Zoe Donnell, I.M. Pei-designed Miho Museum in Shiga prefecture, Japan.

The opportunity to travel abroad and connect with exceptional colleagues in one’s profession is a dream for most, but two local museum curators experienced this honor first-hand. Zoe Donnell, Curatorial Coordinator for Tacoma Art Museum, and Catherine Roche, Seattle Art Museum’s Interim Assistant Curator for Japanese and Korean Art, both earned a place as participants in the 2011 Exhibitions Abroad Support Program, sponsored by the Japan Foundation.

The Japan Foundation specializes in academic and cultural exchanges with Japan. Based in Tokyo, their mission is to promote better international understanding and cooperation through harmonious foreign relationships with Japan. The prestigious Exhibitions Abroad grant introduces museum professionals to their global counterparts.

For both curators, participation in the program was a natural evolution of their distinguished careers.

Their itinerary began in Tokyo and went to Kanazawa, Kyoto, Osaka, and Naoshima Island. The trip coincided with the mammoth earthquake, tsunami, and resulting nuclear crisis which struck Northern Japan in March. Although it cut their travels short, the catastrophe deepened their appreciation of Japanese perseverance and its thriving contemporary art scene.

Participation in the program was a natural evolution of both curators’ careers. After earning her Masters of Art History from the Art Institute of Chicago with a specialty in Japanese wood block prints, Donnell joined TAM’s staff as a curatorial coordinator. Her first show of prints in 2007 dovetailed with a William B. Post exhibit illustrating how the Japonisme popular at the time influenced his landscape photography. Her second show, in late 2010, was part of TAM’s 75th anniversary commemoration. titled “Edo to Tacoma: Japanese Woodblock Prints From the Collection,” the exhibition featured works by Hishikawa Moronobu, among other ukiyo-e and 20th century greats. One of the visitors to the show was from Seattle’s Japanese Consulate office, and this connection lead to her applying for the Foundation grant.

Roche has been at SAM since 2008, filling the role of interim curator after SAM’s former curator for Japanese and Korean Art, Dr. Yukiko Shirahara, returned to Japan. Her current exhibit, “Luminous: The Art of Asia,” runs through January 8th. She grew up in Seattle, studied Japanese language in high school, and earned degrees from the University of Virginia, Harvard and the UW, where she is presently pursuing a doctorate in Japanese Art History. While her first love is Japanese literature, she eventually focused on Japanese art because of its “fascinating mixture of images and stories which create a visual narrative.” Her 2010 show “Fleeting Beauty: Japanese Wood Block Prints” at Seattle’s Asian Art Museum was attended by the Japanese Consul General, who encouraged Roche to apply for the program.

The exchange resulted in close relationships among the curators of the US museums and their Japanese peers. Other facilities represented included the L.A. County Museum of Art; Denver Art Museum; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; San Francisco Asian Art Museum; Cleveland Museum of Art; New Orleans Museum of Art; The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture.

Donnell had traveled through Japan previously, and this trip deepened her appreciation of Japan’s historical art tradition. Many of the visiting curators had contemporary art specialties and she was inspired by the depth of conversation and intellectual exchange within the group and with their Japanese cohorts. Being with like-minded colleagues all absorbing the unique characteristics of Japanese art caused her “receptors to be on high alert the whole time.”

Roche likewise felt the networking opportunity with such a rare group of peers was a highlight. She relished witnessing and discussing reactions to exhibits, particularly of first-time visitors to the country. The presentations shown were highly diverse in content, often juxtaposing historical Buddhist imagery with cutting edge, contemporary urban expressions with various media in highly imaginative installations.

The group toured a range of museum models – private, municipal, mission-driven, collection-based, and site specific.

Donnell delighted in encountering like-minded professionals sharing the same concerns for art’s presentation and preservation – appropriate light levels, collection insurance, and the visitor experience. The realization that her Japanese counterparts regarded art with equivalent esteem made the trip even more meaningful. She felt she was part of something bigger than herself, in terms of the much larger breadth of cultural exchange.

Roche was impressed by the talent of Japan’s contemporary art scene, which leans towards “apocalyptically hopeful” imagery. Tokyo is the vibrant center of current Asian art – a place of the future – which will foster the next generation of notable personalities. Gone is the “Kawaii” culture, replaced by the dark underbelly of urban living with roots in traditional themes. Japanese artists are no longer identified as ‘Japanese’ but instead are part of the global art scene. By conversing with artists from around the world, they have come to represent the international language of contemporary art.

The group was in Kyoto on the fifth day of the exchange when the Tohoku earthquake struck. Through the news media they witnessed rolling blackouts throughout the region, particularly in Tokyo. Trains were running on irregular schedules and urban areas seemed abandoned with residents choosing to stay home. The group’s visit was shortened by a day and a half, leaving no time for formal goodbyes. Donnell credits the Foundation’s staff for its rapid response and care in overseeing the participants’ prompt return home. She appreciated their management during the chaos, particularly when many of their hosts had family in the distressed region.

Roche reflected upon how the tragedy affected the Japanese people as part of a string of late-20th Century disasters beginning with the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The late-80s Asian economic recession, the Kobe earthquake in 1995, followed by the Sarin gas subway attacks, all marked defining moments for the culture and contributed to a feeling of vulnerability from geologic and man-made perspectives. What struck Roche most was the dramatic, emotional expression of the Japanese people during this time, acutely relevant to a culture known for its stoicism. Their grief resonated with stunned, visibly demonstrative behavior – similar to the U.S. reaction after the 9/11 attacks.

Donnell and Roche hope to develop further the relationships initiated during the exchange and seek to host cross-cultural exhibitions between their institutions and participating Japanese museums.


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