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Keeping the Art Safe at the Asian Art Museum

While SAM’s Asian Art Museum is closed, exhibits are still on display, waiting for the day that visitors can safely return to the building. A handful of staff are onsite, ensuring the safety and well-being of the art entrusted to SAM’s care. Sincere and tremendous thanks to Security, Environmental Services, and Facilities, who are in the building daily keeping a close eye on the art.

Throughout much of the closure, the Conservation team worked primarily from home and visited the Asian Art Museum only as needed. Environmental monitoring continued with the help of onsite Security and Facilities staff, who updated conservators to any changes in temperature or humidity. This information is recorded to create a record of the gallery environment over time. Because dust and debris can damage the surface of paintings and other artworks, the Conservation team also monitored, measured and recorded dust levels. Insects were a concern as they sometimes have a taste for paint, wood, fiber and other materials. Fortunately, both dust and insects have been at a minimum throughout the closure.

Some artworks required special interventions to protect their stability and longevity. Textiles were covered with light-weight tissue paper to protect from dust. In some galleries, movable walls were used to shield objects from light. The image above shows textiles at the Asian Art Museum as Chief Conservator Nick Dorman prepared tissue paper and moveable walls to protect the display. Light sensitive works, such as works on paper and paintings, were completely covered with black cloths to minimize light exposure. This type of preventive care can help minimize the need for more costly and invasive conservation procedures.

With careful planning to ensure the minimum number of necessary staff onsite and new work habits, the Conservation team has resumed paused projects. One major project that has been underway for several years and is now almost complete is the redesign of art storage at the Asian Art Museum. The new configuration provides more room, an improved layout, and better climate control. The racks seen on the left side of the image will be used to hang paintings and the cabinets to the right will be used to store scrolls.

Looking ahead, Conservation has resumed planning for upcoming exhibitions and art rotations. Fragile, light sensitive artworks, such as hanging scrolls, are usually displayed for only three months before being replaced with another, similar artwork. The Conservation team has been checking the condition of scrolls scheduled for upcoming rotations at the Asian Art Museum to ensure that they can be safely displayed. Every inch of the scroll is carefully examined, and any condition issues (flaking paint, discolorations, fading) are recorded. After it is taken down, the scroll is reexamined to make sure its condition is the same as before exhibition.

The Asian Art Museum continues to be closed until further notice and monitoring of the works is ongoing. Meanwhile, the Seattle Art Museum has reopened and the Conservation team is hard at work preparing for City of Tomorrow: Jinny Wright and the Art That Shaped A New Seattle. Evaluating modern and contemporary paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs for safe display, performing minor conservation treatments and reframing art as needed are all important steps in readying the Wright Collection for exhibition. We can’t wait to share this new exhibition with you.

– Rachel Harris, Asian Art Conservation Center Associate

Images: Writings in Seal Script, 2011, Yao Guojin, Chinese, ink on paper, 23 1/2″ x 10,’ Gift of Frank S. Bayley III and Cheney Cowles, 2012.10.3. Photos: Nicholas Dorman. Photo: Marta Pinto-Llorca.

Why Tatami? Conserving Asian Paintings at SAM

One of the most unique features of the newly remodeled Asian Art Museum is the Asian Paintings Conservation Studio. As the only conservation studio on the west coast entirely devoted to the care and conservation of Asian paintings, the studio provides new opportunities to care for SAM’s Asian art collection. Once it is fully operational, the studio will also accept conservation projects from regional museums and private collectors. Designed so that the public can view the studio through large glass doors, the studio is located on the lower level of the Asian Art Museum. When you peer through the glass doors, you will immediately notice a beautiful tatami platform enclosed with sliding shoji doors. This platform will serve as a dedicated work area for a small team trained in the care and conservation of Asian paintings.

The tatami platform and shoji doors were built by a local master craftsman, Koji Uchida. Mr. Uchida’s company, Wafu Builders, designs and builds indoor and outdoor spaces using traditional Japanese carpentry techniques. Based on research conducted by our Chief Conservator, Nicholas Dorman, on research trips to Asian paintings conservation studios in Asia, North America and Europe, Mr. Uchida and Mr. Dorman collaborated on the design of the studio. We are so lucky that Mr. Uchida lives within driving distance of the museum!

Mr. Uchida built the tatami platform and shoji doors from the ground up. Before the remodel, this area housed staff offices and is part of the original building footprint. As you would expect in an old building, the floor and walls are not completely square or level. To create a level foundation for the tatami, Mr. Uchida built a two-by-four frame. As you can see in this photo, he used hundreds of custom-cut shims to level the platform.

Once the substructure was complete, Mr. Uchida began to build out the visible elements of the platform. The platform features 12 tatami mats, which are surrounded by a border of fine-grained Alaskan Yellow Cedar. The next image shows the beautifully interlocked corners of the platform. Creating this careful fit required precision cuts and impeccable measurements. Mr. Uchida’s workmanship is meticulous, and he spent many hours carefully fitting and refitting the various pieces of wood until the final composition met his high standards.

