Asian Art Museum Free on Sundays

by Jesse Nathan on February 29, 2008

Once the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library, the building now housing the Asian Art Museum holds a collection of more than 17,000 treasures spanning 6,000 years of history. After the library moved down the street, Gae Aulenti (who designed Paris’ Musee d’Orsay) revamped the interior into a high-ceilinged, beaux arts showcase for one of the more enormous gatherings of Asian art in the western hemisphere. Now, all that glory’s been made more accessible to the not-so-wealthy or the busy-with-the-family-types (read: parents and small children). How so? The museum—and it’s the first in San Francisco to take this democratizing step—has moved its monthly free-day to Sunday starting May 4.

Whereas MoMA, like most museums in San Francisco, buries its free-day mid-week—on Tuesday—when most children are in school and most parents are at work, the Asian Art Museum’s shifted things in favor of openness. It’s a faint nod in the direction of, say, England where, like much of Europe, museums are always free. Pale in comparison, but a good step—and not an easy one to make in light of the ever-important bottom line educational institutions battle with in this country.

Sponsored by Target—corporate sponsorship is the only, if not lamentable, remedy in an age of nation-wide arts cuts—the museum is calling the newly-minted schedule “Target First Free Sundays.” The new schedule begins Sunday, May 4. The first Sunday of the month, says the museum’s Michele Dilworth, “is better suited towards the needs of working families” and so she expects “even greater numbers to enjoy the museum’s…exhibitions, public programs, and renowned collection of Asian art.”

What’s more—and perhaps more importantly—the artwork on display is worth a visit, and worth paying money for even, if Sunday’s not an option. Named “Drama and Desire: Japanese Paintings from the Floating World,” the exhibit lands viewers in an important, calm-before-the-storm moment in Japanese history, bookended between 1690 and 1850. It’s a period shortly before Commodore Matthew Perry and his fleet of ships pried open Japan and forced Western commerce and trade upon the closed-off nation. Perry and his traders triggered a period of modernization that would culminate in the Marshall Plan—induced rebuilding after World War II.

“The Floating World,” then, was a fantastical, dreamy description of life bestowed upon reality by Japanese artists, monks, and wealthy elite of the time. Ephemeral and wistful, it’s a notion captured in the writings of, for one, Buddhist monk Asai Ryoi: “Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating: caring not a whit for the pauperism staring us in the face, refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along the river current: this is what we call the floating world …”

Leaping from this ethereal realm, the exhibit takes museum-goers through Japan’s urban pleasure quarters, Kabuki theaters, high-class brothels, and the worlds of geishas and courtesans. It’s got lots of cherry blossoms, shimmery color schemes and more than a few—this part’s not for families—detailed depictions of some mad erotic sex. Dilworth gives us the other twist, namely that these works got dug up from deep storage: “The landmark exhibition,” she explains, “features 80 artworks from the unrivaled holdings of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, widely regarded as the proprietor of the largest and finest collection of ukiyo-e paintings in the world.”

Showcasing the masters—Hokusai, Utamaro, and Hiroshige, among other artists—the exhibit brings to display works that have, says Dilworth, in the basements of the MFA, Boston, lain hidden for over a century. Because they’ve been in storage the works’ colors are clear and bright, unadulterated by the wear and tear that breaks down so many great but old works. Visit this time capsule—and visit soon. Dilworth says the Asian Art Museum’s the last stop for these works before they are, for better or worse, returned to the dark and quiet storage shelves in Boston from whence they came.

Jesse Nathan is a writer living in Berkeley. His work has appeared in Geez, Adbusters, The Believer, McSweeney’s, and the East Bay Express, among others.

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