In the Jade Room at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, curator of Chinese art Foong Ping challenged me to find the most contemporary object in the room. It was no easy task. A long display case was lined with ceramic bowls, vases, plates, and cups arranged not by year, not by country of origin, but by color. Black to white to green to red.
The light from the bay of east-facing windows subtly illuminated the objects. Without labels, museum visitors are encouraged to find the commonalities in these works by taking in what's in front of them rather than reading text.
I floated near the center of the display case, where the objects were a pleasing green color. "Warmer..." encouraged Xiaojin Wu, curator of Japanese and Korean art. My eyes settled on a lotus-like object. A very pale green, the sculpture could have fit in the palm of my hand. It looked modern, reminding me of the candleholders my mother bought at Marshalls. "That one," I said, pointing at it.
Both Wu and Foong screamed in excitement, "YOU GOT IT!" The lotus object was a water dropper made by Korean artist Kim Ki Chul in 2012.
It is one of 25,000 works of art from around the world in the collection of the Seattle Asian Art Museum, newly reopened in Volunteer Park after almost three years and $56 million in renovations undertaken by Seattle firm LMN Architects. With this architectural face-lift also came some soul searching about how the museum displays its objects.
Wu and Foong have been working together for the past couple of years on "reimagining" the permanent collection. Along with consulting curator of South Asian art Darielle Mason, the trio have grouped the objects and paintings from around Asia neither by country nor time period, but rather by 13 themes. That means the ancient is exhibited with the contemporary, Azerbaijani next to Thai.
This thematic approach is an unusual move. Museums are not, generally speaking, the most experimental institutions. Foong said they wrestled with the idea for some time because they did not want to sweep real differences between countries and cultures under the rug, or assert that all Asian cultures were the same. But a thematic approach opened up conversations between objects that weren't necessarily apparent before.
It was a "long process" figuring out themes broad enough so that other objects in the museum's collection could rotate in. "We want various authorities to be represented, we want authentic sustained engagement," said Foong. Because many Asian artworks are light sensitive, objects have a display life of three to six months before needing to be rotated out to preserve their longevity. It was important to the curators to create themes that hit on important ideas and constructs in Asian visual culture, and that also spoke to the strengths in SAAM's collection.
These themes range from fashion to spirituality to literature. The aforementioned Jade Room in the north galleries has been rechristened Color in Clay (by the way, if you really want label text, there are touch screens where all that information is available). In Sacred Texts and Tales in the south galleries, a ninth-century North African folio from a Qur'an is in the same case as a 12th-century Japanese lotus sutra. Both are on indigo-dyed paper, decorated with gold lettering.
Thanks to the renovation, Foong, Wu, and Mason also had an extra 2,650 square feet of new gallery space to play with. Be/longing: Contemporary Asian Art is the first special exhibition in the space, featuring 12 Asian artists who work, have worked, or live primarily outside of Asia, exploring their "experiences as both insiders and outsiders." The show is made up of works from both Seattle Art Museum's holdings and private collections. The new gallery is large enough to hold the popular sculpture Some/One, consisting of military dog tags that almost look like fish scales arranged in a shape like ancient armor, by Korean artist Do Ho Suh, which first went on display at the downtown museum in 2012.
My favorite part of the galleries right now is the unofficial "bovine corner" in the Picturing Nature gallery, where five objects depicting bulls are all displayed together. The 14th-century Japanese hanging scroll Swift Bull shows with inky majesty the authority of a black bull, with a border of green and gold silk. In the adjacent case, an ornate silver bull made during the Tang Dynasty in China sits staunchly, its head tilted up, as if gazing at the sky. It's straightforward but refreshing. Though the museum's strength clearly still lies in East Asian art and artifacts, this reimagining of their collection is an invigorating change of pace.
In addition to the new gallery space, the multimillion-dollar expansion also includes an education studio, conservation center, and community room. The museum, designed by Carl F. Gould and lauded for its art-deco elements, had not been significantly renovated since its construction in 1933, so there were many practical alterations as well: updating the HVAC system so the art won't decay on the walls, adding a new elevator and loading dock for more ease in moving art through the museum, and making seismic alterations to the structure so that an earthquake won't completely devastate the building.
LMN design partner Wendy Pautz told me that the team's goal for the renovation was to restore, clean, and enhance the features so that someone who had visited the museum before would walk into this iteration of the building and have it feel familiar. They aimed to update the museum's functionality but not distract from the charm of the historic building.
Part of that was ripping up the god-awful carpet that found its way onto the gallery floors in the decades since the museum's opening (for reasons currently unknown, says Pautz). Underneath the carpeting was Masonite, a Depression-era cost-saving material that gave the museum the look of hardwood floors, but at a discounted price. The original flooring was in disrepair, but the renovation team replaced it with new Masonite material in the original 12-by-12-inch pattern. It's a warm and leathery look that says "museum" rather than "regional bank."
