By James Tabafunda
Northwest Asian Weekly
It was the Seattle Art Museum’s (SAM’s) Asian collection and her love for fishing that caused her to accept the position of director of the SAM in 1994.
Ending her tenure as director last July, Mimi Gardner Gates has continued her association with the museum as its director emerita. To show appreciation for her 15 years of service at the SAM, the Asian American community sponsored a dinner on her behalf at the Imperial Garden Seafood Restaurant on Oct. 19 in Kent.
Approximately 150 people — including her husband, William H. Gates Sr. — gathered to give her a standing ovation and hear what she plans to do next. She began her speech by thanking the event’s organizers — Charlene and Jerry Lee, Omar and Christine Lee — and everyone in attendance.
“Derrick [R. Cartwright] succeeds me [as director at the SAM]. He has a great love of things Asian and will be equally, if not even far more, supportive,” Gates said.
Emcee Charlene Lee presented Gates with a necklace made by renowned sculptor and SAM trustee Gerald Tsutakawa. She said, “Again, Mimi, thank you for your years of service, and the best of luck to you in your new volunteer job.”
With the motto, “SAM connects art to life,” she has worked hard to make sure the museum has served the community.
That hard work resulted in increased financial support from the community. When she started a program called Growing Up With Art, which created a relationship between schools in the area and the SAM, the museum received $1.2 million from a community fund in 2000. Gates also led the efforts for first-rate programming at the Seattle Asian Art Museum and expansion of the downtown museum.
Gates assured the audience that “the Seattle Asian Art Museum is going to be better than ever.”
She says she is also proud of the Olympic Sculpture Park, which opened in 2007. “It’s open and free to the community, and it’s there for everybody to visit. I think it’s an integral part of the fabric of the community of Seattle,” said Gates.
“The Olympic Sculpture Park has completely transformed the city,” said Josh Yiu, SAM’s associate curator of Chinese art. “It makes Mimi a legend.”
“It has been a great privilege for me to work with Mimi,” he told the audience. “The Seattle Asian Art Museum has one of the top 10 collections of Asian art in the nation. To actually develop this collection further, it’s not easy because since 1935, we have learned to be a lot more selective about the things that we can collect.”
“Wen Zhengming’s ‘Poem to the painting “Sunset on the Jin and Jiao Mountains”’ (dated 1521) is the most important acquisition of Chinese calligraphy during Mimi’s tenure for the Chinese department,” he adds.
As for her new position as a SAM volunteer, Gates said, “In terms of volunteerism, I can now do what I like. I can do what I love, and that’s Asia, and that also is the museum.”
The Gardner Center for Asian Art and Ideas — based at the Seattle Asian Art Museum — was named in honor of her parents, Elizabeth P. Gardner and Edward T. Gardner. Gates’ mother was an artist who had a passion for Asia. Her father was an international businessman who supported interdisciplinary study.
According to Gates, it will provide “a holistic view of Asia.”
“I think we all need to celebrate it. We all need to learn about Asia,” she emphasized. The center will focus on “contemporary issues” and offer access to “the people in our community” who are “a really terrific source of information.”
“What we want to do is provide greater access to that expertise so people can broaden and deepen their knowledge, and engaging with Asia and have fun doing it,” said Gates. Fun, according to Gates, means opportunities for the general public to learn tai-chi for free before attending lectures about China, and the same opportunities to learn aikido before attending lectures about Japan.
The center will also be a gathering place for Seattle’s Asia-related communities and organizations.
Organizations both outside of and within the Pacific Northwest — such as the Asia Society of New York and the University of Washington — have already created partnerships with the center to begin an interdisciplinary dialogue between the academic community and the general public.
“I love Asia, and I also came from a university background, so the idea of stretching it out and looking at it from an interdisciplinary point of view is something I love doing,” said Gates.
A lesser known fact about Gates is that she can speak Mandarin. ♦
For more information about “Saturday University: Asia in Focus,” visit www.seattleartmuseum.org.
James Tabafunda can be reached at email@example.com.