From Istanbul to Tokyo, the continent of Asia encompasses a staggering range of arts and culture. This visual diversity is reflected in the diverse holdings of Asian art at the Spencer Museum. The first Asian art works were donated to the Museum in 1917 by Kansas City collector Sallie Casey Thayer. Traveling the world, Mrs. Thayer amassed an impressive collection which included among other things Korean celadons, Chinese imperial porcelain, textiles and rugs from Persia and India; and hundreds of Edo-period woodblock prints from Japan. Following in the footsteps of Mrs. Thayer, prominent Kansas families continued to add to the collection such as the generous gift of 19th century Japanese prints by H.L. Turner. In 2012, Mr. Jay Gates (Director. Spencer Museum of Art, 1984–1987) made a transformative gift of over 50 Japanese paintings and ceramics from his personal collection.
The addition of faculty specialists in Asian art during the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, signaled a new period in the growth of these collections. Professor Chu Tsing-li was instrumental in securing the donation of several important collections such as the William P. Fenn collection of 19th and 20th century Chinese ink painting, and through his personal knowledge and generosity built a significant collection of late 20th century Chinese ink painting. Under the guidance of Professor Steven Addiss, the Museum also developed a collection of Japanese Zen and literati painting that have been featured in several groundbreaking exhibitions.
With the addition of Pat Fister as the first dedicated curator of “oriental art” in the 1980s, the stewardship and growth of the collection entered another phase of growth. Fister helped secure major acquisition like the handscroll of Edo-period poetry and calligraphy by Karasumaru Mitsuhiro (1579-1638). Major donations like the collection of Nagasaki literati painting by Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell Hutchinson and a large folding screen of Mt. Fuji painted by Ike Taiga donated by Mr. and Mrs. Robert G. Braden greatly expanded the Japanese painting collection. In the 1990s curator John Terramoto developed a representative collection of contemporary Japanese ceramics and forged new paths into the collecting of nihonga or Japanese-style painting of the 20th century. By the 2000s, research into the original Thayer bequest by curator Mary Dusenbury lead to an important exhibition Flowers, Dragons, and Pine Trees. Currently, curator Kris Ercums continues to develop these holding while forging new direction in the field of contemporary Asian art.