Baring a hidden Pasadena gem

Pacific Asia Museum, celebrating its 40th anniversary in Pasadena, may be one of the most overlooked cultural resources in Southern California.

“People call it a ‘hidden gem,’" said Executive Director Charles Mason.

Yet this Chinese-style building, designed around a gracious garden courtyard, houses a treasure trove of Asian and Pacific Island art — and has a notable, if improbable history.

Built in 1924 by renowned art collector and entrepreneur Grace Nicholson, it served as her residence, gallery space and Treasure House of Oriental and Western Art until 1943, when Nicholson deeded the property to the city of Pasadena as a cultural center. It then became home to the groundbreaking Pasadena Art Museum, a leading venue for modern and contemporary art until 1969 (it was eventually absorbed into the Norton Simon Museum.)

“Before there was a major art museum in downtown L.A.,” Mason said, “you either went to galleries on La Cienega to see what was going on, or you came out here to Pasadena.”

The Pacific Asia Museum opened in 1971, rooted in both of the building’s previous incarnations. It features historic and contemporary works of religious, decorative, folk and traditional art from countries and regions that include Korea, Japan, Tibet, India, China, Indonesia, Southeast Asia and Papua New Guinea.

Today, the first stop for visitors is “The Art of Pacific Asia” in the new orientation gallery, which opened in March. Here a rotating sampling of a collection that spans 5,000 years and many cultures gives a sense of the geography, history, materials, function and themes of the pieces on display throughout the museum. Visitors then proceed through several galleries arranged by region and filled with visual wonders.

There are Korean masks and a granite tomb guardian, delicate blue-and-white Chinese porcelain, rare decorative wood temple sculptures from Bali and a slit gong drum — a hollowed-out and carved tree trunk — from Papua New Guinea. Intricately detailed ritual horns, drums, bronze monks, Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and “Wrathful Deities” reside in the Himalayan Gallery, “where some of the smallest sculptures have some of the greatest aesthetic impact,” Mason said. “The more you look at them, the more your attention is rewarded.”

Mason, a respected and enthusiastic historian of Asian art and culture who came to the museum as executive director in May, has many favorites. One is the elephant-headed Hindu deity Ganesha, carved from stone and worn with age, but “there’s still the sense of the deity dancing, picking up his leg, his big old belly swaying back and forth. It’s a wonderful sculpture.”

A gallery called “Journeys: The Silk Road” is geared to families with children and the sixth-graders who learn about the ancient trade route through the museum’s educational program. It’s hands-on, with period clothes to try on, samples of jade, lacquer and even a silk cocoon to touch, and a travelers’ tent furnished with cushions and picture books.

“Having a broad range of artistic traditions and cultures makes sense, because it provides more points of comparisons and more ways to potentially draw people in,” Mason said.

And because the mission of the museum is to advance intercultural understanding, “we use the art of Asia and the Pacific Asian islands as the focal point that brings people together, partly to teach people about specific cultures, but also to make people think about connections between cultures and the relevance of culture in our own lives.”

Adding to the variety of offerings are classes, festivals, children’s story times, “Art & Coffee” discussions and special exhibitions hosted by the museum throughout the year.

On view now through April 8 is “46 N. Los Robles: A History of the Pasadena Art Museum,” part of the collaborative, multi-venue “Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980” occurring across Southern California. “Auspicious Beauty: Korean Folk Painting,” works from the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910), runs through March 25.

“46 N. Los Robles” features a sampling of works, or similar works, that the public would have seen at the former Pasadena Art Museum. It includes more than 40 paintings, sculptures, assemblages, drawings and prints from 1910 through the late 1960s. Among the artists represented are Paul Klee, Alexei Jawlensky, Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Richard Diebenkorn, Larry Bell, Edward Ruscha and Robert Irwin.

“Auspicious Beauty,” with paneled screens and motifs of birds, flowers, scholarly tools and Confucian virtues, reveals a kind of Korean painting between elite court art and folk art, Mason noted. “Often that’s an area of art and material culture that is overlooked.”

In order to show as much of its extensive collection as possible, the museum, which was accredited by the American Assn. of Museums in 2009 — a significant seal of approval for a smaller institution — will be renovating all of its permanent galleries over the next few years, beginning with the Korean gallery in 2012. It will also expand its exhibition capacity by converting unnecessary storage space to public display areas.

“We have 15,000 objects, and right now we’re showing only about 1,000 of them,” Mason said. “So, starting now and going forward, when people come to the museum they can expect to see different objects and different combinations of objects. It won’t be the same experience over and over again.”

The Pacific Asia Museum is indeed a gem, he said. “We just have to change the fact that it’s hidden.”

LYNNE HEFFLEY is a frequent contributor to Marquee.


What: Pacific Asia Museum

Where: 46 N. Los Robles Ave., Pasadena.

Hours and tickets: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wed.-Sun. (Closed today and Jan. 1) Admission: Adults, $9; seniors and students, $7. Free to members and to children under age 12.

Contact: (626) 449-2742 and

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