Photo credit: Xiaojin Wu

When the Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAAM) in Volunteer Park re-opens in 2019 after a major $50M renovation, our city will regain a beloved treasure. SAAM is one of a handful of US museums dedicated to Asian Art. Its vast collection was built by Seattle Art Museum’s (SAM’s) founder, Dr. Richard Fuller, and the many art curators from 1933 to the present time. Seattle has an amazing and deep art collection, with many objects relished from one generation to the next.

We will surely be excited about the rebirth of the Art Deco building. It will be brought up to modern museum standards, to make the visitor experience special, and to protect the art objects for generations to come.

What I anticipate even more is the way the art collection will be presented. When I spoke with the two curators in charge of SAAM, Dr. Xiaojin Wu, Curator of Japanese and Korean Art, and Dr. Ping Foong, Foster Foundation Curator of Chinese Art, I discovered that they are creating a new way we’ll experience Asian art at SAAM. They pointed out how amazing it is to be gifted this very rare opportunity to start from a blank slate, to re-install an entire stand alone museum with art.

How to describe their new approach? In one word: BOLD. In two words: BOLD and EXCITING.

Go to most art museums housing an art collection; you’ll find objects arranged by country, geography, culture, and time period. That’s how SAM or SAAM mostly presented its Asian art collection since 1933. When SAAM re-opens in 2019, Wu and Foong will be presenting the art collection through themes. About a dozen themes. One theme per gallery. Within a gallery, there will be objects from many different cultures and time periods. In the museum world, this approach is radical, and one is hard pressed to find another museum taking this approach.

This bold approach to re-install the art collection is moving forward because of several reasons. Wu and Foong are true collaborators. Talking with them, I can sense their joy of working together. They are creative, and want to create an exciting visitor experience. SAM has confidence in the two curators, and their bold idea, and after convening a round table of scholars, educators, and artists, they gain further confidence that they can make their idea work.

I was fascinated by how they arrived at the themes. They started by selecting about 150 objects each in their respective areas of expertise. And while the SAAM galleries were empty for 3 months awaiting construction work, the two curators printed out photos of their hundreds of selections, pasted them on the wall, grouped objects together, moved photos from one group to another, and pondered what the themes could be. From this point on it seems like a little bit of magic. Their process reminds me of a chess player looking at the board, and coming up with the next move. Through their imagination and knowledge, they found key ideas that link groups of objects. These key ideas have gradually solidified into the dozen themes.

Grouping objects based on themes has the advantage of showing how an individual country is not an island; the countries are connections through trade, traditions, and travel. Presenting an art collection based on themes can also bring about unexpected challenges. Wu and Foong pointed out that SAAM’s collection is very strong in Buddhist objects, with objects from many areas including China, Japan, Korean, South Asia, and Tibet, spanning two thousand years. Displaying them together can lead to a misconception that Buddhism is the dominant religion in Asia. To achieve more balance, they intend to include objects from other religions like Islam, Hinduism, and Jainism. As a result, the dialogue between museum and visitor now revolves around religious diversity.

Some of the themes are in the form of a question such as “What is precious?” Using questions naturally encourages the visitor to ask more questions. Why is one material more precious than another? Who decides what is precious? What does it say about a group of people when they deem something precious? Why does the idea of precious change over time, or culture? What is precious in our lives now? Asking these question sparks our curiosity, learning, and enjoyment of art.

As we can imagine, one art object can fit into many themes, and can tell more than one story in each theme. So how do the curators assign an object to a particular gallery/theme. Wu and Foong related an instance when an object took an unexpected path to a theme. When two photographs landed in the contemporary gallery, it seemed an simple choice, and then through conversation with another scholar, the photos found their place within a theme in a different gallery, and suddenly, the result was much richer: the theme illuminated the photographs, and the photographs illuminated the theme.

I asked them if they will be including “Non-Asian” Art. Their response was “What is Asian Art?” Surprisingly, the question is quite difficult to pin down. Art ideas, materials, and techniques travel all over. So do artists, crafts people. National boundaries change. How does one draw the limits of “Asian Art”? The new SAAM will invite the visitor to consider “What is Asian Art?”

Exhibit design will also play a crucial role in how the visitor interact with the art. Through a tight collaboration between curators and designers, they figure out everything from what color to paint a wall, how to utilize the galleries with or without natural light, what quality of light and how much, to what kind of pedestals and cases, to how high and at what angle objects sit. To help visualize the space and the flow, the designers built a table top, 3D model of the museum, to put miniature objects in. It put a smile on my face to see the mini museum. What a delightful and also sophisticated tool for designing the exhibits.

To summarize, Wu and Foong’s challenge is to create brand new exhibits of Asian Art at SAAM, to engage us visitors who are mostly unfamiliar with Asian Art in a meaningful way, to draw us in to look more, to help us imagine the objects in their original context, to help us understand how they came to be, and what they mean, I think Wu and Foong have met the challenge in re-making the museum to command our attention.

I asked Wu and Foong many questions, and their answers were deep and thoughtful. Much more importantly, their tone was joyful and optimistic. One question opened up many others in my mind. Our chat piqued my curiosity, and could have lasted hours. If you want a taste of the excitement coming to SAAM, be sure to attend “Conversations with Curators” on June 20. Wu and Foong will have much more to share about their process, about the themes, and even some new discoveries about one of the most famous sculptures at SAAM.

I await with great anticipation the re-opening of SAAM. It promises to be a mixture of old and new treasures: the magnificent Art Deco building, the vast Asian Art collections, and the bold re-imaging of the objects’ stories by Drs. Xianjin Wu and Ping Foong, the two new treasures at SAAM.

On June 20, Fong Ping, Curator of Chinese Art together with Xiaojin Wu, Curator of Japanese and Korean Art will talk about “Transforming An Icon: Behind-The-Scenes At The Seattle Asian Art Museum” as part of Seattle art Museum’s “Conversations With Curators” series (this series is open to SAM members only). Happy Hour with refreshments at 6:30pm and the lecture starts at 7pm. Seattle Art Museum’s auditorium. Tickets online at visitsam.org/conversations or call 206-654-3210 or stop by the ticketing desk at SAM. 1200 First Ave. in downtown Seattle.

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