$2.5 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. supports nexus of Asian arts and religions

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Largest foundation grant ever received by the Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art will deepen public understanding of Asian religions.
Largest foundation grant ever received by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art will deepen public understanding of Asian religions.

WASHINGTON, DC.- The Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art, received a grant of $2.5 million from Lilly Endowment Inc. through its Religion and Cultural Institutions Initiative. The grant will support “The Arts of Devotion,” a portfolio of projects consisting of an online educational resource, community engagement efforts and four exhibitions that will highlight the intersection of Asian arts and religious diversity and change. The museum will use its renowned collections of Buddhist, Islamic and Hindu art to enhance understanding of these Asian religions and to foster empathy and respect among the public.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art is one of 18 organizations from across the U.S. receiving grants through the initiative. The group includes fine arts museums, historical societies and history museums and museums focused on serving children and families. The initiative is designed to foster public understanding about religion and lift up the contributions that people of all faiths and diverse religious communities make to our greater civic well-being.

“This generous grant from Lilly Endowment will accelerate our museum’s efforts to enhance the public’s understanding of Asian religious traditions and practices, encouraging our visitors to move from indifference to active engagement and curiosity,” said Chase F. Robinson, the Dame Jillian Sackler Director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art. “The grant will enable us to speak in multiple voices, which will shed light on a fundamental aspect of Asian cultures and of Asian American communities.”

Essential to “The Arts of Devotion,” which builds upon a planning phase supported by Lilly Endowment in 2019-2020, will be the engagement of local and international Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu communities. The museum will form community advisory groups that will partner with museum experts to create a range of strategies illustrating the diversity of both historical and contemporary religious practices.

In January 2021, outreach work on the digital education portal, “Teaching Asian Religions,” will begin, building on the success of the museum’s recent educational portal, “Teaching China with the Smithsonian.” The website will be object-centered and will feature tools such as maps, timelines, lesson plans and how-to guides on teaching for inclusion, respect and understanding. In linking popular contemporary practices with their histories (such as Zen and yoga), the portal will encourage audiences to move from positions of misunderstanding to active appreciation and an eagerness to learn more.

Over the next four years, the museum will also present four exhibitions, each aiming to correct common misconceptions of religious traditions through material that is both authoritative and accessible.

• “Mind Over Matter: Zen Monk-Painters in Medieval Japan.” Curated by Frank Feltens, the Japan Foundation Assistant Curator of Japanese Art, the exhibition will explore one of the great artistic traditions of East Asia, Zen paintings from medieval Japan (ca. 1200-1600). The museum houses one of the finest collections in the world, illuminating differences between historical and contemporary practices and aesthetic and spiritual experiences.

• “Beyond Rumi: Sufi Art and Practice.” Curated by a team of specialists led by Massumeh Farhad, senior associate director for research, chief curator and The Ebrahimi Family Curator of Persian, Arab, and Turkish Art, this immersive digital exhibition will present the Persian poet, scholar and theologian Jalaluddin Rumi (d. 1273) as an entry point into the diverse traditions of Sufi Islam. Addressing how transregional Sufi networks connected Muslims from West Asia, Southeast Asia, West Africa and eventually Colonial America, the exhibition will underscore the richness and complexity of Islam and interweave past and present.

• “Krishna Revealed: Journey to the Sacred Mountain” will feature a life-sized masterpiece sculpture of the Hindu god Krishna from southern Cambodia. Curated by Emma Stein, assistant curator of South and Southeast Asian art, the exhibition will educate visitors about the early history of Hindu religious art in mainland Southeast Asia.

• “Krishna’s Path of Grace” will feature the museum’s unparalleled collection of picchwai, monumental Hindu paintings on cloth that are at the center of the unique Pushtimarg devotional rituals. Curated by Debra Diamond, curator of South and Southeast Asian art, the exhibition will explore key themes such as pilgrimage, spiritual interaction and diaspora.

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