Seattle Asian Art Museum is back – and wow!

Seattle News

By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly

One of the famous camels that flank the museum entrance (Photo by Kai Curry)

Imagine you had a good friend that went away. You kept driving by her house, but the windows were shuttered. You knew your friend went away for good reason. She needed to recharge. She needed to rethink her identity and purpose. But still, you missed your friend. So it was for the Seattle Asian Art Museum. Closed for renovations for almost three years, since February 2017, this beloved institution reopens with a weekend of celebration on Feb. 8 and 9.

The museum, which has inspired a lifelong love of all things Asian for so many people, is being called “reimagined.” All of the art works you remember are there, including the camels!

Amada Cruz discusses long awaited reopening (Photo by Kai Curry)

Yet, vital changes, both functional and creative, have been made. It is, according to museum Director and CEO Amada Cruz, “both warmly familiar and strikingly new.”

This reopening, she said, “is a very important moment for SAM and for the whole city.” Your friend has come back – and how! – with a renewed sense of who he is.

Project principles from LMN Architects share their restoration goals and challenges in the newly imagined Fuller Garden Court (Photo by Kai Curry)

Also, your friend got a facelift. The entire museum has been cleaned. More than that, it has been refitted and restructured. Prior challenges, such as lack of proper ventilation — essential to preserving precious artifacts — have been solved with enhanced climate control and new, oxygen-free display cases. Walls susceptible to crumbling were gutted and rebuilt by LMN Architects, with Kevlar inside for earthquake safety. Entirely new rooms were built, including an education space and an almost 3,000-square-foot gallery, all with careful attention paid to the historic character of the Art Deco building and surrounding Volunteer Park.

Tang dynasty tomb guardians (Photo by Kai Curry)

Your friend had a makeover. What were, in the original construction, intended as skylights are now refitted with light boxes for a similar effect without harming the art. What had been carpet has been removed to reveal Depression-era flooring.

Your friend got her eyes done. In a re-styled gallery devoted to pottery, the glass has been re-paned to eliminate moisture. The dazzling Art Deco windows that face downtown are now made of clear versus tinted glass so that, as museum staff pointed out, you can see from inside the museum — in fact, from inside of the famous Fuller Garden Court — all the way to the Space Needle. What Seattle Asian Art Museum has reimagined is how to reconnect, with the community and with its collection.

A Tibetan robe in the gallery which explores the theme of clothing and identity. (Photo by Kai Curry)

It’s physical and intellectual. This connection might happen through the new installation on the ceiling of Fuller Garden Court, which deliberately extends its line of sight from Noguchi’s Black Sun sculpture outside, through two new openings in the Court that lead out onto a vision of the Park via a glass lobby. It might connect through the new arrangement of the collection which, instead of traditional groupings by country, is now by theme. In this way, the museum hopes to spark curiosity in modern audiences with an updated approach.

A Western Zhou dynasty bronze wine vessel. (Photo by Kai Curry)

“In the classroom, the curriculum and the teaching method has been evolving,” explained the museum curator of Japanese and Korean art, Xiaojin Wu. “With so much information out there, how do you get the student to get engaged? You really want to give them the big idea first…Then you feed them with specific information and ideas. That’s…one of the departure points we took.”

New themes are both material and spiritual. In one space, you will find tomb guardian statues, and other objects that people across Asia have found imperative to accompanying their journey from life to death. In another room, you will find the accessories that the living think they cannot do without — snuff boxes and watches. Or clothing from various countries, juxtaposed with contemporary photographs, such as in a gallery that asks the question, “Are we what we wear?”

Senior curator Daniel Mason, who flew in from Philadelphia to discuss items related to her specialization in South Asian Art (Photo by Kai Curry)

The new arrangement is groundbreaking. It makes Seattle Asian Art Museum, as President Cruz avowed, “the only stand-alone Asian art museum in the United States with a thematic presentation of its entire collection.” This decision is not without controversy for those who are accustomed to the more traditional approach. But remember, your friend has a new sense of identity. And it did not come lightly. Museum staff put years of serious thought into this new vision. Local patrons, educators, and museum experts were consulted. To give proper attention to South Asia, assistance was procured from senior curator Dariel Mason, of the Philadelphia Museum. Ping Foong, SAM’s Foster Foundation curator of Chinese art, put it well, “We did a little bit of soul-searching to make sure that what we came up with fit into our institutional aim…We want…to be inclusive of community voices.

We are also an Asian art museum, so how do we convey ideas of who we represent without stereotypes? It’s an old nugget that Asia is one. But Asia is not one. Asia is many.”

The museum intends to represent diversity as well as demonstrating what cultures have in common. By placing objects from different nations alongside each other, visitors will get a sense of differences and similarities, as well as our entire human journey. Also, your friend can change her mind. The new setup means that the museum has greater flexibility to swap out pieces, and entire exhibitions. It also gives SAM more freedom in accepting loans from other institutions — now that artifacts are no longer in danger of deterioration (although especially delicate items will still require periodic return to storage in order to be properly maintained). The “reimagine” has allowed the curators to bring out pieces they were unable to before, such as objects from the Philippines, and to spend time researching the collection in new ways.

Curators Xioajin Wu (left) and Ping Foong (right) discuss on themes which are represented in the gallery’s new design such as Nature here in front of Chinese and Japanese scroll paintings (Photo by Kai Curry)

Just like the friend home from her journey, the staff at Seattle Asian Art Museum is excited to be back in the public eye. Each curator has a favorite new element. Wu is over-the-moon about relocating a piece from downtown — Korean artist Do Ho Suh’s “Some/One” — into the large new gallery at the Asian art museum that is now devoted to contemporary art.

Detail of a Japanese door panel painting of gentlemen playing go (Photo by Kai Curry)

“I’ve been here for seven years and I’ve been trying to move Do Ho into the door for all these years, but it was just too big,” she laughed. Structural problems, like a lack of a freight elevator — now resolved — had prevented the task until this renovation.

“We even talked about helicoptering it in!” Foong added. Now, the piece is one of the focal points of the museum. Foong enjoys the way pottery is now arranged by color in the space called “Color in Clay,” and the fact that, in that same gallery, there are no labels, another rogue concept. Instead, there are digital screens where visitors can learn about the pieces. Smartphone tours will also be available for all of the exhibition spaces.

At SAM’s Asian Art Museum, there will again be something for everyone. Whether you want to walk down memory lane or pursue new pathways, each option will be encompassed inside the newly scrubbed walls. Seattleites missed our friend. We missed taking that walk through the serenity of Volunteer Park, pausing to soak in the city, then, stepping inside the museum, where not one world, but many, were displayed. It’s not just the Seattle Asian Art Museum that has been “reimagined.”

It’s the public that now has a chance to be renewed as well. Prepare to be inspired.

Free tickets to Seattle Asian Art Museum’s grand reopening are sold out, but you can still visit during regular museum hours starting the week of Feb. 10. For more information, visit

Kai can be reached at

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