July 31, 2009
When Mimi Gates moved to Seattle in 1994 to be director of the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), it was the museum’s superb Asian collection that had lured her away from the Yale University Art Gallery after 19 years working there, 12 as curator and seven as director). At Yale, she had championed Oriental art within both the museum and community, backed by her doctorate from the university in Chinese art history. Marrying Bill Gates Sr. (father of Microsoft founder Bill Gates) in 1996 was, she says, “something unexpected and quite wonderful.”
Now Gates has brought the Seattle Art Museum’s Asian collection back to its Eastern roots for its first tour abroad. Titled “Luminous Jewels: Masterpieces of Asian Art from the Seattle Art Museum,” the 98 pieces, mainly from Japan and China, will travel to five Japanese museums. First stop is the Suntory Art Museum in Roppongi’s Midtown till Sept. 9.
Gates’ personal story is an integral element of the pieces on display, fascinating in its own way.
“When I moved to Seattle, quite sadly it was just at the time that Bill Gates’ mother was ill with cancer and passed away. So I never met her, but she was a wonderful person,” says the 60-something scholar. “So I tell people I am married to Bill Gates’ father, but I am not his mother,” she adds with a kind laugh. “My career is who I am, and that never changed. My husband Bill Gates, Sr. has always encouraged me and respected the fact that I had a career of my own. He loved the fact that I opened the world of art to him.”
For Gates, Seattle was the perfect fit.
“Having a great collection of Asian art, that attracted me to Seattle and I was thrilled to come,” she says. “The museum was positioned to grow, and the city was still coming into shape.”
The Seattle Art Museum Asian collection was originally amassed by founder Richard Fuller (1897-1976) and is unique among U.S. museums as most are built on European collections. Fuller’s collecting appetite was whetted as a young man when his family took a yearlong Asian voyage in 1919. The jade and antiques bought during that trip and in subsequent years of travel became the basis of the collection. Fuller navigated the museum’s collection and programs as director for 30 years from 1933-73.
Among the Chinese antiques and artifacts in the Suntory exhibition are magnificent porcelain pieces such as an early 18th century Qing dynasty Sang-de-boeuf vase with a copper-red glaze that reflects the show’s “treasure theme.” A Tang dynasty (eighth century) sandstone “Torso of a Bodhisattva” is an adorned, shapely rendition of the male figure with an uncanny feminine silhouette. A priceless 1521 Ming dynasty calligraphic work titled “Poem to the Painting ‘Sunset on the Jin and Jiao Mountains’ ” was a collaborative purchase involving about 22 individuals and organizations.
Japanese highlights include the unusual “Poem Scroll with Deer” (1610s), from which the exhibition title was drawn. “Dragonflies and Butterflies,” a pair of 1843 Edo Period (1603-1867) hanging scrolls by 70 artists, appear breathtakingly real. There is even a rare terracotta dogu (clay figurine) from the late Jomon Period (10,000-400 B.C.). But the showstopper are a 17th century pair of six-paneled folding screens titled “Crows.” An iconic piece from the Seattlecollection, the bold graphic study of that rascally bird is a powerful flight into the present: Any eye well seasoned in Japanese art will see the visions “Crows” wields of the future of pop art and manga that was to come after.
Much of the Seattle museum’s success is credited to Gates. During her 15-year tenure as director from 1994 until June this year, her community-focused vision has attracted a 40,000-strong membership in this city of 2.5 million and generous, community-wide financial support.
“The museum really serves the community,” she explains. “Our motto is ‘SAM connects art to life.’ It’s the idea that museums should present art in a way that relates to people’s lives and in a way they can form personal connections.”
In her first year she launched “Growing Up With Art,” a program linking SAM and local elementary and junior high schools. An offshoot of that became the Wyckoff Teacher Resource Center, opened in 1997, that now houses over 4,000 resources for educators. This fueled wider interest in the community that led to a $1.2 million award from a local fund in 2000.
Gates subsequently led a successful capital campaign that supported development at SAM’s three sites: the opening in 2007 of the award-winning Olympic Sculpture Park; the expansion of the downtown museum; and the revitalization of the landmark Seattle Asian Art Museum, a late Art Deco gem from 1933 that was the original SAM location. Throughout, she expanded the permanent collection with thousands of works of art that include African objects, Aboriginal paintings and an installation by contemporary Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang.
Gates’ arrival at the museum was, she calls, “a serendipitous moment.”
“I sometimes liken my role to a symphony conductor, pulling together a whole group of people,” she explains. “There was a whole generation of trustees who all came to have the same vision. We hired very talented professional staff as curators, such as Yukiko Shirahara (now chief curator at the Nezu Museum in Tokyo), and we seized opportunities when they presented themselves.”
An unusual aspect of this exhibition is the scholarly work involved.
“Twenty-five scholars did research on the art and we actually gleaned a great deal of information,” says Gates. “I firmly believe that a project like this should advance knowledge as well as make the art accessible to a broad population.”
She quickly adds, “It’s wonderful to have these pieces come back to Japan."