Financial Turmoil at “The Asian”

15 11 2010

Only five days shy of the one-year anniversary of the de Young Museum’s banning of our art, the San Francisco Chronicle reports today that the Asian Art Museum

could be forced into bankruptcy if it can’t work out a new deal with its lender by Friday, according to knowledgeable sources.”

JP Morgan Chase—the bank that’s at the center of the financial crisis, predatory lending scandal and recently reported charges of widespread foreclosure fraud—”plans to close the Asian Art’s line of credit as of Friday – in which case, the museum would lose $20 million that it put up in collateral.”  [Aside: J.P. Morgan’s ties to the Third Reich]

Perpetuating the geisha fetish, in happier times

As reported by Matier and Ross, “The Asian’s” board minutes show a balanced budget and record attendance in June 2009, but since then things have fallen off sharply (our intervention took place in August-September 2009).

[Update:  The Wall Street Journal covered the story as well (Fri 19 Nov 2010).]

Orientalism has its price

To make matters worse, former mayor Willie Brown reported in his column on sfgate earlier this year that billionaire Japanophile and Oracle CEO Larry Ellison offered the museum a $15 million donation, but the museum turned it down because . . . wait for it . . . he didn’t have an Asian name.

This is consistent with “The Asian’s” infamous official policy that no Asian American artists will be shown in the Asian Art Museum, which remained in effect until as recently as 2004*.

In both cases, neither Ellison nor Asian Americans were oriental enough to be included at “The Asian.”

[*Verified by members of museum management as well as the director of an Asian American arts non-profit who was employed by the museum at the time the policy was in effect].

The Choice: Relevance or Privilege?

The Asian Art Museum is a public institution whose collection is owned by the city and county of San Francisco.  According to the city controller’s office, in fiscal 2010-2011 “The Asian” is budgeted to receive over 8 million of our tax dollars, to ostensibly serve the collective good of civil society.

This problem is that civic institutions such as this one are run by boards of trustees who are self-selected for their wealth and putative abilities to raise and manage money, rather than for their cultural stewardship.

The museums of the country are run by boards of trustees which are self-perpetuating.  They’re there strictly because they’re wealthy and that is a dictatorship by a very small minority of the country over the rest of the country. Carl Andre

Along with this comes a pervasive and largely unquestioned marketplace ideology, culture as consumption and corporatism.

There’s an inherent conflict between the public, non-profit cultural mission of a museum versus a commercial dogma that only answers to the financial bottom line.  As veteran museum insider Robert Janes puts it, museums today face a choice between relevance or privilege:

The symptoms of this dysfunction pervade the museum industry:  the “edifice complex” (recruiting all-world architects to design spectacular buildings, often resulting in increased operating costs), blockbuster mentality (e.g. Geisha: Beyond the Painted Smile, Lord It’s the Samurai, etc.), a top-down catering to a small corporate elite with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo (including in this case, tired old notions of what it means to be Asian: timeless, idealized Other), and last but not least, societal indifference.

The problem, as Janes points out, is that short-term, market-driven thinking and private sector values run counter to serving the long-term relevance and sustainability of an institution that exists to serve the cultural health and well-being of its public communities.

The present “Asian Crisis” bears this out as a prime example of the culmination of a trajectory of marketplace dysfunction at the expense of relevance.

Will the mayor’s office hold them accountable?




7 responses

16 11 2010

Excellent post. I had no idea that there was an official policy against AA visual artists. Certainly they’ve had performances there by AA poets, theater, etc, but that seems crazy that an ASIAN ART museum would ban works by ASIAN American artists.

I find it hard to believe that any museum in their right mind would say no to 15 million, unless there was a more substantial reason than name. Did Ellison try to put any conditions on his donation? Or is Ellison controversial as a donor for other reasons – has he made some kind of demeaning, racist comments, or something like that? I don’t necessarily take Willie Brown at his word – but clearly, there’s some explaining to do.

A museum can be a showcase for culture and a foundation for community. Where it isn’t that, it deserves to be put on the right track. Your site is an important check on an institution that should be relevant in San Francisco.

17 11 2010

Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

Just to be clear, the policy prohibiting the exhibition of Asian American artists is no longer in effect at the museum.

