There for Us

  • Dr. Letha Ch’ien

What a joy it is to celebrate the San José Museum of Art (SJMA) on its fiftieth anniversary and anticipate the future of a true Silicon Valley institution. As we wait to celebrate together in person, we know the reunion will be all the sweeter for the delay. Covid-19 has taught us the value of our institutions, how they strengthen us for the times we must be apart. These days would be harder for me without remembering art, especially works from the 2018 House Imaginary exhibition like Do Ho Suh’s Gate (2005) and Clarissa Tossin’s When two places look alike (2012–13), both pieces that reflect on home and memory. I spend a lot of time at home these days. Isn't it extraordinary how art can sustain you through difficult times? It’s reasons like these that make me profoundly grateful for the San José Museum of Art. Our Museum has given us art, community, and possibility over the last half-century, and it’s clear the best is yet to come.

I first encountered the San José Museum of Art when I was a teenager in foster care attending San José State University. I was a stressed-out wreck; in addition to taking on a full-time course load, I was working full-time. But there was the San José Museum of Art quietly waiting for me on the plaza when I stepped off the downtown light rail on my way to campus. In that sun lit square, the Museum was so wonderfully, immediately there.

The Museum offered me a place between campus and work, a liminal space for reflection where I could expand my sense of self instead of mechanically executing the next task on my to-do list. I relished my visits. Duane Hanson’s hyper-realistic sculptures made me jump and then laugh. Nathan Oliveira’s paintings changed my understanding of outline, form, and ground: in other words, what painting could be. To sit and breathe with art gives you a moment to contemplate your place in the universe. And the Museum helped me find mine: I finished my degree and became an art historian.

Returning to the San José Museum of Art repeatedly, I am constantly discovering the new alongside the familiar. Every visit has renewed my commitment to the Museum and enhanced my understanding of its art. My gratitude for this space as well as the ideas and possibilities communicated by the art it holds continues to this day. In foster care, I rarely felt like I belonged anywhere or to anyone. But the ritual of entering the Museum, sitting on a bench, and breathing with art gave me a sense of place and home. In a very concrete way, the San José Museum of Art was there for me when I was most in need.

And by building a permanent collection, the Museum is deepening its roots in our community to be there for all of us in the future. The act of choosing, tending, and collecting objects is a gift sent from the present to the future. Collecting says yes, we’re here, and we will continue to be here. Permanence counters transience. With its intent to establish a collection in tandem with superb traveling exhibitions and original shows grown in San José by our own curatorial team, the San José Museum of Art stakes itself to our community. The Museum invests in us and, in turn, helps us invest in ourselves.

To collect a work of art is to take custodianship of it. By assuming responsibility for an object, you meld your life with that of the object’s. Being there with the object, you share space with it. You become as much part of its history as it becomes part of yours. The world knits together. We become part of something larger than ourselves while remaining rooted in an intensely personal experience. Indeed, bringing the global to the local and connecting San José to the world is what the San José Museum of Art does best.

I can’t wait to see what happens next.