The San Francisco Asian Art Museum, despite its role as a steward of the past, is no stranger to transformation and today announced a plan to rebrand itself.

Once a wing of the de Young Museum, the museum moved in 2003 to the former city library building opposite Civic Center Plaza, a Beaux-Arts building that inside and out is a testament to Western architectural styles.

This morning marked the start of new era for the museum, which a year ago was nearly forced to close its doors before successfully restructuring $120 million in debt.

In a cavernous hall whose entrances are flanked by Ionic columns more than 30 feet tall, city and museum officials gathered for this morning’s unveiling of the museum’s rebranding, which the museum’s director Jay Xu said is meant to “transform how we do business and how we serve our customers.”

Mayor Ed Lee, Board of Supervisors President David Chiu and Xu took scissors to the cords holding up a red curtain, revealing the museum’s new logo: an upside-down “A,” a mathematical symbol meaning “for all,” “for any,” or “for each.”

The symbol, Xu said, reflects the museum’s new perspective, its boldness and confidence, and how it invites all people to engage with its more than 17,000 works of Asian art chronicling 6,000 years of history.

Xu said that to make itself more relevant and engage a broader audience, the museum aims to “awaken and inspire” its visitors by shifting its focus from curating art objects to curating art experiences, from a role of preservation to one of provocation.

“The past is full of potential for new discoveries, and we want to unlock and find new perspectives,” Xu said.

The transformation was the work a team led by Nick O’Flaherty, a strategy director from brand consultancy Wolff Olins, which branded the upcoming 2012 London Olympics.

“Once a visitor connects with the context here, it is a lifelong experience,” O’Flaherty said.

Part of that connection involves taking new approaches to reach the public and market exhibitions. Reaching out to the very-near east– Emeryville–the museum employed the talents of Pixar animator Sanjay Patel.

Ruminating on works that are part of the museum’s first new exhibition since the rebranding–“Majaraja: the Splendor of India’s Royal Courts,” which opens next month–Patel interpreted the works through his contemporary style, producing bold, colorful illustrations.

Patel’s sketches will appear throughout the museum during the exhibition, helping to immerse patrons in the artwork and “envelop the environment,” according to Xu.

“The whole building will be used to create the active dialogue,” Xu said.

Patricia Decker, Bay City News

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