Seattle Asian Art Museum Reopens With A New Vision For Its Collection

Posted on February 04, 2020, 4:45 pm
12 mins


After over three years of major renovations, the Seattle Asian Art Museum has reopened. Over 10,000 free tickets have been claimed for the public opening weekend, February 8 and 9. And trust me, it’s worth all the hype.

The project was actually first initiated over ten years ago, with LMN Architects taking the lead to rehabilitate the facilities. Once demolition began, the curators could take a fresh look at the collection and decide how to best present it to contemporary audiences.

Seattle Art Museum’s first home was this building, and its Asian art collection was really the foundation for what SAM has since become. But it is not a collection with which one can adequately tell the history of a culture or country. Nor was it possible to bring in that kind of art historical exhibit as a traveling show before the renovation. The building’s original boiler, poor insulation and old HVAC system were merciless to centuries-old paper, clay and wooden artworks. No one would loan to the SAAM.

All that has changed, with the structure now better than ever. What hasn’t changed is the collection itself, but with a larger footprint and new ideas, the way of presenting it has. The official title of the program is Boundless: Stories of Asian Art, but the material lessons one draws from it are even bigger than Asia.

Connections Across Place And Time

The Seattle Asian Art Museum is now the only Asian Art Museum in the country to present its permanent collection thematically, rather than geographically or chronologically. When I first heard about this plan from curators Xiaojin Wu and Ping Foong, I had my reservations. After all, American audiences already tend to flatten Asia in their minds. The curators’ decision to juxtapose objects according to concepts rather than provenance is risky.

But when done correctly, I feel that it is also necessary if museums are to be more than stewards of objects. Furthermore, there are museums whose massive collections support that more traditional model far better than Seattle ever could.

The San Francisco Asian Art Museum, for instance, overwhelms with its abundance and beauty. LACMA’s glorious Japanese Pavilion—with its spiraling showcase of calligraphy and glittering trove of netsuke—will be one of the last structures standing as the main building is bulldozed for its own reimagining. Seattle Asian Art Museum should do—and has done—something different.

New Art, Old Art, New Perspectives

The front thirteen galleries of the Seattle Asian Art Museum now each have a diverse array of objects curated according to thirteen questions or themes. For example, one hosts tomb guardians and a few treasures unearthed from burial. This includes an exquisite haniwa sculpture from Japan’s Kohun period (ca. 4th or 5th century CE). The punctures that form the soldier’s eyes gaze out toward a central vitrine containing a 4th century chieftain’s jasper bracelet (also Japanese), suspended as if floating.

In other galleries, the curators have more opportunity to cross-pollinate contemporary and ancient objects. To the north of the central garden court is a gallery full of clothing and accessories. The unifying theme is dress conveys roles, status and identity.

Hence, it makes perfect sense that overlooking it all are two large format photographs by Seoul-based artist Jung Yeondoo, last seen during the 2015 SAAM exhibit, Paradox of Place. These photos come from his 2001 Bewitched series, wherein he shot dual portraits of individuals: one in their everyday work attire, and another depicting a dream of theirs. In this diptych, Bewitched #2, we see a young woman mopping at her ice cream parlor day job, and standing in an arctic scene (clad in furs and wielding a spear instead of a mop).

Arunkumar H.G.’s orange “Nandi” in the Spiritual Journeys gallery at Asian Art Museum. Photo credit: Jueqian Fang


The gallery titled Spiritual Journeys is full of devotional objects spanning centuries, and among the gold and ivory, a bright orange cow stands out. It is one of Arunkumar H. G.’s Nandi sculptures. Nandi, the kneeling bull and symbol of righteousness, is ubiquitous outside Hindu temples devoted to Shiva, and has been repeatedly reproduced by the artist in modern materials, along with other sacred statuary.

Is it any less potent as a devotional object because of its material? Must the sacred be precious, or at least “natural”? Questions like this often elude viewers in the traditional historical presentations of art. I think we should be asking them, and the curators at SAAM agree.

But even if one balks at this sort of juxtaposition, there is another point to consider in defense of these curatorial choices: The museum as we know it was formed in the 19th century through European colonialism pillaging, and grand narratives. It may be one way of looking at objects, but to cling to it as the one true path of art is not so…enlightened.

Three Favorite Things In The New Seattle Asian Art Museum

Facing west in the renewed Fuller Garden Court at Seattle Asian Art Museum. Photo credit: Adam Hunter/LMN Architects

The Renewed Fuller Garden Court

The team under LMN Architects did a splendid job sprucing up the art deco fixtures and architectural flourishes of the Seattle Asian Art Museum, but they outdid themselves in the central court. Despite being the center of the museum just beyond the entrance, it always felt a bit like a dead end in the past. With the addition of a new wing at the back of the building, extending into Volunteer Park, the court is now a nexus.

The east wall’s two portals flank the court’s fountain, and through them, one can see to the trees at back while basking in the glow of the translucent ceiling and a light sculpture suspended from it. That sculpture by Kenzan Tsutakawa-Chinn looks totally modern with its repeating patterns of what appear to be LED hashtags. In fact, they reference kasuri, a Japanese style of resist dyeing, and altogether they gracefully droop toward the front. Unobtrusive yet eye-catching, it becomes a throughline from the park at back all the way to the Noguchi sculpture and reservoir beyond the front entrance.

The Color in Clay gallery at Seattle Asian Art Museum. Photo Credit : Jueqian Fang

The Color in Clay Gallery

There isn’t a label to be found in the long room once known as the Jade Room. Because of the natural light streaming in from windows along its length, this gallery cannot house photo-sensitive objects. Ceramics were the perfect choice, and are displayed in the long central vitrine as a sort of gradient. And because the technology of glazes and color matured over time, they end up being more or less chronological.

For those who want to dive deep on provenance and ceramic chemistry, two interactive screens allow visitors to read up on the individual pieces. This satisfies both the academic in me AND the aesthete, whose attention should not be divided while taking in the beautiful details of these treasures.

The Awakened Ones gallery space in Seattle Asian Art Museum. Photo credit: Jueqian Fang

The Awakened Ones Gallery

SAAM will only be showing about five percent of their total collection in the thirteen galleries of Boundless. As curator Ping Foong explained, they wanted this initial iteration to really showcase the best of their best. They can always switch works and change themes in the future. Meanwhile, particularly fragile works on paper will not be exposed for more than three to six months at a time, as they are the most sensitive to light and humidity. Even the new facilities can’t make them immortal.

Despite being only a small selection of the total available works, the galleries are pretty packed. To have crammed in more might have been overwhelming in the space they have. Yet, it might have been tempting to put more than three artworks in the small southwestern gallery, titled Awakened Ones. Fortunately, they resisted this urge and kept it to an exquisite triumvirate of Buddhist sculptures, warmly lit in the otherwise dark room.

With so much to see and contemplate in the Seattle Asian Art Museum, there needed to be space to let the mind wander into a void for a bit. The experience would not be complete without it. The curators and architects all should be commended for seeing through a new vision that will expand audience’s awareness of Asia, but also remind them that the human pursuit of beauty and the sublime is, indeed, timeless and boundless.

Featured photo: Tim Griffith, courtesy of Seattle Art Museum

T.s. Flock is a writer and arts critic based in Seattle and co-founder of Vanguard Seattle.