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USC absorbs Pasadena's Pacific Asia Museum in friendly takeover

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USC is taking over the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, bringing more than 15,000 works of Asian art dating from ancient times to today under the university's control, along with the nearly 90-year-old replica of a Chinese palace that houses the museum.

USC and museum officials described the new relationship as an “alliance” and a “partnership” in a written announcement Monday, but Robert Cooper, the university’s vice provost, said in an interview that the existing independent nonprofit board that runs the museum will cede full control to the university starting next month.

Cooper said operations will continue unchanged for now, including operating hours and the $10 admission fee to the Pacific Asia Museum’s 9,600 square feet of galleries and spacious internal courtyard.

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He said the museum’s 14 employees will remain in place if they choose to stay on, with a better benefits package than they have now.

It’s a friendly takeover, initiated by the Pacific Asia Museum’s board when it approached USC in July.

“We felt a partnership would better enable the museum to more fully realize its mission,” said Katherine Murray-Morse, who chairs the museum’s board, and USC seemed like a good fit because of its academic interests in art and Asian history and culture.

Financial filings show that the museum, which opened in 1971, has had a hand-to-mouth existence in recent years, with annual spending of about $1.7 million and an endowment of just $995,422 at the end of 2011, the most recent year immediately available.

Cooper said it’s unclear how much money USC will provide for operations, but plans call for using the university’s fundraising reach to build the endowment and sources of operating support so it can stand on its own financially, without a subsidy. But for now, he said, USC will provide an as-yet-unspecified amount of money to keep the museum running.

“This is a natural connection for us,” Cooper said. “It’s an extension of what we’re already doing as a Pacific Rim university with many interests in Asia. It’s wonderful on both sides, because it provides stability for the museum for the future, and gives USC something it didn’t have before.”

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USC embarked in 2011 on one of the most ambitious fundraising efforts ever undertaken by a university, aiming to raise $6 billion by 2018.

Murray-Morse said the museum director’s job has been vacant at the Pacific Asia Museum since July, when Charles Mason left after about two years to head a new art museum now under construction on the campus of Hope College in Grand Rapids, Mich. 

Cooper said USC will begin a search for a new museum director early next year, with some members of the current museum board serving on the search committee along with university officials. USC provost Elizabeth Garrett will have the final say over the hiring, and the new director will report to her.

Selma Holo, director of the USC Fisher Museum of Art, said bringing the Pacific Asia Museum under USC’s control adds a completely different dimension because its holdings don’t overlap the Fisher’s collection of works from Europe and the Americas dating from about 1500 to the present.

Holo said she will head the search committee that will identify candidates to lead the Pacific Asia Museum, but that the two museums will be separate operations. “I’m sure there will be lots of collaboration and things we think about together.”

“I think it’s exciting,” added Holo, whose museum on USC’s campus is about 14 road miles from its new sibling. “It puts something materially and culturally powerful into [USC’s] conversations about the Pacific Rim.”

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USC had confirmed last December that it was in preliminary talks about a possible unspecified partnership with L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which was suffering from tight finances. In March, MOCA trustees announced that they were committed to keeping the downtown museum independent and boosting its endowment from about $20 million to $100 million. The firmest known offer had come from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which proposed raising $100 million in conjunction with a merger and keeping MOCA’s downtown presence.

The Pacific Asia Museum becomes the second independent museum to come under a university’s umbrella in the L.A. area: in 1994, UCLA began a 99-year agreement to manage the Hammer Museum. The art museum on UCLA’s Westwood doorstep had run into immediate trouble when its founder, Armand Hammer, died 15 days after his museum’s November 1990 opening.

The sourest note in that saga was the auction in late 1994 of the Hammer’s most prized holding, a manuscript of scientific writings and drawings by Leonardo da Vinci. It landed with Bill Gates for $30.8 million, creating an endowment for the museum.

The Hammer has a complex governance setup, with a decision-making board that includes UCLA officials and trustees not connected to the university. A separate “board of overseers” advises and supports the museum but doesn’t have voting authority. Hammer spokeswoman Sarah Stifler said UCLA provides about $2 million a year toward a museum budget of about $18 million.

Cooper, the USC vice provost, said the Pacific Asia Museum will be under the authority of USC’s board of trustees, which will approve its budget – as it does for all university departments – but delegate most decision-making to the provost’s office and the museum director. He said an advisory board will be impaneled for the Pacific Asia Museum after its director is hired.

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The USC takeover “sounds like a very good thing for the Pacific Asia Museum,” said Melody Kanschat, former president of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, because USC is in a position to connect with donors attuned to the university’s visual art and Asian studies programs who might also want to support the museum’s offerings.

Kanschat, now the executive director of the Getty Leadership Institute at Claremont Graduate University, which provides advanced training for people already working in the museum-management field, said it will be important for USC to forge ties with the Pacific Asia Museum’s established supporters and its public. “A key issue is to make sure you can bridge support” during a change of management. “That just takes good, old-fashioned talking to people, making sure there’s an understanding by the ones who’ve been there for the museum all this time about the benefits of the merger, or whatever they’re terming it.”

USC’s Cooper said that donor-relations task will begin immediately. “We want to make [the museum’s established supporters] excited about the change. Putting on exhibitions and educational programs that they believe are worth supporting” will be the a key, he said.

The Pacific Asia Museum averaged about $1.2 million in annual donations for the five years ending in 2011, the most recent year for which figures were immediately available.

What’s happening in Pasadena isn’t unique, said Dewey Blanton, a spokesman for the American Alliance of Museums, an umbrella organization for North American museums of all types. In Washington, D.C., the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the University of Maryland announced in April that they are exploring a partnership that would help the financially-ailing art museum.

Also in Washington, George Washington University is building a new museum on its campus to house the Textile Museum, previously a stand-alone operation.

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In 2011,  America’s oldest natural history museum, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, became a subsidiary of Drexel University.

Such alliances “aren’t common, but it’s becoming more frequent,” Blanton said, mainly because the financial pressures of recent years have made some museum boards more open to partnerships with universities that have similar interests and a better fiscal foundation. “Both, at their core, are educational institutions, and museums have always been a big part of many universities, and integral to a well-rounded educational experience.”

The Pacific Asia Museum building has always been used to display art, starting with Grace Nicholson, who built it in the mid-1920s as an art gallery with upstairs living quarters. In 1943, behind on her property taxes, she gave the building to the city of Pasadena, which allowed her to continue living in her apartment above the museum until her death in 1948.

The Pasadena Art Institute moved into the building in 1945. Renamed the Pasadena Art Museum, the site played a pivotal role as L.A.’s leading museum for modern and contemporary art until 1968, when the Pasadena Art Museum moved into a newly-built structure that's now the Norton Simon Museum. Unable to afford the mortgage, the Pasadena Art Museum accepted a takeover by collector Norton Simon in 1974 and ceased to exist.

City officials had considered tearing down the vacated Chinese palace but bowed to community opposition and wound up leasing it, starting in 1971, to the Pacific Cultural Foundation, whose leaders included Lennox Tierney, an Asian art specialist who headed the art department at Pasadena City College.

It opened as the Pacificulture Asia Museum. The organization later simplified its name and acquired the building from the city in the 1980s.

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