The storied home of the Seattle Asian Art Museum in Capitol Hill’s Volunteer Park has reopened after a renovation and expansion that began in 2017.
The museum’s art deco building — designed by Carl F. Gould and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989 — had not seen any substantive updates since its opening in 1933, when it was the original site of the Seattle Art Museum.
Paid for by a mix of public and private funds to the tune of $56 million and designed by Seattle-based LMN Architects, the ambitious improvements extend to every corner of the museum and include the addition of interior space, a climate-control system to keep artworks safe and seismic system upgrades.
Museum visitors may notice changes to the building and adjacent park lands, including to the building’s glass, sandstone façade and intricate metalwork, all of which have been deep-cleaned or restored. Improved pedestrian pathways and better connections to mass transit along 15th Avenue make the museum more accessible to more people, and two new paths east of the park’s water tower were built out to the specifications of the original, 1910 Olmsted Brothers’ landscape architectural plan.
Inside, museum-goers will be drawn to a new glass-enclosed lobby overlooking the park’s 48-acre greenspace. Meant to improve circulation through the museum’s galleries and provide a link between two inspiring environments, the park lobby fills the museum’s adjoining garden court with natural light via two new doorways. New interior spaces include a 2,650-square-foot gallery, an educational studio for K-12 students, a meeting room and a future conservation center — a first-of-its-kind space dedicated to conserving, mounting and studying Asian paintings slated to open in 2021.
Beyond the necessary and thoughtful updates to the building and its perimeter landscapes, the 24-month-long closure provided a rare opportunity for curators to consider how to best organize the museum’s collection for its debut installation, “Boundless: Stories of Asian Art.” A year before the museum shuttered for its overhaul, curators Ping Foong and Xiaojin Wu began working through questions of how to most effectively display the museum’s 8,500 pieces representing the 1st to 21st centuries.
“With the renovated building came an opportunity to start completely from scratch,” Foong said. “People kept asking, ‘Did you just go on holiday when the museum closed?’ It’s quite the opposite.”
Foong is the Foster Foundation curator of Asian art, and Wu is the curator of Japanese and Korean art. Darielle Mason — consulting curator of South Asian art for the Philadelphia Museum of Art — a committee of scholars and input from the public, informed Foong and Wu as they set out to define Asia for themselves and consider the continent’s makeup today versus in the past. Foong said the team discussed how to convey pluralism in Asia without stereotyping and how to avoid overlooking real cultural differences while utilizing the museum’s collection, which is most robust in its Chinese and Japanese artworks.
“The first step was to select what we felt were the very best, most interesting works of the collection,” Foong said. “We looked for what concepts arose most naturally from pieces in juxtaposition.”
To arrive at those overarching concepts, the curatorial team printed and affixed physical copies of each piece to the walls of their planning space, the large gallery on the museum’s south side, after works were deinstalled and before construction began. “We spent an entire summer with our color printer and many, many rolls of painters tape,” Foong said.
Over time, 13 unifying themes emerged from the clustered groupings of art and artifacts, each resonant across the planet’s largest continent. The team ultimately decided to emphasize these themes over geography or linear time to illuminate stories about worship and celebration, visual arts and literature, nature, identity, clothing and more.
“We made amazing discoveries, things we wouldn’t have thought to look more closely at. With the themes, different things came into focus,” Foong said. “We felt like it was important to give light to some areas of the Asian world that had never been shown in proper context.”
Wu added, “High school educators told us that they take a more thematic approach in the classroom, too. With so much ideas, information and images out there, how do you get a student to engage? You want to give them the big ideas first.”
The museum’s modified layout, including the addition of 3,290 square feet to the building’s footprint and 13,900 square feet of vital interior space, comprises 12 galleries. For the inaugural “Boundless” installation, the two wings on either side of the garden court are divided, with the south galleries holding art related to spiritual life and the north galleries showcasing material life.
The largest south-side gallery is dedicated to the broadest possible introduction to various aspects of the faith journey. Rather than organizing works by various faiths like Buddhism, Hinduism or Shinto, the sub-themes are related to what one needs along their faith journey, like figures who guide and protect, ritual tools and more. Visitors will see works depicting Kama, the Indian god of love, and representations of heavens and hells, with the most impactful sculptures along the spine of the gallery. The four smaller south-wing galleries look at more focused topics under the spiritual umbrella, including sacred spaces, divine bodies, blessings and festivals, sacred texts and tales.
The galleries on the museum’s north side examine the material world. One gallery looks at clothing across cultures and social strata, asking museum-goers to ponder whether we are what we wear. “We take for granted our clothing or appearance, but when you think of it, it says so much who we are, our identity and our cultural heritage,” Wu said. Gallery space in the north wing also exhibits clay pieces organized by glaze color — a key element of Asian ceramics, artifacts and accessories that would have accompanied people into the afterlife — poetry, calligraphy and painting — three primary arts of the mind in east Asia and the Islamic world.
The museum will inaugurate its special exhibition galleries with “Be/longing: Contemporary Asian Art,” which features the work of 12 artists from across seven Asian countries, including Azerbaijan, Iran, India, Thailand, China, Korea and Japan. Each artist has worked or is working outside of Asia, so the exhibition showcases their experiences as insiders and outsiders, as well as their simultaneously Asian and global perspectives.
“Be/longing” includes a group of clay figures by renowned Seattle artist and professor Akio Takamori that illustrate people from his memories as a young person in Japan. “He encountered all sorts of people, so he created those figures from his cultural memory,” Wu said. A two-channel projection by Iranian visual artist Shirin Neshat looks at women’s place in Iran, and Japanese photographer Miwa Yanagi depicts responses from Japanese women in their twenties when they were asked, “What would you like to be 50 years from now?”
The exhibition provides a dynamic view of contemporary Asia through the artists’ works, Wu said, and they address two fundamental questions: “Who are we?” and “Where do we belong?”
Although all 10,000 tickets to the reopening weekend celebration, Feb. 8-9, 2020, were claimed, the reimagined museum fully reopens to visitors Feb. 12 — including four new free days offered every month.
Read the full Feb. 12-18 issue.
© 2020 Real Change. All rights reserved. Real Change is a non-profit organization advocating for economic, social and racial justice since 1994. Learn more about Real Change and donate now to support independent, award-winning journalism.