Since 1995, Emily Sano has worked extensively to rebuild and reshape the Asian Art Museum, transforming it into its current-day grandeur. Sano, the Museum’s current director (and previously the chief curator and deputy director), will retire at the end of this year, leaving her successor with big shoes to fill.
Sano’s interest in the arts was sparked in college when she visited Japan, where she met art historians that she had never encountered prior.“They were really just an interesting group and had so much to do in Tokyo because there were museums, temples, antique stores,” Sano said. “So I got very interested in Asian art, particularly Japanese art.”
Returning from Japan, she took art history courses and ended up with a master’s and doctorate in Asian art history, with a focus on Japan, from Columbia University. Her first few jobs gave her wide exposure to the world of art at institutions such as the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, and the Dallas Museum of Art.
But while Sano’s colleagues in European art each specialized in 100- to 200-year time periods within a single country, Sano was expected to be a specialist in all of East Asia, as well as Southeast Asia, the Himalayas and the Middle East — all countries whose artworks covered thousands of years, from the beginning of time to the present.
“I remember telling my colleagues in a meeting, ‘Asia is not a postage stamp!’” she said. “From then on, it became a personal mission to point out both the similarities and differences between the arts and cultures of Asian countries over time.”
At the time Sano was hired as the Asian Art Museum’s deputy director in 1993, the museum was looking to re-establish itself after its move to Civic Center.
Sano explained, “It had to do more with being visible — being capable of producing a full schedule of exhibitions every year to bring in audiences; publish books on shows and collections to establish a reputation for quality; and undertake satisfying programs for both children and adults to confirm our education missions and our service to the community.”
Part of the move involved a successful 1994 bond campaign to garner financial support from city residents for the museum’s relocation, which received overwhelming support from 70 percent of voters and $47.1 million for the museum.
The museum’s donors have always been supportive, according to Sano, with donations and memberships remaining high annually. Sano admits that “Anglo American philanthropists are far more numerous than Asian ones,” as the “concept of charitable giving for the social good was not developed in the same way [on the Asian continent] as in Europe.”
Under Sano’s watch, issues of diversity within the board of directors began to receive greater attention. In the early 1990s, the museum’s board decided to institute a policy to reach out and diversify membership.
“We had to be more inclusive of all the diverse Asian communities in the Bay Area,” Sano stated. “The museum’s collections are diverse, and we wanted to have board and staff who reflected that.”
Since the museum’s move, Sano has played a crucial role in expanding the collection. The original collection from Avery Brundage — a Chicago developer and Nazi sympathizer, whom some Asian Americans have accused of stealing art from the Chinese to bring to the United States — consisted of 8,000 objects that were bestowed upon San Francisco in 1959. Since Sano’s arrival, more than 5,000 artworks have been added.
In 1994, the first major exhibition was arranged: a relatively small 82-object collection from Xi’an province in China, which included terra-cotta warriors and items of the first emperor at Xi’an. To date, Sano’s leadership has led to the mounting of 63 special exhibitions.
The museum is also moving towards displaying more contemporary art exhibitions from time to time.
“There is kind of a frenzy going on in the contemporary art field, with many of the best artists in the world coming from Asia,” Sano explained. “Both classical and contemporary art have to move together — and that’s the challenge to the museum.”
Sano’s successor will be kept quite busy.
“We’d still like to strengthen the financial base, attract more audiences. There are people that don’t even know about the museum,” she said, adding that another wing in the back of the building is in the planning stages.
When asked about her plans for retirement, Sano chuckles and responds, “I don’t particularly like the word. It too much implies bedroom slippers, and I’m not quite ready for bedroom slippers.”
Emily Sano’s Favorite Piece
If it’s a “burning building” question, if I had to grab one thing before I left, it’d be the 338 Buddha — absolutely amazing. It’s the earliest dated Chinese Buddha figure. It was built using bronze, and for its type, it’s remarkably large — about 9 to 10 inches tall. It was a very important pilgrimage piece and has this inscription on the back of it that indicates that the piece was commissioned by a couple; it has the date that it was made.The piece was found in China and made its way to the Western markets, apparently with a cache of groups of other objects buried along the bank of a river. We don’t know when, but eventually, the washed-up items were found and brought to the markets.