Asian Collections in Focus

A Smith College Museum of Art exhibition marks the centennial of the start of its Asian art holdings

by Elise Gibson

Chinese  Shan-shui Tattoo, 1999, by Huang Yan. C-print.

Chinese Shan-shui Tattoo, 1999, by Huang Yan. C-print. Courtesy of the SCMA.

Back in 1913, when Americans widely understood art to mean European paintings and sculpture, wealthy industrialist and art collector Charles Lang Freer gave a gift of Asian art to Smith College’s Hillyer Art Gallery. That gift—made at a moment when America’s aesthetic tastes were beginning to look to the East—formed the kernel of what has become Smith’s large and growing collection of art from Japan, China, Korea, and South and Southeast Asia.

In February, the Smith College Museum of Art will dedicate four galleries to a wide-ranging show honoring the college’s first hundred years of collecting Asian art. Collecting Art of Asia will display 140 pieces of Asian art, from historical to contemporary, all from the museum’s 1,700-piece permanent collection or promised gifts.

“We are making a statement with this show,” said Jessica Nicoll ’83, SCMA director and Louise Ines Doyle 1934 Chief Curator, who notes that Smith’s long tradition of collecting Asian art has largely gone under the radar—until now. “The reason we’re devoting so much real estate to it is because we really want to put our collection out on view. Five years from now I hope we’ll understand this moment as a turning point, where we shifted our understanding of the scope of our Asian collections.”

While Asian art composes 5 percent of the museum’s holdings, there has not been an expert on staff to work with it. That will soon change with the addition of an Asian-art curator. “That’s a game changer for us,” Nicoll said. The museum also hopes in the next several years to redesign a section of the building to create a dedicated gallery for Asian art, Nicoll said.

Those two developments—the curator and gallery—are made possible by gifts to the museum. In fact, Nicoll notes, the museum owes its Asian art collection to decades of generosity of entire collections that were donated to the museum. “[Smith’s collection of Asian art] is in many ways a collection of collections, telling the stories of the passion and experience of numerous collectors,” Nicoll writes in the accompanying catalog.

That story begins with Charles Lang Freer, who may be best known as the collector whose 1906 donation formed the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Asian Art. Freer was also a longtime patron of Smith College painter and art instructor Dwight William Tryon. In 1897, Tryon helped Freer organize the first public showing of his collection of Japanese paintings and screens. When it opened in Smith’s Hillyer Art Gallery, it attracted 600 visitors, according to research by Fan Zhang, a post-doctoral fellow, who wrote an essay for the exhibition catalog on the legacy of Freer and Tryon. “Many scholars believe the golden age of Asian art in America happened between 1890 and 1925, and Smith was right there at the beginning,” Zhang said.

The exhibition will be divided into four sections that showcase Smith’s collecting strengths: historical; contemporary East Asian art; printmaking; and contemporary videos. Programming will include an April 5 lecture by Massumeh Farhad, chief curator at the Freer/Sackler galleries.

Nicoll credits members of the Asian Art Task Force for pushing the college to deepen its commitment to Asian art and also to make sure that the museum reflects the growing internationalism of the Smith student body. Among the task force members are Joan Lebold Cohen ’54, Peggy Block Danziger ’62 and husband Dick, Julia Meech ’63, and Jane Chace Carroll ’53. “We’re building in Asian art,” Nicoll said, “but there’s already a lot here.”

SAQ Winter 2012-13