Pacific Asia Museum: Signs of progress after first year under USC

USC Pacific Asia Museum announces first acquisitions initiated since university took it over a year ago

This post has been updated. Please see below for details.

A year after USC took over the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, the new management’s approach is beginning to take shape – both in tangible form through acquisitions, and strategically through fresh initiatives.

The museum this week announced the first acquisitions that were instigated after the USC takeover in late 2013, as well as two new public events series. 

Performances@PAM involves appearances by performing artists from Asia, starting with a free performance Sunday at 2 p.m. by Kim Keum-hwa, an 83-year-old shaman from Korea, and five ensemble members who join her in traditional rituals involving music, dance and chanting.

Kim will also appear at 7 p.m. Friday at the Ray Stark Family Theatre on USC’s campus, in conjunction with a free screening of “Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits,” a film about her life.

On Jan. 31 there’s a free celebration of the lunar new year, the Year of the Sheep, at the museum, featuring performances and crafts from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Acquisitions under USC auspices are starting small – literally. The three additions announced this week are by contemporary artists from Pakistan who are 21st century heirs to and individualistic manipulators of a “miniaturist” painting style that dates back about 500 years to the Mughal Dynasty, a line of Islamic rulers of India.

The artworks, which museum director Christina Yu Yu said were bought with more than $30,000 in donated funds, include two watercolors and a graphite drawing with gold pigment, rendered on sandpaper. The largest, the one on sandpaper, features four different panels and is 3 feet long by 10 inches high; the smallest is about 11 inches by 8 inches.

The purchases reflect some continuity between the “old” Pacific Asia Museum that had been a freestanding nonprofit organization since its founding in 1971, and the “new” one created by the merger.

The artists – Ali Kazim, Imram Qureshi and Muhammad Zeeshan – were among the 13 Pakistani artists featured in a 2010 exhibition at the museum,  “Beyond the Page: The Miniature as Attitude in Contemporary Art in Pakistan.”

The new works will go on display Wednesday at the museum, which is housed in a 1920s mansion built in the style of a Chinese palace.

Yu Yu, who arrived in August from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where she was a curator of Chinese and Korean art, said that USC’s involvement has provided both “an instant confidence boost” for what had been a financially struggling museum, and concrete help that exceeds $1 million for operations during a transitional period that’s expected to last no more than three years. 

After that, Yu Yu said, the museum is expected to be financially self-sustaining. The budget for the fiscal year that ends June 30 is $2.7 million, she said – a boost from past annual expenditures that typically had ranged from $1.4 million to about $1.8 million.

Yu Yu said that USC also paid for an evaluation of the 90-year-old building’s ability to ride out an earthquake. The finding, she said, was that “the building is safe, but in the long term it's better to do a seismic retrofit.”

There’s no cost estimate yet, she said, but it will be in the millions, to be covered by the university. A longer-range need, she said, is eventually to carve out more exhibition space from areas of the museum currently used for other purposes. PAM has 9,600 square feet of galleries.

One change under USC auspices, Yu Yu said, has been a bigger investment in fundraising.  PAM had just a single fundraiser before the transition, she said. Now there are three.

An early success on the fundraising front was the museum’s annual Festival of the Autumn Moon gala in mid-November. Yu Yu said attendance doubled from previous years – as did the take, which came to more than $600,000.

To introduce more visitors to the museum, which charges $10, PAM recently switched its monthly free-admission day from the first Friday of the month to the second Sunday, because far more people are apt to turn out on a weekend. USC alumni as well as students, faculty and other university employees always get in gratis.

Another recent change is a staff reorganization that merged what had been different departments for communications, non-exhibition programs and visitor relations into a single “department of public engagement.”

The idea, Yu Yu said, is to streamline a management structure that “was a little bit fragmented,” in hopes of achieving better communication between all employees who deal with the public. The museum has an overall staff of about 20 employees.

Susana Smith Bautista heads the new department after serving as the museum’s interim deputy director since the USC takeover.

Yu Yu said she still has three important vacancies to fill: education director, marketing and communications director and a second curator to join Yeonsoo Chee, who has been at PAM nearly seven years. Bridget Bray, who’d been a curator there for 10 years, left shortly after the USC takeover for a new job as director of exhibitions for the Asia Society Texas Center in Houston.

Besides planning and mounting exhibitions and chasing acquisitions, the curators will be immersed in another new initiative: examining, cataloging, photographing and evaluating the merits of each of the 15,000 or so art objects in the museum’s collection.

“It is very labor-intensive work if we want to do it right,” Yu Yu said. The project, which she said might be possible to complete in about a year if enough funding were to materialize, figures to have a broad impact on the museum, including shaping its strategy for exhibitions and acquisitions.

Yu Yu said it also will help to determine whether PAM has any forgeries on its hands. The piece-by-piece photography will allow for the entire collection to be made available for viewing online.

The Korean art holdings will be first up, Yu Yu said, because the South Korean government is providing $40,000 to study that section of the collection, along with the free services of an as-yet unnamed expert from the National Museum of Korea in Seoul.

Among the longer-range needs, Yu Yu said, are renovations to the collection storage area in the museum’s basement to ensure reliable climate control.  In some cases, she said, collectors and other museums have been reluctant to lend artworks for exhibitions because of concerns about occasional humidity issues in the storage area. Borrowed pieces intended for even immediate display typically reside for a time in storage before being installed in the galleries -- where she said climate control is not an issue.

For the near future, Yu Yu foresees two major special exhibitions a year, one opening in the fall and one in the spring. The current fall-winter main exhibition, “The First Wave: Modern and Contemporary Chinese Paintings in the USC Pacific Art Museum Collection,” ends Feb. 22. 

The new Conversations@PAM speakers’ series begins Feb. 7 with a related event: Yu Yu moderating a conversation between Richard Strassberg, a UCLA professor of Asian languages and cultures and former Pacific Asia Museum curator, and independent curator Zheng Shengtian.

Both were involved in organizing the first museum exhibitions of contemporary Chinese art in America during the late 1980s, including  shows at PAM in 1987 and 1991 that are being revisited in “The First Wave” exhibition.

Next up is an exhibition opening in March of more than 100 posters from PAM’s collection by Tanaka Ikko, a leading Japanese graphic designer who died in 2002. Planned for the fall is a show of ceramic art by six contemporary artists from China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam, built around loaned artworks.

Yu Yu laughed when asked how much busier she is now than when she was a curator at LACMA.

“I work like 24-7 now,” she said, adding that things have been too hectic for her to sit down or tag along with her old boss, LACMA director Michael Govan, for a tutorial on cultivating donors or planning remodeling projects.

“I haven’t yet,” Yu Yu said, “but I think I’m going to bug him very soon.”

For the record, Jan. 16, 1:10 p.m.: an earlier version of this post incorrectly identified the coming lunar new year as the Year of the Horse. It also said incorrectly that two past exhibitions at PAM that are being revisited in its current show of contemporary Chinese art both took place in 1987. One was in 1991.

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