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Once-struggling Asian Art Museum set for major ‘transformation’

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The Asian Art Museum is planning to build a new pavilion atop a wing on the museum’s Hyde Street side. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum is set for a major, multi-tiered “transformation” in the coming years that museum officials are hopeful will elevate the institution after a rocky financial period.

The museum filed an application for an expansion with the Planning Department in March, detailing the $25 million project that will feature a 12,000-square-foot exhibition pavilion that is set to become one of San Francisco’s largest art exhibition spaces.

“We really want to have a large state-of-the-art facility for exhibitions so we can serve our public better and with more engaging and more vibrant programs,” said Jay Xu, director and CEO of the Asian Art Museum.

Improvements to the lobby and renovations to classrooms on the main level are also in the works.

The ambitious project comes as the museum celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and looks to update and repurpose its existing spaces to better serve visitors.

The transformation, Xu explained, is threefold: to expand the space, serve more students, and better celebrate art and the visitor experience.

“We really want to make Asian art and culture a vibrant part of American life,” Xu said.

The new pavilion will sit atop an existing, lower-level wing on the museum’s Hyde Street side that was constructed in the 1990s, and add about 9,000 square feet of gallery space to the museum’s first floor.

The museum’s classrooms, which serve around 35,000 students each year, will be updated to be able to offer arts education programs to some 50,000 annually, Xu said.

The Asian Art Museum moved to its current space in the Civic Center 13 years ago after opening in a shared space with the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park in 1966.

Today, the museum lays claim to a collection of more than 18,000 artworks spanning 6,000 years. It’s considered one of the largest museums in the Western world exclusively featuring Asian art.

The planned renovation marks a significant step forward for the museum, which in 2011 was guaranteed a $99 million loan by The City to keep its foundation afloat after the museum was in jeopardy of shutting down because of the foundation’s troubles.

The world-renowned museum is owned by The City but operated by the foundation, which borrowed $120 million in 2000 to renovate its building, the San Francisco Examiner previously reported. The loan was backed by JPMorgan Chase, which threatened to force it into bankruptcy after the foundation was in technical default on its loan in 2010.

City officials announced the deal to keep the museum open in 2011, which included the bank forgiving $21 million of the foundation’s $120 million debt, and renegotiating the rate and term of its loan.

The museum has raised more than $50 million in recent years. Private donations primarily from board members will fully fund the museum’s $25 million “transformation,” museum officials said.

Construction could begin as early as next year.

“This is the 50th anniversary; it’s very meaningful that we launch the next chapter of growth, so we can truly have a new beginning on the 51st year,” Xu said.

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