In a world of intensifying global connections, kaleidoscopic perspectives, and virtual realities, where does one go to make sense of things? Museums are places where one can find ways—through seeing, comparing, and appreciating—to understand and appreciate varieties of human experience. Like maps, museums tell us both where to look and how to look.
And just as maps are redrawn or are even re-oriented by new thinking and new technologies, so, too, museums. All art museums face the challenges posed by emergent forms of culture, changing expectations on the part of the public, and increasing financial pressures. But for a museum devoted to the arts and cultures of Asia, particularly in what is fast becoming the Asian century, there are special opportunities.
On May 9, 1923, the Freer Gallery of Art quietly opened its doors to the public, the fulfillment of Charles Lang Freer’s commitment to make his collection of nearly 10,000 Asian and American works of art available to the nation. In addition to being the first fine arts museum on the National Mall, the Freer Gallery reflected its founder’s passion for the arts of Asia, the works of James McNeill Whistler, and contemporary American art, as well as the newfound international ambitions of the United States.
Almost sixty-five years later, on September 28, 1987, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery opened, adding another thousand works of Asian art and over 40,000 square feet of public space. The addition was genuinely transformative. Not only did it expand capacity for educational and research activities, but for the first time it also enabled the Smithsonian to mount an active program of international loan exhibitions in the arts of Asia.
Together the Freer and Sackler now house one of the world’s finest collections of Asian art. Some 42,000 objects range from the Middle East, through South and Southeast Asia, to East Asia, from the Neolithic period to the twenty-first century. Many of these works are renowned and iconic. Conjoined physically and unified administratively, the Galleries are dedicated to increasing our understanding of the arts and cultures of Asia through a broad portfolio of exhibitions, publications, conservation, research, and education. Free and open to the public 364 days a year, the Freer and Sackler constitute the Smithsonian’s national museum of Asian art.
One National Museum
Charles Lang Freer’s success as an industrialist and a connoisseur of Asian art derived in no small part from the interconnected world in which he lived. Now, in an unprecedented moment of global interdependence, when the economic and cultural hegemony of North America and Europe has given way, and when Asian societies are increasingly powerful hubs in a polycentric and networked global system, there is a new urgency—not just for preserving art and culture in a time of extraordinary change, or for fostering an understanding of the historical, cultural, and artistic diversity of Asian cultures and societies, but for revising and refocusing some of our core assumptions and operations as a museum.
This strategic plan is the fruit of that creative process of revision and refocusing. Based on broad and wide consultation, and fully aligned with the Smithsonian Institution’s strategy, it charts a path for the museum’s second century that is as faithful to our past as it is ambitious for the future. The vision, values, and goals that it sets out promise a more creative, engaged, and efficient museum, one that celebrates art and addresses essential questions about culture. Above all, it aims to do full justice to the extraordinary art it houses and the public trust it holds.
Chase F. Robinson
Dame Jillian Sackler Director
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art