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Reorienting a trove of the East

Giving up its longtime digs, San Francisco's Asian Art Museum makes a big move, the better to showcase a collection replete with 'drop dead' pieces.

March 23, 2003|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

San Francisco — It's a few days before the Asian Art Museum opens its new home and the pressure is palpable. "There's a new challenge every five minutes," says director Emily J. Sano. "You are drilling through a piece of thick Plexiglas and the drill bit breaks. You can't move a piece of art through an area because the elevator is being used for something else -- for three hours."

No one said it would be easy to transform the 1917 Beaux Arts building designed as San Francisco's old Main Library into a museum, or to move 14,000 pieces of Asian art out of their former lodgings in Golden Gate Park. The task of selecting 2,500 objects for display and installing them in a coherent story line was also daunting. Spanning 6,000 years, the collection ranges from tiny jades to massive stone sculptures and encompasses ceramics, lacquer ware, textiles, furniture, arms, basketry and puppets.

But no one was prepared for all the complexities of the $160.5-million project -- $50 million of which was spent on seismic upgrading. Fifteen years in the making, the museum's new facility is in the civic center, facing City Hall and next to the new library. The project, which opened to the public last Thursday, was officially conceptualized in 1988 with the city's adoption of a plan to rework the library, but it didn't get off the ground until 1994 with the passage of a bond issue. Italian architect Gae Aulenti -- best known for converting a derelict train station in Paris into the Musee d'Orsay -- took on the challenge of preserving the building's primary historic features while adding a floor of galleries, V-shaped skylights and a glass-enclosed escalator.

As for installing the art, "it's a steep learning curve," says Sano, her jaw set and her voice tightening. "At the old museum my staff built everything and installed everything. Here we have these very professionally done cases designed by George Sexton in Washington, D.C., and manufactured by Design Production in northern Virginia. Everything has to be shipped from the East Coast and adjustments have to be made on the spot. And with an outside vendor, you have to coordinate six different trades. Six different trades. It's quite an undertaking."

But when Sano leaves her pristine office on the fourth floor, marches downstairs to the third floor and enters the galleries, the tension melts away. Here it's all about art. And the director -- who earned a PhD in Japanese art history from Columbia University and has led the museum since 1994 -- is in her element. Even though some of the display cases are still empty and dozens of painters, electricians, art handlers and curators are working feverishly to get everything right for the opening, Sano can barely contain her excitement.

Walking through two U-shaped floors of galleries, arranged geographically from India to Japan, she greets her colleagues with a cheerful "hi there" and stops to admire one artwork after another -- especially those that measure up to her idea of "drop dead" quality.

In the Chinese galleries, which celebrate the strongest part of the collection, she points out an "absolutely wonderful" gilt-bronze seated Buddha, made in 338. "It's the earliest dated Chinese Buddha in the world," Sano says.

"And here's something I think is going to be really drop dead, the Jade Treasury," she says, entering a jewel box of a room with Chinese jade carvings displayed in cases around the walls and hung on a vertical transparent panel in the center, so that details on both sides of the objects are visible.

In the Korean section -- which shows off an aspect of the collection that has grown in the past few years but is still relatively thin -- she singles out three ceramic jars in the center of one gallery. "The wonderful thing is, they are slightly misshapen. They have bulges," Sano says, all but caressing a plain, off-white porcelain jar made around 1600. "The Chinese went for total perfection. The Koreans did not. It's very important to us that people learn to distinguish between these cultures. The Chinese are not like the Japanese or the Koreans, and that's reflected in their art -- the way they treat materials and what they regard as beautiful."

Moving on to the Japanese galleries, Sano stands face to face with a large haniwa, or cylindrical clay figure, in the form of a warrior. "I wanted it installed low, so you can really look at it and kind of have a conversation," she says of the 4-foot-tall sculpture, created to guard the tomb of a ruler. "It's kind of like talking to a person of the 7th century."

The core of the collection was a gift of Avery Brundage, who promised 6,830 artworks to the city in 1959 on the condition that the city provide a building to house it. A Chicago industrialist who was president of the International Olympic Committee from 1952 to 1972, Brundage traveled widely in Asia and collected art from a vast territory that extends from the Philippines west to Turkey and from Mongolia south to Indonesia.

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