One reinterpreted feature that everyone will notice is the overall sense of light and airiness. "Daylight and connection to the park were a really big part of that original building," said Pautz.
The colored glass panels at the front entryway had been replaced over time with glass that had a translucent interlayer, making it difficult to see through. The renovation team reglazed that part of the facade (and the art-deco metalwork surrounding it) to make the glass clearer and closer to the original conception of the building—allowing more light and visibility.
On the opposite side of the building are new floor-to-ceiling windows, letting in light that is filtered as it passes through the newly restored interior fountain in the central Fuller Garden Court. The result is an axis of light—really, a line of sight—that cuts from the outside steps on the west side of the building through to the green canopy on the east. In this sense, the park is a welcome intrusion on the building.
The six symmetrically arranged octagonal galleries that make up the central spaces between the east and west galleries have also gotten improved lighting. The original architecture of the building included skylights over these spaces, but daylight (and UV rays) proved undesirable because it could damage the art. The skylights were eventually covered up with opaque material, leading to a tomb-like vibe in the galleries.
"We wanted to restore the experience of those spaces, as if they are illuminated from the ceiling, but do it in a way that could work with the art," said Pautz. They took down the light-blocking material and added a light box that would obstruct the harmful-to-art natural light. The artificial illumination gives the museum flexibility to control the brightness/dimness and color temperature to fit each particular exhibition. It's subtle. Your lizard brain feels like you're looking at an ancient and incredibly delicate scroll under the light of the sun, but you're actually basking in powerful LEDs.
In addition to reimagining the permanent collection and the structural changes made to the building, the Asian Art Museum also received a $3.5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to establish and endow a center for the study, conservation, and mounting of Asian art. This is a big deal.
In order to understand why, some background: Mounted paintings came into prominence in the seventh century in East Asian countries like Japan, China, and Korea. Artists would paint delicate scenes on thin sheets of silk and paper, framing these paintings on mounting silks that were carefully bonded together by layers of backing paper. There's a kinetic quality to these paintings (rolling up, unrolling; opening, closing) because, often, they had another utilitarian purpose of being a scroll or screen.
The upkeep of these kinds of objects requires a highly specific expertise. It takes years to perfect, and therefore it's often not part of the skill set of art conservators trained in the West. With more than 800 mounted works in the museum's collection, according to chief conservator Nicholas Dorman, the museum had to send its objects to the East Coast or overseas for months or years at a time to get the care they needed, requiring extensive travel and care fees.
So as discussions around renovating and reimagining the museum came about, and after meeting with interested parties up and down the coast, the conservation team saw an opportunity to establish a studio that focused on mounted Asian paintings. After all, the West Coast lacked adequate facilities for mounting and remounting Asian paintings, despite there being "tens of thousands" of mounted works in the region.
The new studio, housed in one of the bottom floors of the museum, will serve both the museum and the western United States. It's the first conservation center of its kind in the region.
The actual work space is based off a traditional Japanese conservation studio, where a lot of structural work happens while either kneeling or sitting down on the floor. The studio has a low tatami deck that conservators can kneel at while taking off and replacing old backing or filling the holes in paper. This space is visible to the public, but it has a sliding shoji screen of cedar and mino paper, for privacy when needed. Despite the Japanese appearance of the work space, the conservation work done here won't be limited to just the Japanese works but will serve the entire collection.
Besides small repair jobs, the center is not yet in full swing. Dorman aims to hire a senior mounter this year, with plans to hire another down the line, as well as getting a fellowship and training program up and running. He sees great potential in the conservation studio as a hub for both public interaction as well as a space to study works in their collection and from other collections along the coast. "It's something that can bring different types of energy into the study of these works of art as well," Dorman said.
On a recent cold and sunny Sunday afternoon, I got to see the Asian Art Museum in full swing. Seattleites nearly swarmed the space, pressing up against each other while admiring the Buddha heads in the Divine Bodies gallery and pointing at a giant crystal elephant god in the What Is Precious? gallery.
For a break, I made my way to the glass-encased east side of the building, from which you can see out to Volunteer Park. I observed families resting on low orange benches and the brilliant green of the park swaying in the breeze. I followed the sound of trickling water past an ikebana arrangement and Buddha statue to the Fuller Garden Court interior fountain.
Above me hung Kenzan Tsutakawa-Chinn's Gather, a light sculpture made of hashtag-looking LEDs that reference cross patterns found in Japanese ikat and sashiko textiles. But what kept my attention was Kondo Takahiro's sculpture of a seated figure placed on top of the fountain. Created after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, the sculpture in meditation pose is made of porcelain with blue underglaze and a type of "silver-mist" overglaze (patented by the artist himself), giving it a melting appearance. It's an unnerving piece that works in the newfound serenity of the space, and it will undoubtedly serve as an excellent piece of contemplation for decades to come.