Asian Museum’s godmother packs her magic wand 

Museum directors seldom morph into rock stars, but San Francisco has had two who have truly rocked.

Harry S. Parker III, recently retired director of the Fine Arts Museums, oversaw the building of the $200 million de Young Museum and the extensive reconstruction of the Palace of the Legion of Honor.

Emily J. Sano was responsible for the velvet-smooth execution of the seemingly impossible $170 million move of the Asian Art Museum from Golden Gate Park to the rebuilt former Main Library in Civic Center.

Although her contract runs through June 2008, Sano has announced that she will retire at the end of this year.

"We got the museum to a good place," she said, "and after completing current contract negotiations and strategic planning, it will be time to move on."

From a staff of 40, operating in a wing of the old de Young, the Asian expanded into an organization of 150, located in a spectacular 163,000-square foot-facility. Sano and Parker tackled their rebuilding/relocation projects on top of myriad other tasks before them — administrative, artistic, fund-raising — the whole gamut.

So where do you go once leaving a high-visibility pressure-cooker? Parker retreated to Fishers Island, off New London, to "a Victorian cottage with an addition of concrete block and translucent fiberglass."

And what are Sano’s plans? "I may have a picture now and then of wandering around a garden in Tuscany," she said, "but no firm plans. [I] may continue to work in The City or move on to a new phase altogether."

She came from the Dallas Museum of Art, joined the Asian as curator in 1993, then became deputy director, and was named to her position as director in 1995.

Sano’s background includes degrees from Indiana and Columbia universities, lecturing and publishing worldwide, a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship, a Carnegie Grant, a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship and a Metropolitan Foundation award.

Museum exhibits, especially big ones, take years to put together. Before Sano leaves, she will have overseen preparation for important new shows including "The Courtly Arts of the Ming Dynasty" (summer 2008); "Lost Treasures of Afghanistan" (probably fall 2008); "The Dragon’s Gift: The Art of Bhutan" and "The Art of the Samurai," tentatively scheduled for spring and summer 2009, respectively.

Sano either participated in the preparation of or supervised work leading to the mounting of 63 exhibitions, 33 ofwhich originated locally. Highlights include "Tomb Treasures from China: The Buried Art of Ancient Xi’an (1994); "Mongolia: The Legacy of Chinggis Khan" (1995); and "Geisha: Beyond the Painted Smile" (2004).

Sano oversaw the expansion of the museum’s collection by more than 5,100 artworks, a 45 percent increase. The permanent collection today includes more than 16,000 objects. New at the Asian under Sano’s leadership are tea ceremonies, weekend performances, evening events for young professionals and family festivals.


Asian Art Museum

Where: 200 Larkin St., San Francisco
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, except until 9 p.m. Thursdays
Tickets: $12 general; $8 seniors; $7 students; $5 after 5 p.m. Thursdays; free for children 12 and under and the first Tuesday every month
Free: Children 12 and under and SFUSD students with ID
Contact: (415) 581-3500 or

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