The Asian Art Museum
The Asian Art Museum, while not exactly a secret, is worthy of more attention than it gets. The museum has an excellent large collection, which, in its new building in Civic Center (which opened in March 2003), is displayed in a more coherent manner than was the case when the museum was located in Golden Gate Park.
The museum is located at 200 Larkin Street (between Fulton and McAllister), across Civic Center Plaza from City Hall. The Civic Center BART/MUNI station is nearby, and several bus lines serve the area.
The Civic Center is a national historical district. Civic Center Plaza is encircled by buildings that are mostly from the same general period when the Asian Art Museum’s building was constructed (1916), as Civic Center was rebuilt after the devastating 1906 earthquake. Although no one building is exception, collectively the district is a few example of beaux arts architecture – it has been called the nation’s second-best beaux arts district, after the federal triangle in Washington DC.
In terms of visitor experience, Civic Center is a mixed area. There are delightful crafts and produce markets in nearby UN Plaza several days a week. Government workers roam at lunchtime. Hayes Valley to the west has some good shops and restaurants, including the excellent Hayes Street Grill. To the north is an area the is becoming known as Little Vietnam. But there is also a large homeless contingent that camps overnight on area streets, especially around the public library, until getting rousted along around daybreak. The Tenderloin area to the northeast harbors some scurrilous characters, who tend to spill into Civic Center after dark, and visitors should stay alert for purse snatchers.
Open Tuesday–Saturday, 10:00-5:00. Closed Mondays and a few major holidays. Open Thursday evenings until 9:00.
The collections encompass all of Asia, from the Urals east, including off-shore islands such as Japan and Java. The museum divides Asia into large cultural and geographical units—both the display of objects and the curatorial staff structure are based on this arrangement. These units are South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka), Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia), The Persian World and West Asia (Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan), Himalayas and Tibetan Buddhist World (Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia), China, Korea, and Japan. The museum has major holdings in each of the areas, but is strongest in China (especially bronzes, ceramics, and jades) and weakest in Persia and West Asia, which has the fewest objects, the smallest display space, and no dedicated curatorial presence.
The collections range from early Neolithic objects to the present. The museum’s current director, Emily Sano, has brought a new emphasis on contemporary Asian art).
Of particular note is the earliest extant dated Chinese Buddha. (The Rough Guide calls it the earliest Chinese Buddha, which is wrong—it is the earliest Chinese Buddha that is inscribed with a date, 338.) Other highlights of the museum’s collections include Cambodian sculptures, Thai paintings and ceramics, a Burmese crowned Buddha and throne, Indian stone sculptures, art of the Sikh kingdoms, Himalayan dakinis and thangkas, Chinese ritual bronzes and ceramics, Korean celadons, and Japanese bamboo baskets and decorative arts. The museum’s holdings are extensive and of high quality, so there is no need to focus a visit on just a few pieces.
Docent-led tours are available several times a day, starting from the Information Desk in South Court. Free acoustiguide players are also available.
The best way to get an overview of the museum’s permanent collection is to take the escalator in South Court all the way to the top. Continue clockwise around the third floor, passing through South Asia, West, Asia, Southeast Asia, the Himalayas, and part of China. Then go down the stairs or take the elevator to the second floor and wind your way back counterclockwise through the second half of China, Korea, and Japan. This tour follows the general path of the spread of Buddhism.
Between the Korean and Japanese Galleries in the southwest corner of the second floor is a special gallery in which objects from the museum’s collection related to various themes (changing about twice a year) are displayed.
Special exhibitions are presented on the first floor. The special exhibition galleries are unexciting but the exhibitions themselves are often quite good.
The museum’s core collection was assembled by Chicago industrialist Avery Brundage. As president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, Brundage traveled widely, and he had become an avid collector of Asian art. In 1959 he agreed to donate his collection to the city of San Francisco on the condition that a suitable home be built for it. In those year Asian art was undervalued, and despite that condition the collection largely languished in the basement of the De Young Museum. Still, while Brundage was building a second collection, the city introduced a bond measure to raise money for a building to house the collection; this measure passed, and in 1966 a new wing of the De Young was opened to the public. It would be the home of the Asian Art Museum until 2003, when it relocated to Civic Center.
Brundage gave his donated his second collection in 1969, and in the years since an equal number of objects have been added from other donations and acquisitions.
The building that houses the AAM was original designed by George W. Kelham, whose other commissions include the International House in Berkeley. It is a classic beaux arts structure, with a monumental central staircase leading to a grand hall. The building originally served as home to the main branch of the city’s public library.
The building was repurposed by Gae Aulenti, best known for her transformation of the Gare d’Orsay into the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Aulenti opened up the site lines, brought light into the building (largely through the addition of two enormous V-shaped skylights), and added a new floor between what had been the second and third floors. She also attempted to create a unified ground floor space that would function like an Italian piazza.
The cafe, called Cafe Asia is managed by McCall and Associates, who also handle cafes at SFMOMA cafe, the de Young Museum, the Exploratorium, Conservatory of Flowers, Hyde Street Pier, City Hall, etc.—if you’re eating at an SF museum or similar institution you’re likely being served by McCall’s. Cafe Asia offers a selection of pan-Asian food. The offerings are solid, although the portions are not large and, as is usual in museum cafes, which cater to a large cross-section of the public, the food is seasoned a little bland and most dishes benefit from the addition of some Chinese chile sauce. The cafe has a patio area that offers the best outdoor eating in the Civic Center area, although the area is sometimes windy.
The Asian’s handsome glass-walled store is located under the central staircase. It is rather upscale for a museum store and usually features items related to whatever special exhibit is currently on display. There is a good selection of books on Asian art and culture.
Access to the cafe or store is possible without paying museum admission.
Asian Art Museum official website