The Sackler is one-half of what is formally known as the National Museum of Asian Art in the United States. And though the two museums are connected by purpose, research, staff—and subterranean passageway, they occupy separate buildings.
The Sackler Gallery exists because primary benefactor Arthur M. Sackler gave the Smithsonian Institution 1,000 works of Asian art and $4 million to put toward museum construction. When it opened in 1987, the gallery held mostly ancient works, including early Chinese bronzes and jades, centuries-old Near East ceramics, and sculpture from South and Southeast Asia. Pieces from that stellar permanent collection continue to be on rotating view in several underground galleries, along with other precious works acquired over the years, like an assemblage of Persian book artistry and 20th-century Japanese ceramics and works on paper. The collection now numbers nearly 9,000 objects.Especially recommended is Vietnam’s Ceramics: Depth and Diversity (July 11, 2015–indefinitely), which displays 23 examples of centuries-old stoneware vessels that reflect the variety of form and artistry at work in a country that holds 54 ethnic groups.
But a big focus today is on the works of contemporary Asian artists, as you’ll notice upon entering the museum’s street-level pavilion. This floor is home to a gallery reserved for rotating installations of contemporary works by today's Asian and Asian Diaspora artists. Perspectives, as the series is known, has showcased a number of powerhouse new voices over the years.
Once you’ve viewed Perspectives, descend the stairs to tour exhibits on sublevels 1, 2, and 3 that include the arts of China and sculptures of South Asia and the Himalayas. Notice as you go the monumental sculpture suspended from the skylit atrium, through the stairwell, and down to the reflecting pool at bottom. Entitled Monkeys Grasping for the Moon, the sculpture was designed specifically for the gallery by Chinese artist Xu Bing. The work links 21 laminated wood pieces, each of which spells the word “monkey” in one of a dozen languages.
The Sackler and the Freer Gallery frequently host public programs, partnering on some of them, like the hugely popular Asia After Dark parties aimed at those under 40.