Baring a hidden Pasadena gem

December 23, 2011|By Lynne Heffley
  • Executive Director Charles Mason poses in one of the exhibition rooms at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena on Friday, December 16, 2011. The museum exhibits more than 40 modern and contemporary works. (Cheryl A. Guerrero/Staff Photographer)
Executive Director Charles Mason poses in one of the exhibition…

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.”

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