Curious and Curiouser

Even in art circles in Seattle, Yukiko Shirahara isn't a household name. Powerful chief curators and curators of living artists—those are the big names. But Shirahara holds a vaunted, if well-hidden, position at Seattle Art Museum. She's the curator of Asian art, and SAM is a mecca for Asian-art aficionados nationwide. Japan Envisions the West: 16th–19th Century Japanese Art from Kobe City Museum, the dizzying new show at SAM, is her brilliant debut performance in a leading role.

"I just look at the people's curiosity," she said, referring to what she sees, in a scroll painting, on the faces of Japanese villagers as they watch the era-defining arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry's fleet in the 1850s. She may as well be talking about the animating force of the show, and the curiosity that drives all great scholars.

Shirahara has been working on this show since she arrived in Seattle in January 2002 from Japan (where she earned an art history PhD and picked up impresario skills organizing shows of European fashion). She was born in an apartment in Yokohama, in the very neighborhood—once the foreign quarter—that's disguised as the friendly Port of California in a propagandistic ukiyo-e print by Gountei Sadahide in Japan Envisions the West.

Inside the museum, Shirahara has a reputation for getting things done even when they're not in the budget. She drew on her contacts in Asia to help fund the conservation of five masterpieces. Most of the objects in Japan Envisions the West are from the Kobe City Museum, but a few are from SAM's collection. One is a multipaneled screen of a parade under gold clouds and mist. Nobody had noticed that some of the 17th-century Japanese revelers are dressed in European costume—until Shirahara found them.

This One Is Not Like the Others

Another of SAM's galleries, the one endowed in the name of late artists Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, is the only space in the museum devoted strictly to African-American art and artists—and the only gallery that has been curated by the education rather than the curatorial department. What gives? Mimi Gates, SAM director, e-mailed that the gallery is a "cross-divisional effort." Hmm. The gallery also comes with endowed funds (given by Knight Lawrence) for residencies for African-American artists, critics, or art historians. There haven't been any residencies yet, but it should be obvious that the first ones should go to artists. Gates was mum on what's to come. recommended