(Above): During the second exhibition of the Young family’s robes and jades in 1981, Mary Young (center) poses next to these treasures with Jon Kowalek (left of center), former Tacoma Art Museum director, and Pearlie Baskin (right of center). Photo courtesy of the Young family.
The Tacoma Art Museum (TAM) has come under recent scrutiny for deaccessioning— a standard disposal practice of museums — a significant collection of Chinese jades and textiles donated by the late Colonel John C. Young and Mary Lee Young from San Francisco. Two of the descendants of the Young family, Connie Young Yu of California; and Al Young of Shoreline, Wash., are engaged in a bitter dispute with TAM’s leadership, concerning the events that have led to the recent disposal of their parents’ legacy.
“Our vision is to be a national model for regional museums,” TAM director Stephanie Stebich stated. “We did the collection assessment in a thoughtful way. We have been perfectly transparent – ever since we had board approval last spring, we’ve done everything with due deliberation and without haste. We wanted to do the right thing and be gracious and transparent. We took our time and met with the family. Frankly, they’ve praised us for spending time with them and wished the auction would go well.”
In the spring of 2012, Stebich met with Connie and Al Young to brief the family on the museum’s intention to dispose of their parents’ collections, following assessment by third-party experts. Judy Sourakli, Henry Art Gallery curator of collections, was amongst those invited to review the collections in 2012. When asked to comment upon her involvement with TAM, the Henry provided this statement on behalf of Sourakli:
“In keeping with professional practice guidelines for art museums, Henry staff members do not provide statements as to the monetary value, authenticity or attribution of a work of art. The Henry does not comment upon items in other museums’ collections.” “We asked Judy to offer her expertise. Her role was to help us understand how to make meaning out of these collections,” Stebich clarified. “She advised us on their history and meaning and it was quite clear that these were fragmentary and incomplete collections.”
In her meeting with the Youngs, Stebich claimed that she informed them that their parents’ collections, along with works from the Haley and Priem collections, would only bring in “70,000 to $100,000,” according to an estimate from Bonhams, a worldwide auctioneering firm. Al Young contended that the figures he was given were lower, in the range of “$30,000 to $70,000.”
Both Al and Connie Young have strong ties to museum and nonprofit boards; Al is a trustee of the Museum of History and Industry, while Connie serves on the board of the Hakone Foundation, a nonprofit established to steward and protect the oldest Asian estate and gardens in the Western Hemisphere. With a deep knowledge of stewardship, the Youngs discussed options with Stebich that included transfer of their parents’ collections to alternative repositories, including the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience or Stanford University.
Cassie Chinn, the Wing Luke’s deputy executive director, recalls having a brief conversation with Stebich: “We get a number of calls from people who have material or items in their collections related to Asia, asking if we are interested.”
But Chinn never received any written follow-up information, or an inventory, regarding the nature of the collection and its exhibition history or significance to its collectors.
“We wish we had more details,” Chinn said. “Museums generally have a high responsibility to ensure public trust to steward donations given to them and any deaccessioning process needs to go through a thorough, rigorous process; the Wing Luke would have had to go through our own process to consider the story, its fit with our collection, as well as recommend other institutions that might be a better fit.”
Stebich said she decided against contacting the Wing Luke concerning a transfer.
“When considering area museums, we know the Seattle Asian Art Museum and the Burke have strong holdings in these areas. It didn’t make sense to give to them, because they already have similar collections. The Wing is another institution in the area that could easily borrow from sister institutions.”
Dr. Xiaoneng Yang, Patrick J.J. Maveety Curator of Asian Art at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center, told Connie Young Yu that he has never heard from TAM.
“We did try to reach the curator at Stanford,” commented Stebich.
Lisa Terry, TAM’s public relations and communications manager, confirmed that it was curator Margaret Bullock who had contacted Dr. Yang in January 2012, but never received a response.
At Stanford, the community continues to study and exhibit their collections, with Qing Dynasty garments from the Young family’s donation featured in a show that recently opened on Jan. 30, entitled “Border Crossings: From Imperial to Popular Life.”
In April 2012, TAM’s board approved a plan to sell the Young family’s collections to generate funds for the purchase of works by Northwest artists of Chinese descent.
