Pasadena Art Museum

February 20, 2012 – The last couple of months, I’ve been organizing the press releases, newspaper and magazine clippings dated since 1930s to the present for the Public Affairs department at the Norton Simon Museum (NSM).  During my time as the Registrarial intern and Registrarial Assistant at NSM, I learned about the history of the museum and its predecessor, the Pasadena Art Museum (PAM).  Since November, I’ve assisted the Public Affairs department and learned more in depth about the history of PAM and NSM.

I have an appreciation for the museum’s history as well as the history of PAM.  It’s not just a history of NSM, but an evolution of the museum itself.

Some people, including some Pasadenians, are unaware that there was a time Pasadena had a leading contemporary art museum, not just in Pasadena, but in the Los Angeles area.  MOCA was not in existence until 1979 and LACMA did not officially establish itself on its own until 1961.

In 1924, Pasadena incorporated a museum, the Pasadena Art Institute.  The city’s goal was to establish and develop a museum focusing on the arts and culture. In 1942, the Pasadena Art Institute and the Pasadena Museum of Art, a local contemporary art organization, merged. Both of these organizations focused on modern and contemporary art as well as providing space for artists of the day to exhibit their works.  When they merged, they became the new Pasadena Museum of Art. The Pasadena Museum of Art’s home was in the Grace Nicholson’s building, home to today’s Pacific Asia Museum. The museum’s focus on contemporary art became cemented when they received and became guardians of the Galka Scheyer Collection and Archives in 1953. In 1954, the museum changed its name to the Pasadena Art Museum (PAM). During the latter part of the 1960s, PAM built and moved into its new space on the corner of Colorado Blvd and Orange Grove, presently the same building the Norton Simon Museum resides.

PAM was ambitious and put on excellent exhibitions, both collective and retrospective of contemporary art works and artists.  Exhibitions ranged from the Galka Scheyer and the Blue Four collection to Marcel Duchamp to Andy Warhol to Ed Ruscha.  Contemporary artists such as Warhol donated a few of their works to the museum which still is part of NSM’s collection.  In addition, the museum also amassed an awesome photography collection under Fred Parker, then curator of the Photography, Prints and Drawings at PAM.  The collection consists of modern and contemporary photographers such as Minor White, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Cartier-Bresson. By the early 1970s, PAM decided to change its name to express their focus on modern and contemporary art to the Pasadena Museum of Modern Art (PMMA).

Although PAM/PMMA established itself as a leading contemporary art museum and was continuing to expand its audience, they experienced financial constraints and deficit.  Ultimately, in hopes to keep the collection together and keep the museum going, PAM reached out to Norton Simon, who had his own collection of Old Masters and Asian art works and he too was looking for space to store and exhibited his collection.  In less than a few years during the mid 1970s, PMMA changed its name back to PAM. Norton Simon bought PAM and its collection and moved his own collection in.  Before the 1980s came around, the museum’s name changed again to the Norton Simon Museum of Art.

Today, NSM still holds PAM’s contemporary art collection as well as a rich archive of the museum’s history (Pasadena Art Institute, Pasadena Museum of Art, Pasadena Art Museum, Pasadena Museum of Modern Art, Norton Simon Museum). While studying its history, one is introduced to the exhibitions, artists and individuals who contribute to establishing PAM as the focal point in Los Angeles for the contemporary art world.

Presently, Pacific Standard Time has provided an opportunity for a couple of institutions to showcase the history of PAM.  Some exhibitions are more direct in narrating PAM’s history, such as the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s Pasadena to Santa Barbara: A Selected History of Art in Southern California, 1951-1969 and Pacific Asia Museum’s 46 N. Los Robles: A History of the Pasadena Art Museum.  Other exhibitions are indirect in focusing on a retrospective of an artist’s work, an artist who at one time exhibited their works at PAM. For example, California State University, Northridge’s (CSUN) latest PST exhibition on Jerry McMillan, an artist whose works were exhibited under PAM’s director, Walter Hopps. LACMA’s California Design exhibits some catalogs from PAM’s California Design exhibitions during the 1960s and early 1970s. The California Design exhibitions were curated by PAM’s Eudorah Moore.

Some of the shows have closed, but a few focusing on PAM’s history are still open. When you have time and are curious to learn more about Pasadena’s art history, check them out!


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