Asian art is the focus of the Freer & Sackler galleries, located next to each other on the National Mall. Both galleries are part of the Smithsonian Institution. The Freer Gallery of Art resides at the corner of Jefferson Drive at 12th Street, SW, while the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is located at 1050 Independence Avenue, SW. These two museums are connected by more than an underground passageway, with both serving to advance the study, exhibition and appreciation of Asian art.
The Freer Gallery, which opened in 1923, also contains an exhibition of nineteenth century American art featuring James McNeill Whistler’s Peacock Room, one of the first art installations on record. The Freer (as it is often referred) was founded by Charles Lang Freer, who made the recognition of art from foreign cultures prevalent with the donation of his collection in 1906. The architecture of the gallery is in the classical style, its signature area being an expansive courtyard.
The Sackler Gallery opened to the public in 1987, with Dr. Arthur M. Sackler as its primary donor. His immense collection of Asian art included famous Chinese jades and ancient bronzes, necessitating a second Smithsonian museum dedicated to works from Asian nations. The Sackler houses acquisitions from the last twenty years, and also features the Perspectives series, which highlights contemporary artists and greets visitors upon arrival.
The Freer & Sackler Galleries wish to present the best that Asian art has to offer while allowing visitors a fascinating look at world cultures through history. The Smithsonian Institution estimates that more than 600,000 people visited the two galleries combined in 2013.
The Freer & Sackler galleries work hand-in-hand, establishing a comprehensive look at works of art from foreign cultures and histories. Current exhibitions highlight art of the ancient variety, art from the Islamic world, China, Japan, and Korea, contemporary art and much more. A visit to one gallery inevitably leads to a visit to the other, as the underground passageway connecting the two makes your journey seamless.
You can begin your quest through extensive collections of historical and international art at the Freer Gallery, the first of the museums to open. The aforementioned Peacock Room, a controversial art installation that was one of the first of its kind, will be on display at the Freer through 2015. Permanent exhibitions include Arts of the Islamic World, which examines numerous types of art dating from the 9th to the 17th century (including folios from the Koran, ceramics, architecture and more), as well as Chinese Ceramics: 10th-13th Century and the world-renowned Ancient Chinese Jades & Bronzes, a robust exhibit that boasts over 100 pieces.
Other fascinating displays include relics from the Silk Road in China, religious art from Japan, and glass, wood and stone artifacts from the Nile River and Ancient Egypt. Make sure to bask in the Freer’s beautiful courtyard before taking your voyage underground.
On the way to the Sackler Gallery, you can catch one of its exhibits in the walkway between the two galleries: Feast Your Eyes: A Taste for Luxury in Ancient Iran, which displays luxury metalwork from ancient Iran, exploring the technical and artistic features of these incredible works. The Gallery then presents the visitor with its Perspective series upon entering the building. This series highlights the most acclaimed contemporary artists from Asia and the Asia diaspora. Featured artists exhibit for months at a time, and displays have featured large installations and site-specific projects. Once you’ve marveled at the latest in Asian artwork, make your way to a variety of exhibitions featuring modern and ancient works. There is the Monkeys Grasp for the Moon sculpture by Xu Bing, suspended from the ceiling along the Gallery’s stairs down to its beautiful reflecting pool.
Must-see exhibits include Sculpture of South and Southeast Asia, which features sculptures of deities and teachers from Hindu and Buddhist cultures, and Ceramics from Thailand, a display of clay vessels with astounding patterns that date back to the prehistoric age. Once you’ve completed your journey through Asian art and its history, make sure to check out the Haupt Gardens outside of the building on your way out to explore more of DC.
The Freer & Sackler Galleries are open daily, from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., except on December 25. Admission is always free. In terms of transportation, on-street parking is very limited, so using the bus or Metro (or both) is the best option. The Smithsonian Metro station on the Orange and Blue lines is located less than a block from the Freer Gallery. The 32, 34 or 36 Metrobus routes all serve the National Mall area. There is a handicap accessible entrance to the Freer Gallery at Independence Avenue at 12th St. SW.
The Mandarin Oriental Washington, D.C. hotel, located on Maryland Avenue SW, is the official hotel sponsor for the Freer & Sackler Galleries. Both museums are on the National Mall, so available activities abound in the surrounding area. The Hirshhorn Museum is right next door to the Sackler Gallery, and another short walk along Independence Avenue brings you to the National Air and Space Museum. Of course, there are the numerous monuments and memorials to see along the National Mall as well. The National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History and National Museum of Natural History are also close by. The surrounding Downtown DC area offers a plethora of dining options, including the popular Jaleo, the historical Old Ebbitt Grill and much, much more.
- The courtyard at the Freer Gallery housed live peacocks in its early years.
- Charles Lang Freer made a fortune as a railroad car manufacturer before donating his collected works and the opening of the Freer Gallery.
- Dr. Arthur M. Sackler worked as a physician and medical publisher while also building his substantial collection of objects from Asia.
- Sackler’s initial donation of roughly 1,000 Asian art pieces in 1982 was valued at $50 million (roughly $120 million in 2014).
- The Freer Gallery was the first museum belonging to the Smithsonian Institution to be solely dedicated to the fine arts, and now houses over 25,000 objects in its collection.