In 1966 the Asian Art Museum opened as a branch of the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. As a condition of the second of two major major gifts of artworks to the city of San Francisco from industrialist and Olympics head Avery Brundage (who can currently be seen portrayed by Jeremy Irons in the movie Race), the museum was separate administratively from the de Young, though that distinction was probably lost on most visitors. Brundage’s collection was extraordinary, and the museum’s holdings remain San Francisco’s most valuable asset—apart from its real estate, and we all know how that has gone.
In 2003 the museum moved to its current home in what was formerly the main branch of the SF public library, repurposed for the new use by Milanese architect Gae Aulenti. Now it is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its original opening to the public, and I attended a press preview for the opening of two special exhibitions, China at the Center: Rare Ricci and Verbiest World Maps and Hidden Gold: Mining Its Meaning in Asian Art. A third special exhibition, Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons, and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts, opened Feb. 26 and will continue until May 8. In the coming days I plan to review all three of these exhibitions.
So how does the museum look on the occasion of its 50th? I’m happy to report that the answer is: spectacular! There are a couple of walls devoted to museum history in the space between Osher and Hambrecht Galleries (which the museum calls the Vinson Nook) and along the corridor behind its gift shop (which it calls the Hamon Arcade). But the display is tastefully done and not excessive. My fear was that the anniversary displays would be excessively self-referential, as was sometimes the case for past museum celebrations. But someone at the museum must have realized that however interesting such material may be for staff, board, and donors (and those interested in city history), it is not as compelling to most visitors as are actual artworks.