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West Coast Museum Makes Asian Art Accessible

  • Zhang Songlin

2006 marks the 40th anniversary of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. With more than 16,000 objects in its collection, and 2,500 on permanent display, the museum's goal is to make Asian art more accessible to the Western world. For Producer Zhang Songlin, Elaine Lu has the story.

The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, in the western state of California, houses one of the most comprehensive Asian art collections in the U.S. Museum Director Emily Sano says more than half of the collection came from one Chicago millionaire's donation.

"The museum began in the early ‘60s because a gentleman named Avery Brundage gave a gift of nearly 8,000 pieces of art to the city and county of San Francisco. His requirement was that it be given a museum where it can be displayed."

Sano says the museum was initially housed in a wing of the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. It was first opened to the public in June 1966.

Three years ago, the museum found a new home in the former San Francisco Main Library. More than 16,000 objects in the Museum's collection take visitors through 6,000 years of history and divergent cultures of seven major Asian regions.

Buddhism, one of the rare common cultural threads across Asian countries, is given a prominent place in the museum, with its Buddha art collection one of world's finest.

The museum's galleries start with the birthplace of Buddhism: South Asia. An impressive collection of Indian stone sculpture, especially Buddhist works, and other art pieces reflect the rich culture and history of deities in India.

The Japanese gallery is filled with treasures dating back centuries: a painted paper screen more than 10-meters long; a traditional string musical instrument; armors of Japanese samurai warriors, and the list goes on.

Nearly half of the museum's collection consists of articles of Chinese origin, occupying the entire first floor of the museum.

The Elegant Gathering: The Yeh family Collection was publicly displayed between June and September 2006. The exhibition featured 80 calligraphies and paintings dating back as far as the 7th century from the collections of the Yeh family, a family of renowned Chinese artists and scholars. Emily Sano says the collection immediately raised the bar for the museum's already highly regarded Chinese collection.

Yeh Tung, one of the heirs of these collections, remembers the man who started the collection -- her great grandfather. "He (laid) the ground work for this collection, which is not only a collection of aesthetic objects, but a history of calligraphy, every style of calligraphy from way back, when it was carved, when Chinese (character) were carved, and cast in bronze. "

The museum boasts the best collection of ritual bronzes outside of China. Nearly 300 pieces from different dynasties and locations in China are displayed; some go as far back as 3,000 years.

Emily Sano credits Avery Brundage for this fascinating collection in the China Gallery. "He bought brilliantly, and he bought Imperial materials. So, we have in our collection, some of best Chinese material in the United States; collections of Buddhist sculpture and paintings and textiles; and also lots of decorative arts."

As an Asian American and art connoisseur, Sano is a strong advocate for bridging the gap between the west and the east through art.

"The American public on the whole is more western oriented and therefore do not have too much familiarity with Asian materials, and they tend to be a little bit afraid of it,” she said. “They don't know the histories, they don't know the names, and this is all confusing. And they are afraid they won't enjoy it if they come to a museum. We want to make Asia as easy possible to understand, we want to make Asia accessible, and we want to help people realize what kind of civilizations existed in Asia and the brilliance that those civilizations and those people reached.

Sano says it is very important to educate the world about the traditions and cultures of Asia as the region plays an increasingly prominent role in international affairs.