the collection, she points out an "absolutely wonderful" gilt-bronze seated Buddha, made in 338. "It's the earliest dated Chinese Buddha in the world," Sano says.

"And here's something I think is going to be really drop dead, the Jade Treasury," she says, entering a jewel box of a room with Chinese jade carvings displayed in cases around the walls and hung on a vertical transparent panel in the center, so that details on both sides of the objects are visible.

In the Korean section -- which shows off an aspect of the collection that has grown in the past few years but is still relatively thin -- she singles out three ceramic jars in the center of one gallery. "The wonderful thing is, they are slightly misshapen. They have bulges," Sano says, all but caressing a plain, off-white porcelain jar made around 1600. "The Chinese went for total perfection. The Koreans did not. It's very important to us that people learn to distinguish between these cultures. The Chinese are not like the Japanese or the Koreans, and that's reflected in their art -- the way they treat materials and what they regard as beautiful."

Moving on to the Japanese galleries, Sano stands face to face with a large haniwa, or cylindrical clay figure, in the form of a warrior. "I wanted it installed low, so you can really look at it and kind of have a conversation," she says of the 4-foot-tall sculpture, created to guard the tomb of a ruler. "It's kind of like talking to a person of the 7th century."

The core of the collection was a gift of Avery Brundage, who promised 6,830 artworks to the city in 1959 on the condition that the city provide a building to house it. A Chicago industrialist who was president of the International Olympic Committee from 1952 to 1972, Brundage traveled widely in Asia and collected art from a vast territory that extends from the Philippines west to Turkey and from Mongolia south to Indonesia.

The city acted quickly to fulfill Brundage's requirement for a building, passing a $2.7-million bond issue in 1960 to convert the west wing of the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in Golden Gate Park into a showcase for his collection. The Asian Art Museum opened in 1966 and Brundage kept his promise, donating half the works in 1966 and the rest in 1969. He made additional gifts over the years and bequeathed the remainder of his collection to the museum at his death in 1975.

Acquisitions accelerated

The museum has built its art holdings considerably since then, and anticipation of the move -- which provides for the display of twice as many objects as in the past -- accelerated that effort. Just last fall, the museum announced its acquisition of 832 objects from the Lloyd Cotsen Japanese bamboo basket collection and 167 paintings, sculptures and decorative arts objects from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation's Southeast Asian art collection.

But Brundage gifts -- 7,700 in all -- still compose 53% of the collection and most of the "drop dead" pieces. Because of their quality, they dominate many galleries. There's a bronze vessel in the shape of a rhinoceros, circa 1300-1050 BC, from China; a stone Bodhisattva Maitreya, circa 100-300, from the region of ancient Pakistan and Afghanistan known as Gandhara; and a monumental pair of stone statues depicting Hindu deities, circa 1000-1100, from Cambodia.

Sano is particularly proud of another pair of large sculptures, which portray Japanese Buddhist deities. A rare example of 8th century dry lacquerware, the fragile statues were made by soaking several layers of cloth in liquid lacquer and applying them to a carved clay core. The clay was removed when the lacquer had dried, leaving a lightweight, hollow sculpture.

"Brundage was permitted to take them out of the country after the 1964 Olympics, as a thank you for bringing the games to Japan," she says of the figures, now safely ensconced in a high-humidity display case.

All in all, "Brundage collected brilliantly," Sano says. But he didn't amass artworks with the idea of assembling a comprehensive survey of Asian art. He bought so many Chinese bronzes and ceramics that the museum has no need for more, but textiles and paintings rarely captured his interest.

Now that the museum has filled some gaps and attracted gifts from many other donors, it identifies itself as one of the largest museums outside Asia exclusively devoted to Asian art. It's also the largest museum with its focus in the United States, where it most closely resembles the Smithsonian Institution's predominantly Asian Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. They have a combined holding of 28,000 Asian objects, twice as many as the San Francisco museum, but their collections are not exclusively Asian.

Some of America's encyclopedic art museums also have built significant Asian holdings. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts has about 100,000 Asian pieces, the largest collection in the country. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has nearly 40,000 Asian artworks. The Cleveland Museum's Asian collection is highly revered but much smaller, about 4,000 objects.

Despite the competition, Sano expects the new edition of the San Francisco institution to distinguish itself with high-quality artworks, coherent installations, educational aids and intriguing byways. "The whole vision of the museum is to make it user-friendly," she says. "We wanted to make our labeling and didactic information all part of the piece. And keep the jargon out. We had to agree upon an approach that would be understandable and interesting to a public that fundamentally does not know anything about Asian art. We don't want people to get turned off by labels that say this piece was made by the second descendant of this master of this particular school."

Visitors who just want to see the highlights can take a 45-minute tour, she says. Those who prefer to follow a theme have their choice of three guidebooks, on the development of Buddhism, trade and cultural exchange or local beliefs and practices. Free-spirited wanderers might unravel the mysteries of Chinese bronzes, with a little help from wall text and examples of traditional motifs. Or they might discover unusual features tucked away in side galleries or wall cases: a wall of Korean wrapping cloths that rival abstract paintings, a gallery of Sikh art said to be the first in the United States and an array of objects decorated with rebuses -- puzzles in which the combined names of images, signs and letters suggest words or phrases.

As the museum readied for its public close-up, Sano said it's the art that has kept her going. "I got interested in Japanese art history when I was a college student, having nearly flunked German and organic chemistry," she says. "I was headed in the direction of science because my father thought that was the right thing to do. But then I started studying Japanese art, made friends with artists and did a junior year abroad in Tokyo."

At the museum she hopes Americans will gain "a better understanding of Asia and learn to appreciate the extraordinary achievements of the Asian people, both intellectually, aesthetically."

The material culture on view "just cries to be explained," she says, "and I think that if people did explain it, we would all be a lot better off. I like the art so much that I want people to have the opportunity to encounter it and feel the awe of it. I really believe that art can change your life. It changed mine. It can happen."


When: Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursdays until 9 p.m.

Where: 200 Larkin St., San Francisco

Price: $10, adults; $7, seniors; $6, college students and children 13-17; under 12 free

Contact: (415) 581-3500

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