AINESVILLE — Why did I take so long to visit the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art? • It wasn't for lack of encouragement. Several people whose opinions I respect have urged me more than once to take Interstate 75 up to Gainesville, where the museum resides on the University of Florida campus. But the final nudge I needed was the opening several months ago of its new Asian wing and, after my recent first visit, I plan many more. • There is so much to see. Physically, the Harn is huge, one of the largest university museums in the United States, with more than 36,000 square feet of exhibition space. The Dalí Museum, by comparison, has about 15,000. The collection of 8,300 works isn't comprehensive in that it doesn't cover all eras. Nor is it especially large. But it's still quite broad, with modern art, photography, African art, contemporary art and Asian art.
This is a young museum, established just 22 years ago. At its core, it's a family gift from the widow, daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren of Samuel Peebles Harn, a Gainesville businessman who died in 1957. In 1983, they pledged the lead gift to found an art museum at UF. The original building has had two additions, and it rambles around in a horseshoe shape. The architectural standouts are the Mary Ann Harn Cofrin Pavilion for the contemporary collection, added in 2005, and the new David A. Cofrin Asian Art Wing, which houses art from China, Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia, India and the area once known as Persia. But clearly the museum's support net spreads wide as evidenced by the walls bearing names of many other generous donors, as well as wall labels that acknowledge gifts of art.
The Asian wing is getting most of the attention at the moment, and it is a gorgeous space finished with mahogany and slate. From an introductory gallery lined with cabinets of ceramics, the central gallery opens with a yin-yang combination of drama and serenity.
The eye is immediately drawn to a floor-to-ceiling sweep of glass at the back, gridded with planks of mahogany, that overlooks a Japanese-style water garden. Placed in front of the window is a group of large rocks that have been sculpturally shaped by natural elements and mounted on carved wood bases.
Before you get to them, you navigate sculptures that have been given a luxurious amount of space, which allows you to view them from all angles. Alcoves in the walls become boutiquelike spaces that highlight jade objects or masks, for example. Smaller galleries off the main one house rotating exhibitions both from the permanent collection and lenders.
The wing is more than an assemblage of lovely treasures. Jason Steuber, curator of Asian art, has put a lot of thought into thematic continuity. And because this is a teaching museum, he also sets up multiple visual dialogues that establish links, comparisons and contrasts between cultures. For example, Japanese and Indian prints and drawings from the 1940s line opposite walls in one of the smaller galleries. The Japanese woodblocks are from three rare portfolios created by artists after Japan's defeat on World War II. Steuber points out that they stem from the desire to record what life had been like in Japan's days of empire and glory. It was an occupied and devastated country when these were made and they were subject to censorship, so the artists worked hard to convey pride without being nationalistic. The Indian art, on the other hand, was created when India was on an opposite journey, from colonial rule by Great Britain to independence. Featured on this wall is the prominent Indian artist Jamini Roy, who rejected his classical Western training and developed a style that reflected his heritage.
Another small gallery concentrates on Korean art. Anchoring it is an exquisite 17th century giltwood bodhisattva. Acquiring it several years ago was a big coup for the museum, and a CT scan at Florida's Shands Hospital (an advantage to sharing a university campus) revealed that the sculpture's body had been carved from a single piece of wood, an extreme rarity according to Steuber that makes it even more valuable.
Throughout the wing, the subtle but powerful message is the interplay and exchange of cultures and ideas. In the introductory gallery, for example, it's a literal message as the ceramics are accompanied by maps tracing their origins and movements along trade routes.
Relationships between nature and art are also explored. The massive "found" stones shaped by wind and water have a kinship with the jade that artists carved to reveal its "soul."
The Asian wing deserves a generous time commitment, but save some for the other collections. Paintings from the modern era include favorite names such as Childe Hassam and, yes, there is a painting by the beloved impressionist Claude Monet. The contemporary gallery has the wide-open space and soaring height that can accommodate monumental sculptures and currently has some witty installation art.
Docent-led tours are at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays and, more informally, docents are stationed around the galleries every Saturday at noon to answer questions or offer information.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.