A Museum Partnership

Working together, the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries are gaining distinction in Asian art

Freer and Sackler
Wikimedia Commons

Previously I devoted this column to the extraordinary exhibition at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery "King of the World: A Mughal Manuscript from the Royal Library, Windsor." Today I write more broadly about the synergism born of joining the young Sackler Gallery with the venerable Freer Gallery of Art, which are working collaboratively as a national museum of Asian art for the United States.

When the Freer opened in 1923 with a collection of some 7,500 works of mostly East Asian art and 1,500 examples of American art, all donated by collector Charles Lang Freer, the Smithsonian was already a fortunate institution. Freer, though self-taught, proved to have a discerning eye for quality and a sharply focused vision of a museum dedicated to the study of the most distinguished examples of Asian and 19th- and early-20th-century American art. The Freer has continued to acquire superb works of East Asian and South Asian art and has assembled one of the world's great collections of the arts of the Islamic world.

With a gift of art and funds from Dr. Arthur M. Sackler, the late New York medical publisher, the Sackler Gallery was inaugurated as a separate museum in 1987 to increase the range of Asian art at the Smithsonian and to develop an international loan exhibition program. The Sackler shares the Freer's focus on historical Asian art but extends its scope to include the contemporary world, embracing a wider range of media and art. The two museums, which are physically connected, maintain separate collections but are administered by a single staff.

Much planning has been invested in this arrangement, and as I review the Sackler's 12 years and the Freer's 75, I see that the strategy is succeeding. Among the museums' offerings last year were an exhibition reflecting Charles Lang Freer's passion for Egyptian art and, at the Sackler, an exhibition of Chinese-influenced paintings by American artist Roy Lichtenstein. Forthcoming projects include a display of traditional Japanese tea wares from the Freer's collection, while the Sackler exhibits two newly acquired large black-and-white photographs of women in veils by the contemporary Iraqi artist Jananne al-Ani.

The founders of the Freer and the Sackler were both committed to educating the public about Asian art and promoting art scholarship. The museums are known internationally for welcoming researchers to study the collections, as well as for the quality of their publications and scholarship. Members and benefactors have generously donated art and funds to expand the collections.

The Sackler and the Freer together house the largest Asian art research library in the United States. The library collection consists of 60,000 volumes, including nearly 2,000 rare books. Half of the volumes are written and catalogued in Asian languages, and the facility is a major resource for scholars around the world. A recent endowment ensures that the acquisition of books will continue.

Other recent gifts to the museums support behind-the-scenes projects. From 1992 to 1995, for example, grants from the Art Research Foundation in Tokyo funded the conservation of Japanese paintings in the museums' East Asian Painting Conservation Studio. The success of that collaboration led to a new endowment to maintain a Japanese conservation training program at the museums.

Further support for conservation arrived in a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Under the grant, conservation scientists are investigating the use of laboratory methods to prevent deterioration of East Asian paintings.

Technology is another aspect of the Freer and Sackler mandate. The museums received Smithsonian funds to digitize and store on disks 12,000 color transparencies of art in the collections. When the project is complete, the images will be part of an Institution-wide database offering public electronic access to all Smithsonian collections.

Electronic access has special meaning for the Freer, an institution that promised its founder never to lend objects from the collection, a restriction that does not apply to the Sackler. While adhering to Freer's wishes, the staff is working hard to "circulate" the collection through publications and new applications of technology.

In engineering alliances among the traditions and facilities of the two museums while actively seeking resources to support dozens of new projects, we are making sure that Freer and Sackler visitors can look forward to a continuation of learning and enjoyment far into the future.

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