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.
And the artworks are great. The seventeenth-century maps of Mateo Ricci and Ferdinand Verbiest are among the most important in the history of cartography. They document the beginnings of a global world, as during this period regular commerce connected the Americas with both Asia and Europe/Africa. (More on this show soon.)
Jeff Durham, who has established himself as a curatorial star through his combination of clarity and enthusiasm (at the preview he claimed at least five objects as his absolute favorite), did more with the gold show than I would have thought possible. The conceptual qualities of jade are often remarked on in the East Asian tradition, but the symbolic meanings of gold are less discussed, and Durham assembled a well-balanced selection of gorgeous objects from the museum’s collections to underscore his points.
Pearls on a String originated at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. The objects in this show are a connoisseur’s dream, and they are presented to best advantage by exhibition designer Marco Centin. The selection is reduced from the version seen at the Walters but still provides snapshots of the three great Islamic empires, the Mughals, the Safavids, and the Ottomans, while looking at the social contexts of the art through emphasis on writer, artist, and painter.
So these are first impressions—and indeed I was impressed. I’ll begin my reviews with a look at the maps show. Stay tuned.
DISCLOSURE: I was once an employee of the museum, and have done a little bit of free-lance work for them. But I had nothing to do with any of these exhibitions.