Designing the Museum: A Visit with San Francisco State University Gallery Director Mark Johnson

My first university teaching job was at San Francisco State University in 2006. I had been working with several of the faculty who brought their students to our print study classroom at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Part of my curatorial responsibilities including running the study room’s educational programs—and I enjoyed it so much that I ultimately decided to return to teaching. It was in the study room, though, that I first met Mark Dean Johnson and learned about his incredible work as director of the San Francisco State University Fine Arts Gallery.

The Fine Arts Gallery at San Francisco State University.

This week’s post is based on a conversation Mark and I had this weekend, while we were attending the annual board meeting of the Martin Wong Foundation. I asked Mark, who started his career as a painter, if he could tell me more about how he first got involved with the Fine Arts Gallery at SFSU, and to share some of the ways in which students have contributed to—and benefited from—the Gallery’s endeavors.

Mark Johnson (foreground), director of the Fine Arts Gallery at San Francisco State University, in conversation with SFSU faculty member Paul Mullins. (Image courtesy Zefrey Throwell,

MDJ: I have been Professor of Art and Gallery Director at SFSU since 1994.  In the late 1980s, I was working at the San Francisco Art Institute and participated in a conversation that was inspired by the ‘multicultural’ focus of that period about the importance of learning the history of diverse arts communities in America.  As San Francisco has had a large Asian American community since the Gold Rush, knowing about the art from that community seemed to have special resonance.  But when I contacted ‘experts’ in the field, like Dr. Margo Machida (the ‘dean’ of Asian American art scholarship), she told us that in fact that research still needed to be done and furthermore that it needed to begin in San Francisco.

Charles Christian Nahl, "The Cradle and Manner of Using It," wood engraving illustration of Chinese participants in the Gold Rush, published in Hutching's California Magazine, 1860. (Image courtesy of the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco,

That conversation ended up changing the course of my professional career.  When I interviewed for the position at SFSU I remember mentioning that the Fine Arts Gallery might be an important platform for researching and studying Asian American art history.  One of our first exhibitions, mounted in the fall of 1995, was entitled ‘WITH NEW EYES: Toward an Asian American Art History in the Western United States.’  I was stunned when so many artists showed up at the opening, including Jade Snow Wong, Dong Kingman, Joshel Namkung, Stella Wong, Ruth Asawa, Carlos Villa and others.  The artist Martin Wong attended with scholar Elaine Kim.  Many families of deceased artists were also represented, including those of Win Ng, Chiura Obata and Roberto Vallangca.  It confirmed that indeed this was an important community and aesthetic that had been left out of any discussion of American art.

Dong Kingman, "Preview of Treasure Island," watercolor, ca. 1939. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, lent by the Federal Arts Project. The first time Mark came to visit me at the Fine Arts Museums, it was to look at their collection of Dong Kingman watercolors.

This exhibition had several outcomes.  Several works by artists including Chiura Obata and Dan Harada were soon acquired by the de Young Museum, and artist Ruth Asawa was invited to join their Board of Trustees (a major collection of Asawa’s work is now also in the collection of the de Young [see image below]).  We pursued an NEH grant to study this field more comprehensively, and that culminated in a major anthology entitled ‘Asian American Art: A History, 1850-1970’ that was published by Stanford University Press in 2008.

'Asian American Art: A History, 1850-1970,' edited by Mark Johnson, Gordon Chang, and Paul Karlstrom. Cover image by Chiura Obata, ca. 1925.

Several other exhibitions were also spawned.  In 1999, we mounted a solo exhibition of the incredible Chinese painter Chang Dai-chien, who had lived in California for a decade.  That exhibition remains our best attended ever, with thousands of people lining up to wait for admission, and it received huge international press.  We were also centrally involved in organizing another survey exhibition at the de Young Museum.  During the process, we uncovered many works that were thought to be lost, including a huge 100 foot long mural by Tseng Yuho that is now also in the collection of the de Young.  Several artists that we profiled have now also entered the collections of other museums including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Asian Art Museum, the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, etc.

In 2006, the de Young Museum (part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) held the first major retrospective of Ruth Asawa's work. (Image courtesy of flickr user nchoz)

Student research has been at the center of all this activity.  Student interns authored the roughly 200 artist biographies that were published in the Stanford anthology and biographical directory, and different students have curated solo exhibitions of artists including C. C. Wang and Gary Woo at the Chinese Historical Society of America.  The Martin Wong Foundation endowed a student gallery at SFSU where student art is consistently shown, so the benefit to our program has seen unexpected returns.  SFSU has hired a full-time Asian art historian – and students who have worked as interns (generally unpaid) are now important Asian American art curators themselves, and have received doctorates in this emerging field.

View of the Martin Wong Gallery, which features undergraduate work, at San Francisco State University.

Even today, new works and important documents from the past are surfacing every week.  And these build upon a foundation about trying to formulate a multicultural context for understanding the diversity of American art that started out of a brief and informal conversation almost 25 years ago.

Roger Shimomura, "Kansas Samurai," 2004. Color lithograph, OSU Art Collection, gift of the artist.

The Oklahoma State University Art Collection includes the work of several Asian and Asian American artists. Most recently, after the Gardiner Gallery hosted Roger Shimomura’s exhibition, “Minidoka On My Mind,” in 2010, the artist donated this print to OSU.


About osucurator

Louise Siddons is Associate Professor of Art History at Oklahoma State University and founding curator of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. She maintains this blog as a record of her students' work with the Museum's permanent collection as well as more generally with topics related to museum studies.
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