Gates launches Center for Asian Art and Ideas

By Irfan Shariff
Northwest Asian Weekly

Mimi Gardner Gates

Mimi Gardner Gates

The Seattle Art Museum, the University of Washington (UW), and Mimi Gardner Gates launched the opening of the Gardner Center for Asian Art and Ideas (CAAI) this month with a 10-part lecture series at the Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAAM).

The series, “Saturday University at SAAM: Asia in Focus,” introduces various topics in Asian history, art, and culture.

“We all have different knowledge about Asia. Many people are curious and want to know more,” said Gates, who received her doctorate in Asian art at Yale University.

“For many years, I have recognized the need and opportunity of an interdisciplinary center focused on Asia,” she said.

CAAI is based around a Pan-Asian experience. Gates modeled the center after the New York-based Asia Society, founded in 1956, which promotes dialogue and relationships between people and organizations in the United States and Asian countries.

Similarly, CAAI stems from the limited exposure that many Americans have with Asia. That several Asian countries are now players in the global economy, coupled with the extensive resources and organizations in Seattle, is a great recipe for deepening understanding.

Anand Yang, director of the UW’s Jackson School of International Studies, says that there are very few organizations in Seattle that have “Asia-wide” interests. Although there are several institutions that specialize in specific regions, he feels that only the UW and SAM/SAAM are generalists in their approach.

Yang, who gave the initial lecture at “Saturday University” on Oct. 3 on Indian history, is excited to collaborate with the new center.

“Jointly, we hope to broaden and deepen knowledge and understanding … in [both] the Seattle and Puget Sound area,” he said.

The lectures at “Saturday University” have taken India, China, and Japan — three major world players — as a starting point to introduce the center. UW professors from across all departments have joined to share the breadth of their knowledge.

In addition to the Saturday morning lectures, SAAM is offering free classes to the public in traditional physical and martial arts of the three countries: yoga for India, tai chi for China, and aikido for Japan.

“We have many superb specialists in our community, but the public rarely has access to their expertise,” said Gates.
Gates is no stranger to Asia and its cultures. From studying abroad in Japan as an undergraduate student at Stanford to teaching classes on the history of Chinese art at Yale, her academic career had been focused on this region.

At Yale University Art Gallery, Gates was curator of the Asian art collection for more than 10 years before becoming its director.

In 1994, she accepted the offer to become director of the Seattle Art Museum, and under her stewardship, SAM saw extensive changes, including the renovation and reopening of the downtown location. She married Bill Gates, Sr., in 1996.

Gates, now director emerita, stepped down from her role at SAM in July and now works as a volunteer with the museum. She will continue to oversee the new center and feels that she now has more time and energy to devote to her interest in Asia.

She also hopes CAAI will serve as a center for Asian American communities and organizations.

“We want Asian Americans to have ownership of the museum and center,” she said.

Yang is slightly concerned about funding for projects, but he has no doubt the center will continue to evolve. “Right now, everything we are doing is largely getting done by jumping in,” he says.

Gates has no doubt that CAAI will flourish. She is planning for a film series in early 2010, “Guilty Pleasures: The Best and Worst of Asian Films.”

“The Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park, a historic 1933 building filled with fine Asian art, is the perfect place to offer a holistic view of Asia,” said Gates. “Why not stretch the concept of a museum to broaden and deepen our knowledge and understanding of Asia?” ♦

For more information on the remaining “Saturday University at SAAM” lectures, visit

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