Monthly Archive for: ‘April, 2016’

The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco Celebrates Its Golden Anniversary

The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco Celebrates Its Golden Anniversary

by Jenny Lenore Rosenbaum

The Asian Art Museum (AAM) of San Francisco is honoring its Golden Anniversary this year — cause for both national and international celebration. It is the largest museum in the U.S. devoted exclusively to Asian art, holding one of the most comprehensive collections of Asian art in the world. Its collection spans 6000 years, offering a vast panorama of the arts of Asia, in the process unfolding the cultural evolution of a huge swath of the globe.  Over 18,000 works of art, both monumental and tiny — from sculpture and paintings to textiles, ceramics, screens and furniture — greet visitors from every corner of the world.

The museum’s gift to its visitors has been an outpouring, spanning half a century, of exhibitions illuminating the arts and culture of India, China, Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia and the Himalayan region. Its exhibitions spark profound connections among diverse peoples, creating vital bridges of cross-cultural understanding while revealing the potency of art to uncover what is at the core of each nation’s aesthetic, spiritual and historical underpinnings.

In a world ravaged by war and violence, besieged by seemingly intractable geo-political issues, it can feel blessedly miraculous to enter this august domain where the riches of so many culturally and religiously diverse nations peacefully co-inhabit beneath one elegant roof.  The AAM’s legacy, over these past five decades, has been to offer thrilling aesthetic immersive experiences — ones that enlarge each viewer’s sense of Asian art’s endless capacities to ennoble, inspire and enrich on all levels: emotionally, aesthetically, intellectually and spiritually.

A striking synchronicity — and one resonating with deep meanings given the flood of exiles, refugees and asylum seekers in today’s world — is that this Golden Anniversary coincides with the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Immigration Act.  This historic Act abolished the restrictive quota system, in place since 1921, based on national origins, substituting a system based on immigrants’ skills. In the process, it offers a vision of how refugees can immeasurably enrich their adopted homelands rather than being a burden or inciting fear, bringing with them an outpouring of talents, skills, and passion to carve out new productive lives.

Jay Xu, the AAM’s Director, cuts to the chase in describing his institution’s critical role, in ways that bear profound implications for this synchronicity:  “The museum,” he comments, “has always viewed itself as a bridge connecting East and West.”  It has always been, for him, his staff and directors of earlier decades, not just a building housing great art.  In its more expansive, albeit unspoken function, it serves as a magnet where immigrants from far flung corners of the world come for aesthetic exhilaration, cultural illumination, and a chance to explore that which  transcends boundaries:  the cultural universals and affinities uniting us all — pulsating  beneath the unique traditions of each nation and engendering bonds of unquantifiable value.

For San Francisco itself — gateway to the Pacific, home to an Asian population now constituting about 33% of the total, and magnet for Asian immigrants since the Gold Rush era — the AAM has come to represent a mecca in special ways. Embedded into the City’s DNA is cultural diversity. Its sprawling Chinatown, intimate Japantown and gritty Little Saigon add spice to a metropolis already teeming with cosmopolitan fervor and global tourism.

Perhaps then it’s no wonder then that, all these years, the AAM’s directors, curators, and visionary educational outreach directors have been inspired to sponsor performances, host lectures, and orchestrate cultural festivals that accompany its landmark exhibitions — initiatives on a level rarely matched by other major American museums. Over the decades, dancers, filmmakers, theatrical visionaries, avant-garde multi-media performers, tea ceremony masters, modern and traditional musicians and scholars have filled the AAM’s atrium, galleries, education labs and majestic Samsung Hall to overflowing.

These events and festivals have spawned not only thrills and cultural insight, but have been catalytic to individual creativity — in unfathomable ways. In honoring both ancient and contemporary art, the AAM’s cornucopia of programs have elucidated the profound, at times mysterious linkages of past and present and the heightened creativity that emerges from intricate webs of cultural cross-fertilization.  This, in turn, drives the art that will adorn museums of the future.

AAM’s gala year will be punctuated by a profusion of shows: Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts (Feb. 26-May 8) showcasing the voices of an Iranian painter, a patron of Ottoman Turkey and a writer of Mughal India;  Hidden Gold: Mining its Meaning in Asian Art (March 4-May 8), exploring the lure and symbolic legacy of the king of metals;  Luminous: Mother-of-Pearl Lacquer from Korea (April 29-Oct. 23), highlighting the charisma of this compelling conjunction of shells and aesthetic bravura. Emperor’s Treasures: Chinese Art from the National Palace Museum, Taipei (June 17-Sept. 18) forms the centerpiece show of the anniversary.

The Rama Epic: Hero, Heroine, Ally, Foe (Oct. 21-Jan.15, 2017) examines the universal meanings of a tale that has long inspired the performing arts, literature and religious thought across India and Southeast Asia; Bodhisattvas: Awakened Beings (through Aug.7) celebrates enlightened beings who liberate others from the Buddhist cycle of rebirth.

Visitors to this sacred sanctuary might well be struck by the fact that such a cornucopia of treasures forges even more than diamond sharp awarenesses, intellectual in nature, and heart-body palpitations, aesthetic in thrust. The diminutive “objets d’art” housed within and towering masterpieces also bear another kind of potency. Each, in its unique way, mysteriously imprints in visitors a lustrous sense of what really matters in a world torn apart by endless strife and bewildering cross-cultural mistrust. And it accomplishes this in the quietest of ways, using elusive and timeless strategies that perhaps transcend the capabilities of diplomats and politicians.

[For present and upcoming exhibits at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, during its Golden Anniversary year, as well as background on its collection and events, visit:]

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