Night at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

Arts | Spaces: Nights at Asian Art Museum

Spaces: Art Establishments After Dark

Dorothy Santos Arts Editor

by Dorothy Santos | Photos by Orange Photography & Drew Altizer Photography
Published November 2013 | The Night Issue

The creative spirit never sleeps. It creeps up on you like a pet at your feet and nudges you from your slumber like a heavy dream. If you’re lucky, creativity can root itself in your subconscious, allowing you to create without inhibition. But for those interested in a wakeful, multi-sensory art experience, the Asian Art Museum has been hosting a series of nighttime events within its historic mid-Market space for the past year. One of the museum’s more successful evening events, the Artists Drawing Club, does just what it says while offering activities and discourse to bridge the gaps between past and present, historic and contemporary.

Although younger patrons may be easily lured into an evening with ample visual stimulation, drinks, and a DJ, the Asian Art Museum takes a unique perspective in drawing, literally and figuratively, people in through interactivity with the entire institution. Previously the home of the San Francisco city library, the building oozes history with its marble steps, hardwood details, and Beaux-Arts architecture. The museum’s permanent collection pairs beautifully with its surroundings, and the institute takes pride in the fact that the largest collection of Asian art resides within its magnificent space. It should come as no surprise that this beautifully constructed San Francisco landmark perpetuates the city’s cultural history. Both the exterior and interior serve as important visual markers in the mid-Market area; outside, it displays a vestige of a pre–technology boom and condominium-developed San Francisco, while inside, it recognizes current changes in culture, urban landscape, and population.

As the city welcomes an influx of younger professionals, cultural institutions are programming evening events for these workers and recent transplants. Many of the art museums create programs tailored to a segment of the Bay Area population that in the past may not have been able to visit such places as frequently. Nowadays, it’s not only educators, schoolchildren, and retirees frequenting these spaces, but also people wanting a place to meet someone new or have fun with friends after work beyond the usual bars and restaurants. Because these events are reserved for the 20-something crowd, cultural institutions are fulfilling the “loungey” atmospheric needs of people wanting a nightlife that caters to mature party sensibilities, cultural exchange, and intellectual and social mindshare.

With the ubiquity of communication these days, how exactly does culture factor into nightlife and the ways we interact with one another? Can real-time socializing exist in a zeitgeist punctuated by touchscreen conversations? While places such as the Asian Art Museum take this into consideration, the museum also recognizes the value of a physical connection with culture and history. It’s easier to care when you include free drinks and light snacks, but the Asian Arts Museum’s objective is not based solely on providing some entertainment or a place to drink outside bars; its hope is to engage intelligent and curious individuals.

Most people I’ve spoken to about creativity and enlightenment seem to shy away from collaborative activities, remarking that such interactions should be left up to those with artistic, genius insights. While nighttime events come with potential new patronage and memberships, this type of programming also takes into account San Francisco’s evolving population of people seeking something new and inviting. Despite the disparity of the Asian Arts Museum’s surroundings, there is a genuine aim to reach out to the community and to those invested in having a more direct connection to artists. Visitors are propelled toward either creating or possessing a deeper appreciation for the ways artwork is made.

Like many other cultural institutions across the city, the Asian Art Museum opened its doors to a different audience, especially this past year. Not too long ago, there was a time when museums were reserved for daytime patronage. Although San Francisco is not aiming to be a sleepless city, social and cultural influences have attributed to its nocturnal activity, and the museum has done this successfully with the help of Public Programs educator Marc Mayer, who played an instrumental role in the development of night events such as the Artist Drawing Club.

A costumed crowd at Asian Art Museum

The Drawing Club entailed special visits from artists who incorporated drawing activities and interactive workshops that encouraged engagement with artwork in the permanent collection. Drawing upon inspiration with the artist’s own work and practice, Mayer reflected on the development of the club, stating that “each artist could draw inspiration from any element of the Asian Art Museum; it could be an object in collection, a special exhibition, the architecture of the building, or the surrounding neighborhood (mid-Market, Civic Center, Tenderloin). The challenge for each artist was how to transform these ideas or inspirations into an interactive public event through his or her art practice, making each event a unique experiment.” These events encouraged visitors to explore the different levels of the museum and draw parallels and connections to contemporary artworks.

The objective of events such as the Artists Drawing Club is to enable and encourage cultural involvement and learning, qualities that make the Asian Art Museum such a distinctly intelligent nighttime destination. Mayer considers himself “lucky for the pilot year of this program” and has worked with artists Ranu Mukherjee, Amy M. Ho, Julie Chang, Radka Pulliam, Weston Teruya, Binh Danh, Lordy Rodriguez, Toyin Odutola, and Ala Ebtekar. He shared that “projects provided fresh, diverse perspectives on different parts of the institution.” Unlike standard lecture series and artist talks many museums and galleries host for the community, the Asian Art Museum aims to both make events interactive and transform the museum into a place for discovery and dialogue. According to the Asian Art Museum blog, the Artist Drawing Club invites artists “to use the museum as a project platform, drawing inspiration from the collection, special exhibitions, the building, or the surrounding neighborhood to create an interactive event for the public to engage with museum through the artist’s process.”

Asian Art Museum at night

Due to its popularity and engagement with the community as well as the wave of newcomers to the city, the Artist Drawing Club will resume in March 2014. Until that time, the museum continues to pride itself on narrowing the gap between the artist and the viewer. The Asian Art Museum not only weaves and promotes social, cultural, and historical change by bridging the gaps between artists, artworks, and the viewer, but it also seeks to enact art’s purpose—to spark much-needed conversation. The creative process and the impetus for works becomes much more within reach as the museum continues to connect the community to artists. The club enables the viewer to become a co-creator and an active, kinesthetic learner. Most importantly, cultural production becomes accessible, personal, and memorable.

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