Lennox Tierney dies at 101; advocate for Asian art in Southland

Lennox Tierney was trying to save a historic 1925 museum building when he stood in front of Pasadena city officials in 1968 and made a telling prediction.

The coming century, he explained to city leaders, would emphasize the Pacific.

The old building was not only saved, but eventually became the USC Pacific Asia Museum, and Asia's growing influence on Southern California business and culture quickly became apparent.

Tierney, who played a role in launching, expanding or overseeing exhibitions at four Southern California institutions that showcase Asian art and culture, died June 12 in Salt Lake City after a brief illness. He was 101.

His death was confirmed by Marie Paiva, fine arts librarian at the University of Utah, where Tierney founded an Asian art program.

After saving the old Pasadena mansion, Tierney set about outfitting it as a museum, planning its early exhibitions and building a collection as its founding director.

Even after moving to Utah in 1971 to become founding dean of the university's Asian art program, he remained active in Southern California until his death. Tierney also served as a curator of Asian art from 1974 to 1982 at the San Diego Museum of Art — a job requiring round-trip commutes of about 1,500 miles. He was an advisor for many years to San Diego's Mingei International Museum, and from 1995 to his death he was a board member of the Japanese Friendship Garden in San Diego's Balboa Park.

Born in Weston, W.Va., on Jan. 28, 1914, Patrick Lennox Tierney moved to Pasadena with his family in 1918. Tierney's first job as a teenager was watering gardens and unpacking Asian artworks at the site he would one day save. His boss was art dealer Grace Nicholson, who had built the 9,000-square-foot structure to evoke a traditional Chinese imperial palace. Her gallery was on the ground floor and she lived upstairs. That connection steered him toward his future career.

After falling behind on her property taxes, Nicholson donated the building to the city before her death in 1948, and it became home to the Pasadena Art Museum, which focused on modern and contemporary art.

By 1968, the art museum was building a new facility in Pasadena — a project that would soon bankrupt the organization and lead to its takeover by collector Norton Simon. It became the Norton Simon Museum.

With Nicholson's art palace in play, city officials considered razing it or turning it into a commercial arcade or even municipal offices.

Tierney, then the longtime chairman of the arts faculty at Pasadena City College, had helped launch the Pacificulture Foundation in an effort to establish a center for exhibitions and programs on Asian art and culture in Pasadena. With fellow foundation leaders Margaret Palmer and Sofia Adamson, Tierney pushed to transform the building into an Asian art museum. It took years, but they finally won their battle.

"I went over and sat down in one of the galleries after we got the key to the building, and my first thought was, 'My God, what have I wrought?' We got the building, but we didn't have a collection," Tierney recalled in a 2013 interview with the Los Angeles Times.

Tierney fell back on his connections to pursue donations, borrow artwork and reached out to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which made a permanent loan of surplus exhibition cases.

Tierney, who graduated from UCLA and earned a master's degree in Asian art at Columbia University, served as a civilian cultural advisor to Gen. Douglas MacArthur after World War II to help oversee Japan's recovery. Among his assignments was to preserve and repair cultural sites and track down artwork that had been secreted away to avoid destruction amid the chaos of heavy bombardment.

The passion to preserve and curate Asian artwork never evaporated. Even at the age of 100, Tierney continued to fly to San Diego for board meetings, said Marisa Espinosa, operations assistant at the Japanese Friendship Garden.

The meetings took just a few hours, but he typically would stay up to five days, relishing the garden and giving guided tours.

"Visitors loved him," Espinosa said. "Just last month we had someone come in and ask when he was going to come again."

Tierney was married for 53 years to the former Catherine Peha, who had grown up in the Pasadena area and was studying in Japan when their romance began in the late 1940s. She died in 2008. He is survived by a son, Stephen Tierney.

Mike.boehm@latimes.com

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