New San Francisco museum presents complex picture of Asian art

Posted: Thursday, March 27, 2003

SAN FRANCISCO -- If Asian art brings to mind an indistinguishable jumble of bronze Buddhas, lacquered boxes, jade miniatures and painted silk, San Francisco's new Asian Art Museum wants to expand your Eastern horizons.

Relocated from Golden Gate Park after a decade of planning, the Asian calls itself the largest U.S. museum devoted exclusively to art from the East.

Boston's Museum of Fine Arts may own more objects overall, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has finer Chinese paintings. But in its new home, the San Francisco museum's strength will be presenting 6,000 years worth Asian art in all its diversity, from Indonesian puppets and Indian sculptures to Iranian ceramics and Korean textiles.

''There is a misunderstanding generally that Asia is not as complex as it is, that there aren't so many different cultures, different languages, different foods and different styles of art,'' director Emily Sano said. ''So we worked very hard to figure out how to differentiate these collections.''

That meant writing exhibit signs and labels with education in mind. It also meant organizing the space not only in terms of geography -- ''The Sikh Kingdoms'' and ''Southeast Asia after 1800'' have their own galleries, for example -- but also according to three unifying themes: the spread of Buddhism, trade and cultural exchange, and local beliefs and practices.

The building was designed by Italian architect Gae Aulenti, whose previous work includes turning a Paris train station into the Musee d'Orsay. Converting San Francisco's Beaux Arts-style Main Library into a home for the Asian Art Museum was an even bigger challenge.

''The library is a place where the people go and stay. It's a static building,'' Aulenti said. ''In a museum, we need to have a dynamic building where the people go around.''

With the former library in the historic Civic Center district, Aulenti couldn't touch the stone exterior and had to preserve the original grand staircase and lofty, molded ceilings. Within those constraints, she sought to invite light into the building and to create a floor plan that moved visitors naturally from exhibit to exhibit.

Aulenti's solution for letting in sunshine was a series of deep, V-shaped skylights. To bring the main reading room down to a more intimate scale, she added an extra floor and inserted a series of interior walls, painted the same pale blue-green shades as the Korean and Chinese celadon porcelains on display.

The $160 million restoration -- a good chunk went to earthquake safety repairs -- more than doubles the museum's exhibit space from its old dwelling as a wing of the DeYoung Museum. With more than 40,000 square feet, the Asian can display nearly 2,500 items from its 15,000-piece permanent collection along with traveling exhibits. There's plenty of room for standout items like a royal throne that an Indian maharaja once rode atop an elephant, and a gilt bronze Chinese Buddha made in the year 338.

The museum's collection has doubled since 1966, when Chicago industrialist Avery Brundage donated his vast Asian art holdings to the city. At its new downtown location, the Asian hopes to draw 400,000 visitors a year -- more than double what attendance was in the park.

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