Japanese American National Museum searching for new director

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The Japanese American National Museum is going through its second leadership transition since 2008, this one promising to end with the ascension of a new generation at the Little Tokyo institution. Both its past directors had been on board since before it opened in 1992.

Museum officials announced this week that Akemi Kikumura Yano has stepped down as executive director after nearly three years, and that two of her deputies will serve as interim co-executive directors while a national search goes forward to find a new leader. Yano was at the museum for 24 years as a curator, program director and executive; her predecessor, Irene Y. Hirano, led the museum from 1988 to 2009.


Museum spokesman Chris Komai said Friday that Yano (pictured below with actor Cheech Marin) wanted to resume the curatorial and program-directing work she had done before Hirano left. She’s no longer on the staff, Komai said, but “she’ll probably help us on some things in the future.” As executive director in fiscally challenging times, Komai said, “the job had been so time-consuming that it didn’t allow for her to do anything” in the hands-on programming she enjoys most.

Stepping in as interim co-directors are Nancy Araki, director of community affairs, and Miyoko Oshima, chief operating officer. Morris & Berger, a Glendale firm that specializes in executive searches for nonprofit organizations, has been engaged to help recruit applicants.

“The real challenge will be to take the museum into the next 25 years,” Gordon Yamate, the Los Gatos law professor and philanthropist who chairs its board, said Friday. The museum, which was incorporated in 1985, is proud that it’s often cited as “being at the forefront” of ethnically based museums, Yamate said -- last November, it received the National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the highest annual award the federal government bestows on institutions in those fields.

But with the Issei (the generation that migrated from Japan more than a century ago) and Nissei (second generation Japanese Americans) who launched the museum now dead or very aged, among the issues the Sansei (third generation) and Yonsei (fourth) who now make up most of the board face is keeping the past relevant while moving forward.

“The traditional family has changed,” Yamate said. “There’s a lot more intermarriage, so we’re looking at an audience that’s a lot more mixed. There’s real interest in people learning more about their cultural identity, but it’s a broader audience in that respect.” The next director will have to be able to respond effectively to that dynamic.

Also on the agenda, Yamate said, are some financial issues. Among the accomplishments of recent years, he said, was paying off short-term loans that had totaled nearly $2 million in mid-2007. But while managing that, the museum has made some significant cuts: Annual spending fell from $9.5 million in 2007-08 to $7.3 million in 2008-09 and $5.1 million in 2009-10.

Long-term debt remains, with more than $7 million still to be paid on the $10 million in bonds the museum issued in 2000 to cover the cost of building the 85,000-square-foot main building that opened in 1997, complementing the original 33,000-square-foot quarters it continues to lease from the city of Los Angeles for $1 a year.

It costs about $400,000 a year to pay down the bonds, and Yamate said the next director’s tasks will likely include spearheading a campaign to raise the money to pay them off early (payments are now scheduled through 2030), or establish a big enough kitty to retire them without strain.

Yamate said planning is in its preliminary stages for a possible architectural project to unify the museum’s campus at 1st Street and Central Avenue, which also includes a 200-seat theater. “We have three distinct buildings, and a casual visitor would not realize that all are connected and part of the museum,” he said.


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-- Mike Boehm