The Pasadena Museum of California Art has been a showcase of the Golden State — landscapes by the 1920s and 1930s plein-air painters depicting sun-dappled citrus groves, Midcentury Modern art, and contemporary paintings, photography, sculpture and installation works.
But no longer. The museum’s board has voted to close the institution after its current exhibitions end Oct. 7.
The move comes as a surprise to some patrons. Executive Director Susana Smith Bautista wouldn’t say why the museum was closing. But she did say PMCA has been struggling for years.
“The museum has had a lot of internal challenges for many years — governance, legal issues as far as the building goes, operational challenges and funding,” Bautista said. “We don’t own the building. We rent it from the museum’s founders, Bob and Arlene Oltman, who still live on the third floor of the building and both sit on the board.”
Board chairman Jim Crawford made the suggestion to close the museum at a June 13 meeting. In an email vote Saturday, 12 of the 13 board members supported closing the museum, Bautista said.
She added that she learned on June 11 of Crawford’s intention to recommend closure.
Bautista said the decision may feel sudden, but talks about the museum’s future have been taking place since March.
“Myself and an outside consultant and the staff have been working tirelessly and diligently to find ways to get this museum to work,” said Bautista, who arrived at PMCA last May after a three-year stint at the USC Pacific Asia Museum. She followed interim Executive Director Jay Belloli, who oversaw the museum from July 2016 to June 2017.
“I would love to believe there was still a way to keep the museum open, but there’s a lot of work to do and I don’t know if it can be done,” Bautista said. “It’s a matter of time. Is there enough time? I don’t feel like I was given enough time.”
Crawford said the museum has had “a great run for 16 years, a lot of wonderful shows and it was doing something unique in the Pasadena community. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to continue to find the resources to continue to fund that effort. We’re hoping to maintain the nonprofit profit status so maybe it can come back to life at a future time.”
PMCA, a small, non-collecting institution, opened at 490 E. Union St. in Pasadena’s Playhouse District in 2002. Wesley Jessup was its founding director. It’s the only museum in the Los Angeles area focusing exclusively on California art and design from the 1800s to the present. It typically showcases three exhibitions organized by staff or guest curators in its 10,000 square feet of gallery space.
For the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time initiative last year, PMCA presented “L.A. RAW: Abject Expressionism in Los Angeles 1945-1980, From Rico Lebrun to Paul McCarthy.” It has shown prints and paintings by midcentury artist Corita Kent, the first full-scale survey of the artist’s career; the work of early California artists Maynard Dixon, Edgar Payne and Armin Hansen; and it presented “Sam Francis: Five Decades of Abstract Expressionism from California Collections,” in 2013.
Currently, it features the work of feminist artist Judy Chicago, young conceptual contemporary artists and an exhibition of work by painter and graphic designer Grafton Tyler Brown, the first known African American artist working in California.
“At any time, you can see three incredibly distinct shows — which is what California is, rich and diverse, early entrepreneurs,” Bautista said. “We’re very conscious about trying to show what’s great about California and its art and design and innovative thinking.”
Rochelle Branch, cultural affairs division manager for the city of Pasadena, said PMCA’s closing was “a real loss for the city and also regionally. PMCA distinguished itself amongst the other [Pasadena arts institutions] with its unique mission. It’s been a steady and exciting art night partner, a twice a year art walk event. It draws visitors from far outside Pasadena and its subject matter is of interest to Southern California in particular.”
The region is seeing a museum boom: The Academy Museum is under construction on Wilshire Boulevard next door to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which plans a $650 million expansion; the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art broke ground in Exposition Park in March, and the Orange County of Museum of Art recently unveiled plans for its new home at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
Bautista said she doesn’t see the bigger, splashier museums as competition for PMCA or a contributor to the closing. The museum has depended on a variety of revenue streams including admission fees and memberships as well as board member and donor support.
“We have to see it more as a partnership with one another,” she said of L.A.’s museums. “If we see competition, it’s not really with other museums, it’s with hospitals and schools and churches, places where people think first to give their money.”
When the museum closes, its staff — nine full-time employees, including a director of exhibitions, an education and engagement coordinator and about 12 part-timers, will reportedly lose their jobs.
“People always ask, ‘Why, why do you need another museum, what need does PMCA fill?’ ” Bautista said. “The amazing exhibitions, the publications, the school children that have come here — we’re part of Pasadena’s My Masterpieces program, so every fourth-grader in the Pasadena unified school district that studies state history comes through our doors. We fill a role.
“Pasadena’s so culturally rich,” Bautista added. “The Norton Simon, the USC Pacific Asia Museum, the Armory Center for the Arts, the Huntington Library and gardens — and at the very local level, we’re part of that cultural mosaic, that cultural conversation. But we provide something different. It’s a sometimes uncomfortable balance, but always a really powerful balance of art and design that is California.”