“I applaud TAM’s decision to direct some of the proceeds towards the purchase of works by Chinese American artists from the Pacific Northwest, which acknowledges the legacy while strengthening representation within the collection,” commented Barbara Johns, former chief curator at TAM, in response to this decision.
One of the artists being considered for acquisition is Zhi Lin, a China-born artist who attended the Slade School of Fine Art at the University of London.
“We thought it might be a lovely thing to purchase works that tell the story of the Chinese in the Northwest, given the interests of the donors,” said Stebich. “One artist we are considering, among others, is Seattle-based Zhi Lin, who has done an interesting series on the golden spike and Chinese railroad workers. He works in video, photography and works on paper.”
The Young family donated their Chinese antiquities to Stanford University and TAM in the mid-1970s, splitting their collections of historical textiles and jade objects over the two institutions. John and Mary Young assembled their collection over a period of nearly 50 years.
“My mother collected Chinese art when it was not valued in the Western world as it is now,” said Al Young, noting that many of the items were obtained at small antique shops throughout the U.S.
“After my father retired, (my parents) traveled the world seeking out Chinese antiquities,” he said. “Many of China’s treasures had been plundered by Westerners during past centuries, so (my mother) found many pieces of embroidery and jade in places like Florence, Italy, and other European cities. She wanted others in the U.S.A. to understand how rich and beautiful Chinese art was, and took every opportunity to exhibit her collections. They perceived that museums were the best stewards for their collections.”
Under the leadership of former TAM Director Jon Kowalek, who served the museum from 1969 to 1986, TAM coordinated special exhibitions borrowing collections from both Stanford and the Denver Art Museum to highlight and showcase TAM’s holdings. Objects from the Young collections were celebrated in the special exhibition, “Imperial Robes from China and Chinese Jade,” which was mounted in 1979. Two cases of jade later went on permanent display at TAM, and items from the Young collections were exhibited again in 1996.
But with the shift in institutional priorities and a formal revisioning of TAM’s collections scope, the Young collections no longer fit into the museum’s long-term strategic plans. Shortly after the board approved deaccession plans, TAM posted a statement to its website, characterizing the items to be deaccessioned as “not as museum quality” and “mostly tourists’ keepsakes and mementos.”
Stebich claimed that these comments pertained to other items included in the deaccession.
“We deaccessioned 220 objects from the collections,” she said. “Some of those are Japanese objects, and that statement refers specifically to those items.”
In response to TAM’s statement, Al Young said: “We feel that the recent handling of our family’s remaining collecting has been incompetent and/or deceptive, and that it is insulting to our family and to the Chinese American community.”
Invoking a recent time in history when Chinese Americans were expelled from Tacoma during the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Al Young sees a clear connection between the disposal of his parents’ legacy and the expulsion and erasure of the Chinese presence from the community.
“These priceless Chinese artworks are gone from the Northwest forever,” he commented in reflecting upon the Qing Dynasty robes sold off to private buyers. “The city of Tacoma will never see the likes of this kind of collection.”
Objects sold at Bonhams’ December auction netted the museum more than a quarter of a million dollars ($229,467) from sales. Items included a pair of reticulated jade pendants from the 19th century that sold at $43,750, or 20 times their pre-sale estimate; an apple-green jade two-section belt buckle at $40,000, or five times its presale estimate; a late Qing dynasty Manchu noblewoman’s robe at $16,250; and a yellow woven silk noblewoman’s long vest at $27,500.
Mary Young’s favorite textile, an embroidered Manchu noblewoman’s red silk robe from the late Qing Dynasty era, was sold at $15,000 to a buyer from China who outbid Connie Young Yu, Mary Young’s daughter.
“This is a travesty, to denigrate the collection, not offer it to another museum, and then go and profit from it in a big way,” said Connie Young in response to the deaccession.
Approximately 80 pieces from the Youngs’ original donation to TAM will be sold at Bonhams’ March 12 auction in San Francisco. Al and Connie Young have appealed to TAM’s board of directors to consider reversing their position on the sale. The Youngs are still waiting back from the board president for a response to their appeal.