Published  01/09/1987

The Arthur M Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC

The Arthur M Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.
A new museum of Asian and Near-Eastern art

By Miranda McClintic

The Arthur M Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution will open to the public on 28th September, 1987. This is only one of many American institutions - primarily museums and university medical research facilities - that have been supported by Dr Sackler. His interest in art paralleled his interest in medical research and he was an independent thinker and entrepreneur in both areas. As Dr Sackler himself described it, ‘Art and science are really two sides of the same coin. Science is a discipline pursued with passion; art is a passion pursued with discipline. At pursuing both, I’ve had a lot of fun.’

The Arthur M Sackler Gallery (pyramided roof) at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC with the Smithsonian Institution building (the 'castle') in the background.

Dr Sackler’s wide-ranging artistic enthusiasms were linked by his interest in understanding civilisation, society and humanity through the evidence of art. He was particularly fascinated by the way in which the ancient arts of Asia prefigure countless achievements in Western art and reveal the timeless fundamentals of human creativity. Dr Sackler knew well every object in his collections, did his own buying, and wrote persuasively about art and the issues it raised for him.


Circumstances of gift

Under Secretary S Dillon Ripley’s leadership, the Smithsonian Institution was evolving plans to expand its facilities for African and Asian art long before Dr Sackler’s involvement. The Smithsonian needed a new home for its collection of African Art, and the Freer Gallery of Art was restricted in its ability to make loans to or from the collection.

Dr Sackler’s 1982 commitment of funds towards a building, and his gift of 1000 objects from his incomparable collection of Chinese and Ancient Near-Eastern Art, represented a turning point for the entire project. It was then that Congress appropriated funds for the new galleries - half of the total funding came from the Federal Government and half from the Smithsonian trust funds and gifts from foundations, individuals and foreign governments - and the nature of the building to house the African and Sackler collections was determined.


A perfect match

Smithsonian officials had hoped to find a single private collection to form the basis of a new gallery of Asian Art, and Arthur Sackler’s collection was distinguished by its size, the thoroughness with which Dr Sackler bought groups of works, and the high level of quality insured by Dr Sackler’s good eye and concern with documentation.

According to Thomas Lawton, the Director of the Freer Gallery, the addition of the Arthur M Sackler Gallery to the Freer Gallery of Art has made the Smithsonian Institution the centre in the West for the study of Asian art, unique in its combination of collections, library, conservation facilities, curatorial staff and focus on research.

Over time, there was considerable competition for the Sackler Collection of Asian Art, but the Smithsonian appealed to Arthur Sackler in a number of ways. As a collector with an exceptional commitment to scholarly research and publication, Dr Sackler was naturally drawn to the Smithsonian, which functions as much as an educational institution as a museum. The collection of the Freer Gallery of Art, whose resources he greatly admired, would be an estimable counterpart to his own.

He knew that a location in Washington, on the Mall, would mean that his collection would be made widely available to large numbers of people, and that the Smithsonian had the resources to circulate the collection internationally. Finally, Arthur Sackler and S Dillon Ripley were compatible personalities, with friends in common, accustomed to thinking and operating on a grand scale, who shared the dream of creating a centre devoted to cultural exchange and understanding which would further the cause of world peace.

The personal importance to Arthur Sackler of this donation to his country (the Smithsonian Institution is the national cultural institution of the United States) is suggested by the fact that he had, throughout his life, given generously to an extraordinary number of institutions, either objects or funds, but this was the first time he gave both. He expressed to Thomas Lawton his feeling that ‘For someone with my background - only in the United States could I have been so successful - this is my gift of thanks’.


Selection of the collection

Thomas Lawton, the Smithsonian’s leading specialist in Chinese art, who is to be director of the new Gallery as well as the Freer, was responsible for the selection of its collection. Already familiar with much of Dr Sackler’s Asian art from exhibitions and publications, Lawton studied more than 10,000 works stored in warehouses; in storerooms at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and at Princeton, Colombia and Yale Universities; and in Dr Sackler’s office and home.

He focused his attention on the strengths of the Sackler collection: the Chinese jades and bronzes and the ancient Near-Eastern material. These areas were unsurpassed in breadth, both chronologically and geographically - as well as in quality.

Throughout the selection process, there was on-going discussion between Dr Lawton and Dr Sackler. Believing as a scientist that ‘a large enough corpus of data’ was a prerequisite for understanding, Dr Sackler was concerned with maintaining the coherence of bodies of works within the collection, suggesting that if the Smithsonian was interested in some of a group of bronzes or jades, it should take them all.

More personal was the gift of the fourth-century Middle-Eastern animal head rhyton in silver and gilt. Having initially refused Dr Lawton’s request for this piece because he had given it to his daughter, Dr Sackler soon called Dr Lawton to say that his daughter, Dr Carol Master, and he both felt that the rhyton should be part of the Gallery’s permanent collection.

