Partner Spotlight | Asian Art Museum
While the museum may currently be closed, Chanel Miller's "I was, I am, I will be" can still be seen and enjoyed from the exterior. Photo courtesy Asian Art Museum.
There is a movie, watched around this time of year, that uses the word “gumption” when describing someone with grit, strength and true depth of character. As we continue with the Partner Spotlight series, it is ever impressive to discover the “gumption” that resides behind the scenes of an organization – which you will find described in the following paragraphs.
As we all continue to navigate the effects of COVID-19 and the restrictions it brings, this is a good reminder that art and experiences with art can still be enjoyed from our homes by what the virtual world can provide us. The Asian Art Museum is no exception to that “more-common-than-we-could-have-ever-imagined just a year ago” method of interacting with the outside world while they continue to navigate the loosening and tightening again restrictions. Our visit here is with Dr. Jay Xu, Director and CEO of the Asian Art Museum. Read on and we know you’ll be as impressed as we are.
Asian Art Museum's Director and CEO, Dr. Jay Xu. Photo courtesy Asian Art Museum.
Information about the museum, some history, Jay’s role and, how he came to the museum
“My title makes it sound like I sit on the top of a pyramid. In reality, to accomplish any goals, I have to think about myself more as a link in a chain. What I really do all day is identify how to make connections. Connections between very different museum departments, between audiences and our collections, between benefactors and exhibitions or programs they might want to support. Some of this is just daily management, and some of it is about attracting visitors with exciting programming and balancing that with our more behind-the-scenes role as a preserver of artworks and cultural history. But you can’t have one without the other, and when you make the right connection it can be incredible in its impact. For instance, collaborating with the San Francisco Art Institute on the first major retrospective of Bay Area-native artist and educator Carlos Villa in 2021, or hiring a dynamo curator like Abby Chen as the new head of contemporary art. At the end of the day, a museum can have the most spectacular art, but if audiences don’t see it as relevant and don’t feel engaged, then you haven’t fully connected with them.
I was actually born in Shanghai, before completing my studies in the United States. I worked as a curator at museums across the country and joined the Asian Art Museum as director in 2008. I’m actually a specialist in ancient Chinese bronzes, and our collection is world-renowned. In fact, we’re the largest museum in the United States devoted exclusively to Asian art, located in the heart of San Francisco, steps from Civic Center BART Station. We now have more than 18,000 artworks in our collection, representing more than 6,000 years of history and culture. About 2,500 of these masterpieces are on view at any time, with thematic rotations of artworks throughout the year. We’ve also recently reimagined two full floors of our collection's galleries, built a major new special exhibition pavilion as well as San Francisco’s largest art terrace, and significantly expanded our contemporary program so that visitors can draw connections between the art of the past and the art of today.”
Thoughts on the museum’s relationship to SF and the Bay Area
“We opened our doors to the public in 1966 thanks to the people of San Francisco, who played a much larger role in the museum’s foundation than is widely known. They are the ones who passed a ballot measure, Proposition A, to fund the construction of a building to house the collection—a wing of the old de Young museum in Golden Gate Park. In 2003 we moved to our current location in the former San Francisco Main Library, a historic 1917 Beaux-Arts building, with the help of another public bond measure. So really, this museum has been a community endeavor from the beginning.
Although we’re only operating at 25% capacity* and are not currently hosting tours, I’m especially proud of the museum’s educational and outreach programs that connect a broad, diverse public—typically including tens of thousands of school students a year on site—with the historic and living traditions of Asian cultures. This ongoing engagement spans generations of Bay Area residents, sparking conversation and creativity as well as connection to Asia no matter your heritage. Of course, more than a third of Bay Area residents have a direct family relationship with Asia and we offer a bridge across the Pacific for everyone here—and there! Remember, we’re also the East Coast of the Pacific Ocean and that perspective is an important one to hold onto in an ever-more globalized world.”
The museum from the corner of McAllister with "Don't Mess with Me" aka "The Pink Lady" by Jas Charanjiva peeking over. Photo courtesy Asian Art Museum.
How the pandemic has affected the museum
“Like all cultural organizations, it has been a year of radically adjusted expectations. It’s a new reality for us all—in terms of finding our financial footing, scaling programs up or down, and determining how to best serve our audiences’ needs during a time of profound uncertainty.
This year we would have unveiled the transformed Asian Art Museum to the world, launching a new era of art, ideas, and experiences—understandably this has been postponed until at least next spring. This unveiling would have been a vision fulfilled and a celebration of many years, many millions of dollars, and countless hours of incredible work from everyone here. Instead, we still gather over Zoom, while the museum welcomes only a quarter of its capacity* in visitors—who at least can enjoy a clean, comfortable, and extremely calm experience. It is painful to see the gap between where we thought we would be and the very different place we find ourselves now.
Yet I also think back to this spring and summer, and I find myself filled with admiration for everyone I encounter through my work as a museum director, starting with my own museum family. The resilience, the tenacity, and the unbridled enthusiasm and creativity of our staff, board, and supporters of all kinds—in the face of an overwhelming situation—have never been less than inspiring.
This inspiration means that while our doors were closed to the public, from March to October, we still found ways to connect with and serve our community. For instance, by donating hundreds of N95 masks; hundreds of totes to help feed those in need; and hundreds of hours as Disaster Service Workers. Or by finding new ways to engage our audiences exclusively online with digital programming that continues to enrich lives with music, food, mindfulness, and, of course, with art. Art from around the corner, art from around the world, art from hundreds of years ago that still catches eyes and captures the imagination.”
