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SEATTLE — After three years and $56 million, Seattle’s Asian Art Museum reopened to the public on February 8 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony followed by a full weekend of free events to introduce visitors to the “reimagined, reinstalled, reopened” space. At the press tour on February 3, I previewed the retrofitted galleries and the new additions built by LMN Architects, and was guided through the collections, redesigned public education facilities, and the Mellon Grant-funded Asian Paintings Conservation Center, by AAM curators Ping Foong (Foster Foundation Curator of Chinese Art), Xiaojin Wu (Curator of Japanese and Korean Art), and Darielle Mason (consulting curator of South Asian art, based at the Philadelphia Museum of Art). Boundless: Stories of Asian Art, the inaugural installation of the permanent collection, spans 13 galleries and is accompanied by Be/longing: Contemporary Asian Art, a show of 12 diasporic Asian artists in the newly constructed special exhibitions gallery.
The Asian Art Museum’s tagline is “reimagination and reinstallation,” and it has delivered strongly on the latter. The building’s original 1933 facade, lobby, and Fuller Garden Court remain glorious, with their Art Deco details, while the mechanical and environmental control upgrades in the galleries are hidden so as to maintain focus on the collections. A new LED canopy by Seattle-born artist Kenzan Tsutakawa-Chinn installed on the ceiling of the Fuller Garden Court is a subtle nod to the generations of Asian American artists who have shaped the Pacific Northwest and the American arts landscape — Tsutakawa-Chinn is a grandson of George Tsutakawa (born 1910, in Seattle).
While the cosmetic facelift is impressive — especially in the wings with panoramic views of Volunteer Park — the art is what matters. The museum now touts itself as the only dedicated Asian art museum in the United States with all its galleries organized by theme rather than geography. The first two galleries seem to be the strongest in this regard. The Cowles Gallery’s theme responds to the question “Are we what we wear?” To the left of the entrance, a trio of garments from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia showcase resonances between the textile traditions of these three island nations in beading, patterning, and the use of natural shell and fiber. More provocative are two C-prints from Jung Yeondoo’s BeWitched series (2001–2004), in which the artist juxtaposes one portrait of his subjects in their daily life and a second staging their fantasy life. In this diptych, a femme from Seoul appears bored in her Baskin-Robbins uniform on the left, but fierce in furs and leather in an Arctic hunt scene on the right.
Jung’s works gave me hope that contemporary art would be interwoven throughout the galleries; alas, while established artists including Koo Bohnchang, Yoon Kwang-cho, and Arunkumar H G are on view, contemporary art — and, notably, art by women — remains relegated to the special exhibition, where we find Shirin Neshat and Miwa Yanagi.
“Color in Clay” is the strongest of the thematic rooms, presenting ceramics from China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Iran sorted by — you guessed it! — color. The gallery’s layout contributes much to this striking presentation: the artworks are bathed in light and shown in an impossibly long row. Two large touch-screens at either end of the long gallery offer encyclopedic information about each object. Other well-executed themes include “Picturing Nature” and “Objects Tell Our Stories,” the latter a micro-educational room that pairs Takashi Murakami’s “Flower Ball” (2002) with a grouping of masks from Japan, Korea, Nepal, and Indonesia, and provides a small area for children to create their own masks from blocks designed by Philippine-born, Seattle-based artist Romson Regarde Bustillo.
Bustillo’s inclusion in the museum as educational supplement rather than part of the collection is deeply disappointing and prompts skepticism of the museum’s notion of “reimagining” Asian art. Contemporary art, Southeast Asian art, and acknowledgments of Indigeneity in Asia — all of which are addressed in Bustillo’s multifaceted printmaking-performance-multimedia practice — are nearly absent from Seattle’s Asian Art Museum, as they are in Asian art collections throughout the United States.
As a scholar of Filipino diasporic art, I make a small game of finding the “Hidden Filipinos” in Asian art museums and exhibitions around the world. AAM’s count of four is dire: Bustillo’s educational table, the beautiful piña garment in the Cowles Gallery, a pair of improperly labeled Ifugao “rice deities” in a room focused on festivals and celebrations, and a quote from local Filipinx artist Moonyeka used as a didactic text. (Filipinos are temporarily represented in the lower level’s beautiful new community galleries, where the community partner for this season, API Chaya, has strong ties to Seattle’s Filipino American community.)
It is, frankly, an affront that the fine art traditions of Southeast Asia and its diasporas — outside of Buddhist representations and the occasional Islamic text — are continually snubbed by museums purporting to “embrace the complexity of its vast and profound subject” of Asia (as stated in the AAM press materials). Three full rooms in the museum are dedicated to Buddhas, making clear the geographic and historical collecting priorities of the museum’s founder and its subsequent curators. While Muslim, Jain, and other religious and spiritual traditions are represented in flashes throughout the galleries, only so much diversification is possible if there are no pieces in the collection to draw from, or curators dedicated to art outside of Japan, China, Korea, and South Asia.
For now, it seems that the Asian Art Museum is relying on its public programs and educational initiatives, rather than its collection, to do the diversifying work of reimagining Asia and its diasporas. In 2019, the AAM and the City of Seattle’s Office of Arts & Culture partnered and put out a competitive call for an artist/curator to execute a year-long series of programs focusing on local Asian Pacific Islander communities and arts. The commission went to local Corean artist Che Sehyun for his winning proposal, The Future Ancient.
Speaking to Hyperallergic, Sehyun said that he wants to “empower and inspire people to show them that their very beings are ancient — that we are literally living cultural vessels of our historical legacy, and that our power comes from within ourselves, our experiences, our histories, and our cultures.” He shared his plans for Lunar New Year celebrations prior to the museum’s opening weekend and two Mind and Soul Festivals slated for June and August, as well as his opportunity to bring artist Kim Bong Jun to Seattle in August to share the stories, myths, and spiritual practices stored in his Museum of Mythology in Korea. He says that The Future Ancient shares the vision held by the Seattle Asian Art Museum: “It’s not about geographic regions, boundaries, or states, but about ways that we can understand and relate to other cultures that are both similar and unique, and that speak to a growing global consciousness.”
Hopefully this renovation is not the endpoint of this institution’s reimagining of what an Asian art museum should be. There is still much more re-visioning to do.
The Seattle Asian Art Museum (1400 E Prospect St, Seattle) is now open to the public.