As the selection proceeded, Thomas Lawton realised he was putting on his ‘wish list’ works whose total worth exceeded the sum originally stipulated. Dr Sackler repeatedly assured him that he should disregard this consideration and proceed with assembling all the pieces he most wanted for the new gallery’s collection. Nonetheless, the excess was something the Smithsonian officials had to think about.

After the final list of desired objects was submitted to Dr Sackler, Charles Blitzer, then Assistant Secretary for History and Art at the Smithsonian, received a telephone call from the donor saying that there was a problem with the selection. Fearing the worst, Mr Blitzer was delighted to learn that the ‘problem’ was that the Smithsonian had not asked for the Chinese hardwood furniture. Needless to say, the furniture was added to the collection.



The Arthur M Sackler Gallery occupies three floors of an underground complex which also houses, as a separate institution, the National Museum of African Art, as well as the International Center, and offices of the Smithsonian’s Directorate of International Activities, Travelling Exhibition Services and the National and Resident Associate Program. This complex is almost entirely underground because of the spatial restrictions accompanying the Sackler Gallery’s necessary connection to the Freer Gallery.

The project was designed by Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson and Abbott of Boston, with Jean-Paul Carlhian and Richard M Potter as the principal architects. Above ground, the deceptively simple structures of the Sackler Gallery, the African Museum, and circular entry pavilion are complemented by the Enid A Haupt Garden whose partly Asian-inspired, partly African, and partly Victorian design is compatible with the adjacent buildings.

Internally, the Sackler Gallery has 115,000 square feet of usable space of which 22,000 feet constitute the public areas of the museum. The public space was designed as an open shell that would provide maximum flexibility to accommodate the wide variety of exhibitions envisioned by Thomas Lawton and Milo C Beach, the Sackler Gallery’s Assistant Director. The floor plan of the galleries can be totally reconfigured to create galleries of various sizes, and ceilings can be raised and lowered in some places as well. In addition to two floors of exhibition galleries, there are extensive storage areas, with the spaces reserved for the permanent collection designed as open storage to facilitate study by students and scholars.


The collection

The collection has strong concentrations of work from the ancient Near East and of Chinese art from the Neolithic period up to the present. It is unrivalled in its ancient Chinese material. Complementing the Freer’s small collection of Chinese bronzes from metropolitan foundries, the 154 Sackler bronzes from regional centres afford a new understanding of the extent of artistic production all over China from the Shang (circa 1523 to circa 1028 BC) through to the Han (206 BC to 220 AD) dynasties. The collection of 475 jades, dating from Neolithic times to the twentieth century - unequalled outside of Asia - gives a similarly panoramic view.

The Sackler gift includes Chinese paintings from the tenth through to the twentieth centuries; examples of Chinese lacquerwork; Near-Eastern metal-work and ceramics; and sculpture from Japan, Cambodia, Thailand, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The single most famous object in the collection is the Chu silk manuscript from the fifth to fourth centuries BC whose historical importance is so great that Dr Sackler loaned it to the Gallery, rather than giving it, because he felt that the manuscript should one day return to China. Other works of distinction include: a graduated set of six bells, zhong, sixth century BC, from the Eastern Zhou dynasty that are rarely found outside China; a long jade blade, Chan, second millennium BC, Shang dynasty, which has no equal in size and date in Western collections; a bronze ritual vessel, type funding you from the Western Zhou dynasty, tenth century BC; a bronze ritual wine vessel, type you from the Shang dynasty, thirteenth century BC; and small jade animals exquisitely crafted to maximise qualities of colour and pattern inherent in the material.


Inaugural exhibition

At its opening, the Gallery will present almost all the works included in Dr Sackler’s original gift in the context of four large exhibitions, each with its own theme, as well as in three smaller installations of Persian and Indian paintings, and of sculpture from China, and South and Southeast Asia. A fully illustrated book, Asian Art in the Arthur M Sackler Gallery: the Inaugural Gift, will accompany the inaugural exhibitions.

The installations of these exhibitions have been carefully designed in scale and detail by Patrick Sears (the Sackler Gallery’s Chief Designer) to reach out to people who do not know about Asia. The Gallery has been, for the most part, broken into small spaces because most of the Sackler objects are small in size. Dramatic installations, with generalised architectural and decorative details reflecting the cultural ambience of the origins of the objects, help make the works more appealing to visitors. Maps of the areas from which the objects come are located in many galleries. Labels are not intrusive but easy to read, with subtle colour changes in the typeface used to differentiate object descriptions from general statements.

Monsters, Myths and Minerals is an exhibition as imaginative as its name in presenting 126 Chinese depictions of animals and monsters, mostly from the Han dynasty, in jade, minerals, stone, silver, ceramic and lacquer. The elegant installation makes clear the high quality of craftsmanship in a wide variety of materials, as well as the range of formal invention that the Chinese brought to this subject. Special events and a gallery guide for children will augment this exhibition’s natural appeal to a young audience.