How the BLM movement has affected the museum
“Our museum’s focus on audience engagement has also been a compass as we navigate a moment of deep national unrest. With the incredible guidance of our education and curatorial team, as well as diverse community partners, we have been doing our best to answer calls for action on issues like Black Lives Matter and institutional racism, all within a charged climate for museums everywhere which are being challenged on their treatment of staff and artists, as well as their commitment to values of Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion.
To demonstrate our commitment to DEAI, this year we have invited the public in for the first time to examine with clear eyes the legacy of Avery Brundage, whose founding donation forms the core of our collection, but whose actions and words revealed racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic beliefs. Removing a bust of Brundage from the museum entryway is part of a larger and mission-critical effort to engage the public about our history and our collection. In so many ways, this effort is liberating to us as an institution because examining the record, asking hard questions, and rewriting the story are what a museum does. It’s why we all should feel motivated by this moment. As Dr. Harry Edwards said at our July public program about Brundage: “It’s a challenge breaking up hegemony. That’s why they call it a struggle, rather than a picnic.” The urgency of current events and the calls for confronting racist legacies show that this was always going to be the right decision—even if there is always more to do.”
Where this pandemic has provided silver linings for the organization including best lessons learned and new best practices that will remain once things return to a post-pandemic “new normal”
“When quarantine began, digital engagement for our online audiences shot up 59% across all channels and an astounding 744% on Instagram. This is a result of years-long investments that have enabled us to pivot almost overnight to being a “virtual museum” for people seeking inspiration and connection. During closure, we also expanded our social media team to include everyone at the museum: In the wake of the Coronavirus, we’ve all become content generators who consult on the creation of fun, memorable, and impactful posts and videos that our audiences love. Most importantly, our long-time emphasis on students and activity-based interpretation has meant plenty of award-winning content was already in-store: content that is accessible, entertaining, and learning-rich.”
Jenifer K Wofford’s vibrant "Pattern Recognition" speaks for itself. Instead of POW! BANG! or WHAM!, comic-book speech bubbles exclaim RUTH ASAWA! BERNICE BING! CARLOS VILLA! and the names of other Asian American artists who lived and worked in the Bay Area. Photo courtesy Asian Art Museum.
How the re-opening* has gone and how do you feel this pandemic will affect museums for the long term
“Now that we’re open again*, although with strict hygiene and safety protocols in place, our visitor experience remains one of connection. A long time member wrote in to us this week and shared thoughts on her recent visit: ‘After weeks of worry and anxiety—the election, COVID and other woes—I met a friend and we made our way to the Asian Art Museum, masked and socially distanced, for the first time since reopening. The cultural feast of their collection fed my need for beauty and spiritual inspiration. Paintings and sculptures from all parts of Asia: China, Japan, Korea, India and more, all presented in a tranquil setting, offered solace and awe.’
I could not ask for a better endorsement of all we strive to do.
More broadly, with social distancing in place and with museums’ finances impacted by the lockdown, I would expect organizations to look to permanent collections for new exhibitions. As we saw in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the frequency and length of exhibitions will also change, with fewer shows over the coming years, but with longer run dates to accommodate all those interested at our reduced capacities.
We are fortunate that we have the new East West Bank Art Terrace opening in the Spring: an outdoor venue for events, art experiences, and moments of rest and relaxation during a visit to the museum. It’s a literal breath of fresh air, which audience research tells us visitors will be seeking as we slowly begin to gather in public spaces again.
We also will continue to balance the in-person with the online visitor experience. The quarantine and closure of the physical museum has provided a lot of opportunities to experiment with connecting digitally and refining how to best engage with all kinds of audiences. Maybe you come to the museum, find inspiration, then follow a craft tutorial at home after a visit by following an educational video we’ve developed online.
This means our programming will likely continue to be a combination of in-person and online. Throughout 2020, we have seen success with online events that connect with our core collections, especially meditation exercises and artist events—again, it’s about inspiration, ‘solace and awe.’ Livestreaming of music and performance and ‘digital lounges’ have provided opportunities for more intimate artist conversations that people crave.
Ultimately, some audiences will always value in-person experiences more, and other audiences will prefer online or remote participation—at least until there is a widespread vaccine. Our job is to find ways to connect with our audiences wherever they are.
One way is with our new partnership with Google Arts & Culture, launched this summer and including online presentations of museum exhibitions. This partnership highlights some of the most compelling and beautiful artworks featured at the museum, like our recent contemporary commissions with local artists. We plan on adding exhibits to this over time, so it will only grow richer.
This emphasis on local creators is also critical as the slowdown in national and international tourism opens opportunities to strengthen connections with our regional artistic community. Expect more events with local creators for ‘only in San Francisco’ programs.
Right now, we have three of San Francisco’s best new murals up, all visible from our Hyde Street façade, all with a deep Bay Area connection. From Mission School artist Jas Charanjiva, we have art that packs a punch. From Bay Area-native Jenifer K Wofford, it’s art that recognizes the artists who shape who we are today. And from local writer and activist Chanel Miller, we get art that reminds us that there are many ways to make your voice heard, and not just heard, but resonate far and wide. I’m glad we can offer a platform to these critical perspectives.”
Hopes for 2021
“Like everyone, for 2021 I hope for an effective and widely available vaccine! But also that audiences across the Bay Area remain hungry for what museums offer that the pandemic took away: togetherness, reflection, a chance to connect—with significant art, with each other—and create memories and find a meaningful moment that resonates elsewhere in their lives. This means we must continue to meet audiences where they are now: in interests, in learning, styles, in ensuring they can find inspiration from the Asian Art Museum onsite and online.”
*(Editor’s note: the museum is currently closed to visitors since this initial writing due to California COVID-19 restrictions - please check the AAM website before planning to visit. Until they can reopen, please visit the museum online and on social media at #MuseumFromHome.)
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