From art museum to personal art collection, Emily Sano’s passion for Asian art is palpable.
Standing at the window of the penthouse suite in the Hawaii Prince Hotel Waikiki, Emily Sano looks out over Honolulu. From here, the director emeritus of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco has a clear view from Ala Wai Harbor all the way to Aloha Tower, a landscape which includes the former IBM Building in Ward Village, where internationally renowned avant-garde artist Yayoi Kusama has recently debuted a new installation. Titled “Footprints of Life,” the exhibition features 15 giant hot pink blobs covered in black polka dots scattered through the Ward Village courtyard as part of a kick-off for the upcoming inaugural Honolulu Biennial arts festival in 2017. Sano recently delivered a lecture on Japanese artist Kusama as part of a month-long series of programming for the show.
“I was truly impressed that the [Honolulu] Biennial Foundation would take on an artist as interesting and challenging as Yayoi Kusama. It’s tremendously interesting that this community is forward enough looking to want to attract a diverse artistic asian component to this biennial next year as well as to draw attention to Pacific Rim artists,” says Sano, about the exhibition. “Those little pink forms are so cute and they’re funny. They flow through that plaza and soften the hard structures of the architecture. I hope people will experience something like that if they pass through; not as how one might take in a painting on the wall, but as something that affects them while walking through an environment.”
Sano’s appreciation for the importance of well-designed spaces comes from her time at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. She began at the Kimbell fresh out of Columbia University with a Ph.D. in Asian Art History. This was late 1979, when the Kimbell was the second richest museum in America. The following year, the museum appointed a new director, Ted Pillsbury, who began buying art at a rapid rate, which granted Sano a tremendous opportunity right out of school: help purchase artwork, organize exhibitions, and educate the public about Asian art.
“Being at the Kimbell was an amazing experience,” Sano recalls. “I was able to have direct experience with all curatorial matters from working with dealers and collectors to hosting shows with other museums, both national and international. I was extremely lucky to have this available for me in this early part of my career.”
Sano remained at the Kimbell for the next decade, where she ultimately became the curator of Asian art and deputy director of academic services. In 1989, she became the deputy director for the Dallas Museum of Art, and in 1993, the deputy director for the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Here she would remain for 15 years, overseeing a massive and delicate project: moving the museum from its location at the Golden Gate Park, in a building shared with the H.M. de Young Memorial Museum, to the renovated former Main Public Library in the San Francisco Civic Center.
The project was not without controversy but Sano stayed the course. Dedication is part of her character; although she was born in California, Sano and her parents were relocated to a Japanese internment camp in Arizona through World War II. After the war, her family took jobs as laborers on a cotton plantation in rural Arkansas with more than a dozen other families. Eventually, all the other families moved away, but Sano’s parents stayed and became sharecroppers. Like her parents, Sano was determined to see her work through.
And she did. When the San Francisco Asian Art Museum reopened to the public after moving to its new home in the Civic Center in 2003, it featured additional room for exhibitions and educational facilities, more spacious galleries—and a massive spike in the number of visitors. Sano remained at the museum until retiring in 2008. Her goal had been to travel to Florence, Italy, by early summer. She had already rented the apartment.
Instead, Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle (and fifth-richest man in the world according to Forbes), would reach out to Sano for her advice on Asian art. “He wanted to commission a Japanese painter to create a pair of sliding doors for his home, and I was asked to recommend someone,” says Sano. “Ellison is a wonderful, charming man. Intelligent and thoughtful.”
Sano’s help with a single pair of doors turned into a role assisting Ellison as his personal curator for Asian art for several years. Today, Sano is the senior advisor for Asian art at the San Antonio Museum of Art, currently working on a major show of Pure Land Buddhism art for an exhibition in 2017. Her passion—and the basis of her doctoral dissertation at Columbia—is Buddhist sculpture; specifically, the art form’s craftsman-ship and heritage. Being able to share that knowledge with others is critical for Sano.
“Asian art isn’t that well-known, people don’t really understand it. So working at a museum gives me great satisfaction because I have the opportunity to introduce something to audiences that they may not be familiar with, like this.” Sano says. “Asian culture offers so much for people to understand in terms of a culture, human endeavor, the longevity of tradition, and hopefully the survival of that tradition’s art and culture.”
Back at the window of the Hawaii Prince, Honolulu along Ala Moana Boulevard is composed of skyscrapers and construction cranes. It’s a sunny day outside and things are moving. At Ward Village, Kusama’s pink blobs shine brightly in the light. “Things do evolve, of course, and contemporary art is a major movement now. But I hope audiences realize that the art evolved out of something, it didn’t just happen,” Sano says, looking ahead. “I’m genuinely passionate about art and the role that art can play in enhancing people’s lives; I believe in the need for artistic expression both as a personal development but also for broader cultural development within communities. That’s what I’m all about.”