Guide to Visiting San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum
Located at 200 Larkin St. in the Civic Center neighborhood, the San Francisco Asian Art Museum houses more than 18,000 pieces in its permanent collection. These represent 6,000 years of culture, from every corner of Asia.
The museum has been a part of San Francisco since 1966, when a new wing was built onto the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in Golden Gate Park to house a collection donated by Chicago industrialist Avery Brundage. He made another donation to the Center for Asian Art and Culture in 1969 and bequeathed his remaining pieces to the museum upon his death in 1975. The museum, whose name was changed to the San Francisco Asian Art Museum in 1973, moved to its current location in the city’s former main library in 2003 after the building was renovated and adapted for its new purpose.
The San Francisco Main Library was built in 1917 in the Beaux Arts style, a combination of Baroque, Greek, Roman and Renaissance architectural styles. Architect George Kelham was influenced by the City Beautiful movement, which strove to instill civic pride by housing cultural, educational and governmental institutions in grand buildings located around a central plaza. During the redesign of the building for the museum, Italian architect Gae Aulenti installed glass panels to let in more light, built another floor in the existing space and imported an authentic Japanese teahouse to showcase. The result is an impressive 163,000 square foot space for the equally impressive Asian art museum collection.
The Permanent Collection
Although the museum is large, its permanent collection is larger. In order to make sure the statues, paintings, ceramics and other pieces are seen, the displays are changed regularly. Visitors are treated to artwork from China, Japan, India, Korea, Cambodia, India, the Philippines, the Himalayas and other cultures in the Southeast, South and West Asia regions. Must-see pieces include a 3,000-year-old bronze rhinoceros-shaped vessel, the oldest known Chinese Buddha statue, a Korea Goryeo dynasty celadon pitcher with lid, a lacquer statue of Buddhist deity Simhavaktra Dakini, a statue from the 900s depicting Buddha triumphing over Mara and a pair of 1,000-year-old Cambodian sculptures of Hindu deities Shiva and Parvati.
Viewing the Museum
The time it takes to view the museum depends on you, but a good rule of thumb is to allow 2.5-3 hours to tour the entire building. The average visitor takes 1-1.5 hours in the special exhibit and 1.5-2 hours to view the collections. Museum staff recommend that visitors start in the permanent collection galleries on the third floor and then head down to collection galleries on the second floor. Visitors who’d like to view the special temporary exhibits first should go to the first-floor galleries, starting near the escalator in the South Court. Those with smartphones can download the Asian Art Museum by Cuseum app for a GPS-enabled, personalized tour of the museum’s masterpieces and/or architecture. The Asian Art Museum Multimedia Tour app, for iPhones and iPads, lets you learn about the museum ahead of time, and gives detailed gallery maps and specific information about featured artwork.
Where to Eat
Immerse yourself, not just in Asian art, but also in Asian culinary culture at the museum’s Cafe Asia. If you crave upscale French and Northern Italian cuisine with an American influence, walk about six blocks to Absinthe Brasserie for lunch, dinner or drinks. Jardiniere, a French-influenced restaurant showcasing locally sourced foods, is just a few blocks from the museum and opens at 5 p.m. Farther out, meat eaters will enjoy Espetus Churrascaria Brazilian Steak House for a taste of a culture far different from any in Asia.
Visiting With Kids
Children ages 12 and under can visit the Asian Art Museum for free. If you’re traveling with children over five, ask at the information desk for a free Elements of Art Explorer Pack, which teaches kids about the elements of art using fun props. For kids 3-6, pick up Art Cards instead, which help them look for animals and art throughout the museum. Weekly events include kid’s tours on Saturdays, Storytelling on Sundays, and Family Fun Days scattered throughout the calendar. The museum also participates in Target’s First Free Sundays program, which gives free general admission on the first Sunday of each month, along with various free family programs throughout the day. First Free Sunday is first come, first served. Check the museum’s website to find out specific days and times for all of these events.
The Asian Art Museum is welcoming to all visitors, including those with special needs. Trained service/therapy animals are allowed, and wheelchairs and folding stools are available at Coat Check. The museum offers assisted listening devices and ASL interpreters for some tours and public programs, but you need to contact the ADA Coordinator (415-581-3598) at least two weeks before your visit. Those with visual impairments may want to ask for a large-print floor plan, magnifier or Talking Signs receiver from the Information Desk.
How to Get There
The Asian Art Museum is across from City Hall, between Fulton and McAllister streets. If taking BART mass transit, get off at the Civic Center/UN Plaza station. SF Muni Bus passengers can catch the 5 Fulton, 6 Haight/Parnassus, 7 Haight/Noriega, 19 Polk, 47 Van Ness and 49 Van Ness/Mission lines. The F Market Streetcar, as well as the J Church, KT Ingleside/Third Street, L Taraval, M Ocean View and N Judah Muni Metro streetcars, also stops near the museum. Drivers can look for street parking or park in lots in the blocks surrounding the museum. Cyclists can lock their bike at the racks next to the museum entrance.
How to Buy Tickets
You can buy your tickets to the San Francisco Asian Art Museum in person or online. Members get free admission.