A Woodrow Wilson Fellowship allowed her to attend Columbia University for graduate work in Asian studies and art history, where she completed her master’s and Ph.D. degrees. While studying in New York, Sano taught art history at Vassar College and helped organize exhibitions for the Japan Society in New York. In 1980, she started her first-full time museum position as assistant curator of Asian art at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, where she oversaw all non-Western art and exhibitions from across all of Asia.
In 1989, Sano left the Kimbell to become deputy director and senior curator of non-Western art at the Dallas Museum of Art, where she acquired experience in institutional budgeting, administration, museum finance, and governance. This gave her the background she needed when, three years later, she moved to the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco — a museum devoted entirely to the arts of Asia. After three years as deputy director, chief curator, and chief administrative officer, she became the Asian Art Museum’s director in 1996, and served until she retired in 2008.
At the Asian Art Museum, she guided the staff in developing an exciting exhibition schedule, and moving the museum to a new home. When she arrived, the museum's staff produced fewer than one original show per year; within a few years, they presented four large exhibitions and a number of smaller ones every year, each accompanied by a scholarly catalogue and extensive educational programming. Moving the museum involved the renovation and seismic retrofitting of the city’s 90-year old main library in the San Francisco Civic Center, which opened to acclaim in 2003. Sano continued as director for another five years, working with the museum’s board and staff to produce exhibitions and programs that drew new audiences to the expanded facility.
After retirement, for several years she helped a private individual build a collection of important Japanese art. In 2010, Sano built a house in San Antonio, Texas, where the San Antonio Museum of Art has a significant collection of Asian art. After advising the museum as a volunteer, she took a position where she could once again work directly with art, producing shows and expanding collections — the kind of work that brought her to art history 50 years ago.