Though Mr. Uchida used power tools to rough cut the wood, many details were executed with hand tools. In the image below, you can see that the slot in the vertical beam is hand chiseled. Be sure to notice the unique grain pattern of the vertical post. Made of Kitayama cedar, this post was strategically cut to showcase the wood’s wavy grain. A building material often used in traditional Japanese architecture, Kitayama cedar grows in and around the Kitayama area of Kyoto. The wavy grain is created by pruning branches from the trunk as it grows and tightly binding the trunk with pieces of plastic and wire. Left in place for several years, this wrapping creates a distinctive and highly prized grain pattern.

Below is another view of the same corner. With the horizontal support in place, you can see how careful measuring and cutting creates a perfect fit.

Once the platform and the shoji framing were complete, Mr. Uchida returned to his studio and began making the tatami mats. Using tatami omote (the woven facing) imported from Japan, Mr. Uchida constructed each mat. The blue edging, or heri, is made from hemp and is also imported from Japan. Tatami heri vary from plain colors to subtle patterns. Mr. Uchida felt that for such a unique and special space, hemp heri would be appropriate and signify its importance.

The black metal frame and arms are a lighting system that will allow the conservation team to bring work lights close to the art undergoing conservation

Sliding shoji doors were the final component. Working from his home workshop, Mr. Uchida built the lattice for the doors and carefully glued the paper facing to the lattice. Faced with mino paper from Japan, the doors can be left open for public viewing or closed for when a conservator is working on a tricky treatment. Both the lower shoji and the upper ranma slide smoothly and quietly.

It was a pleasure to observe the work of Mr. Uchida throughout the process. Every day, I feel lucky that my desk is adjacent to this beautiful space. Once the Asian Art Museum can reopen, be sure to stop by and take a peek at the studio. When we are ready, we will offer opportunities for the public to come inside the studio and learn more about Asian paintings conservation and current studio projects. In the meantime, we are making plans for future conservation projects and looking forward to reopening the studio. We can’t wait to welcome you back to the museum!

– Rachel Harris, SAM Asian Paintings Conservation Studio Associate

Photos: Rachel Harris

Muse/News: Projecting hope, art world pets, and a Biscuit Klimt

SAM News

This week, Stay Home with SAM takes you inside the Asian Art Museum’s new Asian Paintings Conservation Center and building (literally) for the community with SAM educator Rayna Mathis.

The Stranger helpfully rounds up arts organizations you can support during the now-earlier Give Big campaign, including SAM.

Local News

Seattle Met has a reading list of books by Washingtonians—“recent releases, stone-cold classics”—along with links to indie booksellers.

Seattle Times’ Moira Macdonald picks “8 of the most interesting arts events to stream” this week, including Seattle Public Library’s Virtual Story Time, Elizabeth Kolbert’s Earth Day virtual lecture for Seattle Arts & Lectures, and Sir Patrick Stewart reading Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Crosscut’s Brangien Davis shares from her “isolation bubble” all the ways creatives are making art to lift spirits; don’t miss Electric Coffin’s video from their recent nighttime light projections, including on the façade of SAM.

“Each of the ‘rogue’ screenings featured a balloon decorated with a floral pattern and a message such as ‘We Will Not Desert You,’ ‘Hang in There’ or ‘We Will Survive.’”

Inter/National News

“Pets of the Art World!” says the Artnet headline. Tag yourself, I’m Olga, Rachel Corbett’s cat.

Smithsonian Magazine shares details of the free online courses in art, fashion, and photography being offered by MoMA.

The New York Times’ Will Heinrich recommends 15 art documentaries to stream, including Frederick Wiseman’s wonderful “National Gallery.”

“It’s a good batch of films guaranteed to transport you out of your living room, whether it’s to the glamour of the Mediterranean coast, to the excitement of a contemporary art auction, to the otherworldly ecstasy of a Sun Ra concert, or even to the squalid claustrophobia of Edvard Munch’s Norwegian adolescence.”

And Finally

Explore the #GettyMuseumChallenge. (Biscuit Klimt has to be the winner.)

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Images courtesy of Electric Coffin.

Inside SAM’s Asian Painting Conservation Center

“Without the periodic conservation of these works, they simply wouldn’t exist anymore. So this work is really critical and we are conserving our collections so that they are lasting in perpetuity for generations to come.”

– Nick Dorman, SAM Chief Conservator

When the Asian Art Museum reopens, you’ll be able to stop by to learn about the conservation of Asian paintings by peeking through the public viewing window into the conservation space to see the progress! Through a $3.5M challenge grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a new Asian Paintings Conservation Center at the Asian Art Museum is devoted to the conservation, mounting, and study of Asian paintings. The new conservation center serves the museum’s collection as well as institutional and private collections in the region. This is the first museum center of its kind in the western United States. We hope to have it completed by 2021.

If you value the ways SAM connects art to your life, consider making a donation or becoming a member today! Your financial support powers Stay Home with SAM and also sustains us until we can come together as a community and enjoy art in the galleries again.