If the lushly embroidered Young family robes hang in the Wing Luke Museum like memories, that’s maybe not a coincidence. Nearly two years after Tacoma Art Museum’s controversial decision not to keep the Young family collection of Chinese artifacts, and 20 years after they were last seen in public, nine textile pieces from that collection have been put on display in their new home.
The late Colonel John and Mary Young, who lived in San Francisco, traveled extensively to China, collecting jade, textiles and other artwork. In the mid-1970s, they split their collection between Stanford University and the Tacoma Art Museum, where they had friends. TAM exhibited the collection in the early days, but in February 2013, museum officials decided to deaccession the collection, citing the need to focus on the museum’s mission of Northwest art. The Haub donation of Western American art, along with $15 million toward the new wing to house it, had also just been announced.
But when the first few items from the Young collection were auctioned at Bonhams for prices as much as 20 times what the museum had expected, and the Youngs’ children, Al and Connie Yu Young, sued the museum to keep the rest of the collection from leaving the Northwest. Settling out of court, TAM agreed to donate the nine robes most precious to the family to the Tacoma-based Chinese Reconciliation Project Foundation, which would house them at the Wing Luke.
Now those robes are up on the walls. Flanking a light-filled corridor upstairs, the robes are close enough to show off the endless tiny stitches made by multiple artisans, as well as the Chinese symbolism they depict. Yet they’re also far enough apart to maintain a sense of dignity, of distance in time and place.
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There are surcoats, like the deep indigo silk bordered with ivory and embroidered with pale blue, midblue and indigo blossoms — plum for winter and beauty, peony for spring and wealth. There’s a lighter black silk with a pink border and pale and dark pink chrysanthemums for friendship. A vest shows stunning thick gold embroidery, detailing a wide-eyed dragon clutching a flaming pearl over a sea of roiling waves. Chaparajos (Manchu riding pants) boast three more dragons, with golden dots shining like dimes created from spiraling golden thread.
The beauty goes on and on: Trousers dotted with floating butterflies in a vision of eternity; a skirt with a peaceful, blue-and-green rural scene of streams, bridges and pavilions; a golden phoenix, thickly textured flowers, hanging peaches symbolizing marriage and longevity.
True to its mission of telling the Northwest Asian American story, the Wing Luke has expanded the textiles with panels about the Youngs, including a photograph of Mary’s mother wearing a family imperial robe. Some more historical detail about the era and method of the robes’ creation and use would be helpful, though.
And the Tacoma connection? It’s just a swift mention in the main exhibit panel.