Pavilions and Immortal Mountains: Chinese Decorative Art and Painting combines 120 paintings, furniture, and objects in lacquer, jade and ceramic dating from the tenth through to the twentieth centuries in installations that suggest the ways in which these objects belonged to an on-going intellectual aesthetic devoted to scholarship and antiquity. Groupings also illustrate the formal continuities and permutations that occurred among objects in different media through time. Sixteen masterworks of pegged wooden furniture from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) will be among the most striking works in this exhibition.

The entrance to In Praise of Ancestors: Ritual Objects from China is a simple staircase descending in front of a photo mural of a view down into a Shang tomb, with the ceiling above based on early Chinese tombs, subtly suggesting to the visitor that all the objects in this exhibition were in fact discovered in tombs. This impressive exhibit - which makes clear the way in which the Sackler material itself suggested the themes chosen for the inaugural exhibitions- - includes some 500 ancient jades and bronzes, some dating to 3000 BC, as well as the Chu manuscript, the earliest example of an illustrated Chinese text on silk.

Several ancient cultures from Iran, Anatolia and the Caucasus are represented by 124 objects in gold, silver, bronze, ceramic and ivory in the Art of the Ancient Near East. These objects, which date from the third millennium BC through to the mid-seventh century AD, range from ceremonial to utilitarian, and include silver and gilt rhytons dramatically visible from all angles in plexiglass vitrines.

Among the smaller exhibitions, that of fifteen Persian and Indian paintings from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century will serve as an introduction to a full-scale exhibition in late 1988 of the large group of paintings and manuscripts acquired by the Gallery since it was established. Temple Sculptures of South and South East Asia includes fifteen bronze and temple sculptures from India, Pakistan and Cambodia, dating from the third to the fourteenth centuries. Sixteen sculptures in stone and bronze reveal the evolution of Chinese Buddhist and Daoist Imagery from the second to the eleventh century.


Programmes and plans

The Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery will operate under a single administrative and curatorial staff, and share a library and conservation laboratory. The two Galleries will be regarded as separate museums, each having its own style - the Freer more specialised, the Sackler more popular in its mode of public address - and will maintain separate acquisition funds to enhance their respective holdings, with a view to creating a comprehensive collection of Asian art overall.

International loan exhibitions - travelling shows originating elsewhere, as well as those organised by the Gallery - will be the focus of the Sackler’s activities, though part of the permanent collection will always remain on view. The Sackler Gallery plans to present exhibitions devoted to folk art, architecture, photography, crafts and contemporary art, thus broadening the scope of attention given in most Asian museums.

Following the inaugural shows, the first exhibitions will be The Chinese Scholar’s Studio; The Ganges River: Photographs by Raghubir Singh; Masterpieces of Persian and Indian Painting; The House of Timur: Princely Arts in Fifteenth-Century Iran; and Masterpieces of Che School Painting. The Gallery will continue Dr Sackler’s practice of organising exhibitions from the collection and circulating them to other institutions.

Research and publication will be central to the Gallery’s activities. In addition to catalogues of the permanent collection and temporary catalogues published by the Smithsonian Institution Press, the Sackler Gallery will publish, in conjunction with Oxford University Press, a quarterly journal on Asian Art which will be wide-ranging in subject matter, inter-disciplinary, and directed to a broad audience.

Thomas Lawton’s long-term goal is to make the Sackler Gallery an active teaching institution at the highest level of scholarship, affording to specialists extended opportunities for study and discussion of special exhibitions, as well as of the permanent collection. He sees the museum as taking a larger educational role to compensate for the overall absence of Asian art courses in universities. Believing that Westerners are best informed about Chinese painting, he wants to increase the understanding of jade, furniture, ceramics and lacquers.

Milo Beach is interested in introducing a wider public, including children, to the glories of Asian art. Publications and an active education programme will be directed towards building up a greater understanding of, and sympathy for, Asian art than has hitherto been possible. More traditional symposia and seminars will be supplemented with a lively programme of Asian music and films.

Dr Sackler intended that the institutions he helped to establish - the Arthur M Sackler Museum at Harvard, the Arthur M Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology now under construction in Beijing, and the Arthur M Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution - would benefit from the opportunity for interchange among themselves. This summer, a faculty member and graduate student from the Archaeology Department of Beijing University were brought to Washington under a grant from the Sackler Foundation to begin year-long museological training at the Sackler and Freer Galleries.



Although Dr Sackler died before the building’s interior was complete and the collection fully installed, he had made many visits to the gallery during the past year and was reportedly euphoric in his response to the details of installation. This attention to meaningful contextual presentation, along with the striking quality of the collection, and the Gallery’s ambitious plans for the future, will allow the Arthur M Sackler Gallery to attract a large audience to the arts of Asia and the Near East and will ensure that the Gallery takes its place among the great museums of the world.

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