As we were told, it was official policy under the museum directorship of Emily Sano. It’s worth noting that Sano was imprisoned by the U.S. government as an infant along with her family and 120,000 other West Coast residents of Japanese ancestry, two thirds of them American citizens, in desolate internment camps during World War II, solely on the basis of race.

Isn’t it ironic then that she would go on to later enjoy the power and privilege of her own position as the head of a civic institution that officially disallowed the participation of Asian Americans at a taxpayer-funded public museum of Asian art?

We’re not privy to the circumstances, so we don’t know if it’s something the board of trustees foisted upon her or and what, but it certainly says a lot about where the culture of the museum was at not too long ago, in the 21st century no less, and it’s all too consistent with the retrograde lens through which Asian culture has typically been represented there (immutably, if not reverently, exotic and so forth).

In the same way that Asian Americans are not exotically foreign enough to qualify as genuinely Asian by the terms of “The Asian”, Ellison’s largesse was apparently too domestic as well, much to their subsequent regret. We only know what Da Mayor reported, and as ridiculous as the “logic” of their rejection sounds, in the context of their history we find it not that hard to believe.

16 11 2010

You report that they had record attendance in the year ending in July 2009 – which I think included the Samurai exhibit. Falling attendance in the last year, which could be due to the economy, or their exhibits – Shanghai not as popular as Japanophilia? I don’t think the public is sophisticated enough to know about Orientalism, but if you put up shoddy exhibits, it doesn’t become a must-see. I didn’t think the Shanghai exhibit was “exciting” in the same way “Samurais” are to the general public – despite the Orientalism and plain lack of historical accuracy in the latter. And the Shanghai exhibit was pretty weak politically, too. As a museum-goer, I want the exhibit to be politically relevant and challenging, as the material is.

17 11 2010

The samurai show actually continued through much of September of 2009. No doubt the economy has impacted attendance at museums in general, but you don’t see the rest of them lining up at the mayor’s office in the face of impending bankruptcy.

It’s not so much an issue of the public understanding Orientalism per se on an intellectual level, but rather whether or not what is showing at the museum is culturally relevant to contemporary life. Doesn’t it seem like there’s a gap between what we the public understand to constitute Asian culture today, versus an unending stream of timeless images of monks, martial artists, geisha, dragon ladies, samurai, and so forth?

In one of my university lectures this past spring, I showed a slide of “The Asian’s” website homepage taken during the Shanghai show. It featured four photos, depicting: a monk in traditional robe; a woman in tight-fitting chamsong reclining in a classically inviting odalisque pose; a martial artist; and a dragon. One of the art history students commented that it reminded her of photos of the World’s Fair that they had studied in class—and what century were those taken???

The Bay Area has a large Asian population that’s been here for some time, and the public in general is sophisticated enough to know that there’s a lot more to Asian culture than the mystique of premodern “tradition.” We know that exciting things are happening artistically and culturally (not to mention socially and politically) throughout the global Asian diaspora.

But what do we get from “The Asian”?

Last fall we ran some numbers and here’s what we came up with. Based on the exhibition history on “The Asian’s” own website, as of 9/2009 they had exhibited just over 160 shows since they opened, with less than 10% of them featuring living artists, on only one (1) that had to do with Asians living in the United States.

By that scorecard, Asian at “The Asian” roughly translates to “dead and foreign.” No wonder they didn’t want anything to do with living Asian American artists.

But it just might have something to do with the lack of vitality that was reported by the Chronicle.

17 11 2010


I just filled out an online survey for the museum on “contemporary Asian Art” – so it looks like they are trying to get some feedback. There was no comments section, though. It did remind me I have seen some contemporary exhibits I liked, but these were all several years ago – Montien Boonma, and a contemporary Korean artists exhibit, I believe. Nothing in the last 2-3 years. I agree that the exhibits could be more relevant and intelligent. Shanghai was woefully weak on political implications, as I recall. In the meantime, the de Young had a really great, thoughtful exhibit on Asian American artists…

Hopefully, the Asian will reorganize for the better.

19 11 2010

The Wall Street Journal covers the story in this Friday’s edition (11/19/10):

Money Woes Threaten Museum: San Francisco’s Asian Art Showcase Is Latest Institution Stressed by Soft Economy

24 11 2010

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