SO LONG, BUT NOT GOODBYE; SAN FRANCISCO’S ASIAN ART MUSEUM WILL CLOSE DURING THE MOVE TO ITS NEW CIVIC CENTER HOME

In a ceremony overseen by a Tibetan lama, a party Wednesday at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco will have a twofold purpose: It will celebrate the museum’s 35th birthday and its farewell.

Following in the footsteps of its longtime host, the de Young, the Asian Art Museum will hold a series of celebrations starting Wednesday before closing its doors Oct. 7. It will reopen in its new Civic Center home in fall 2002 or early 2003, officials say.

During its final days at Golden Gate Park, the museum will close the cash registers and allow visitors unfettered access to its exhibits, daily workshops, nightly musical performances and, on its final day, a slew of blessing ceremonies ranging from Taoist lion dancers to Cambodian monks to whirling dervishes.

Even before the first tremor of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake shook the museum, the facility’s move was in the works. A departure from its pastoral Golden Gate Park setting had been envisioned since the late 1970s. The restlessness came only a little more than a decade after the de Young Museum had built a wing to accommodate the collection of Chicagoan Avery Brundage, longtime president of the Olympic Committee, and created the Asian Art Museum.

Four different locations had been considered before then-mayor Dianne Feinstein offered the Beaux Arts building at Larkin and McAllister streets, at the time the San Francisco Main Library.

The move to San Francisco’s civic downtown represents a seismic shift far greater than its 3.5 miles might indicate. The space will be 75 percent larger, allowing more of the permanent collection out of its wrappings. The location will be minutes from BART and Muni lines, instead of the sometimes two-hour expedition by bus. Tourist hordes could double the current annual attendance, now roughly 200,000. The visibility will be greater, with an even larger international spotlight guaranteed for what has been the largest Asian art museum west of the Mississippi.

“We think it will be a true transformation of our image to come downtown and take our place as a major cultural institution in this city,” says artistic director Emily Sano.

The new home’s 185,000 square feet (the current Golden Gate Park’s facility is 90,000 square feet) will allow patrons room to appreciate more of the permanent collection, which has expanded from its original 8,000 pieces to about 12,000 items.

“For the first time,” Sano says, “the visitor will be able to see the actual range and depth of what we’ve got, since we’ve always had to make the sacrifice and cannibalize the gallery space for special exhibits.”

The $160.5 million Civic Center renovation will maintain the Beaux Arts facade and the former Main Library’s central spine the entryway, lobby, stairwell and the elaborate ceilings over the stairs and reading room. However, the conversion from a single-purpose destination seek out a book, sit down and read to a dynamic space of different art exhibit encounters has created a need for a floor where none existed as well as a central piazza.

The primary vision comes from Italian architect Gae Aulenti, renowned for her “adaptive reuse” of Muse d’Orsay in Paris, the Palazzo Grassi in Venice and the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya.

The concept of moving the Asian Art museum into a Beaux Arts structure had made some people “quite livid,” recalls Sano. Yet she points out that the architecture’s international style is omnipresent throughout the world, including Asia. While the Italian touches could perhaps be perceived as Eurocentric, Sano sees them as “neutral (coming from) a very rich architectural form.” Besides, designing an Asian-based architecture would mean choosing from a bewildering array of styles from the Philippines to China, from Indonesia to Mongolia, from Korea to Iran. That, Sano says, would beg the question, “Which one are you going to choose?” or, “Who do you think you would like to offend?”

“It’s very diverse the complexity of managing the Asian Art Museum is sort of like a mini U.N.,” Sano says.

The reconstruction is one of four museum projects in San Francisco alone (the others are the M.H. de Young, Jewish Museum of San Francisco and the Mexican Museum), and a 1999 Los Angeles Times report estimated about $2 billion was being spent nationally on such museum expansion projects. More than half of American museums are less than a quarter-century old.

Museums are maturing from “cabinets of curiosity” for connoisseurs, Sano explains, to art-as-fundamental-education centers. Besides the general movement towards preservation, museums are providing the visual training that is essential in art, education, business and communication in the 21st century.

“People are going to be doing so much on their computer screens, and everything is going to be so visual,” Sano says. “It’s not going to be just sitting down and reading books anymore.” At least, not in the former San Francisco Main Library building.

Events editor Vera H-C Chan can be reached at 925-977-8428 or vchan@cctimes.com.

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