A new Pasadena Museum of Califonia Art seems to have sprung out of nowhere. It proudly occupies a prime spot of real estate behind the Pacific Asia Museum, at the center of the city. Like you, I've never heard before of its founders - Robert and Arlene Oltman - long-time residents of Pasadena. For about 30 years, they've been collecting California landscape paintings, while maintaining a low profile.
The Oltmans wanted to live where things do happen - in the heart of the city. But to receive permission to build a residential space in a business district, they needed to add a commercial or non-profit component to it. So, to satisfy city requirements, they initially planned to make their private collection available for public viewing. Next thing you know, the project got delightfully out of hand and ultimately metamorphosed into a three-story museum building, with the Oltmans living on the top floor, in the penthouse. The rest of the building is designed to satisfy specific museum needs for exhibiting art and accommodating visitors. For now, art is shown only in the galleries on the second floor, though in the future, the ground level garage could be turned into additional exhibition space. There is also a spacious terrace on the roof, with a beautiful view of the city and the mountains.
Four independent curators were invited to mount the Museum's inaugural exhibition called "Transitional Moments in California Art." The first gallery tells the respectful, if not very exciting, story of early California landscape paintings, mostly derivative of European trends. The second gallery offers a good history lesson in Southern California's response to European surrealism, in the decade preceding World War II. In the third, and most spacious gallery, the exhibition kicks up into high gear, conveying the excitement and freshness of California art in the '60s, characterized by the use of industrial materials and the impossibly cool, so called, Finish Fetish look. This exhibition projects confidence and a sense of cockiness, which brought California artists international attention. The last gallery explores Bay Area Conceptual art in the 1970s, an important, but not the most interesting, chapter in the cultural history of California.
Compared to the monumentally disappointing exhibition "Made in California-, which cost LACMA untold millions of dollars and years of preparation, the modest inaugural show at the Pasadena Museum of California Art is a welcome contribution to our collective history. The future of this museum is not clear, and without endowment, it is dependent on the good will of its founders. But there is hope that, with good public response, the museum's board of trustees will generate enough moral and financial support from city leaders and the community at large. The art critic for the L.A. Times couldn't find a good word to say about the Oltman's cultural initiative. He writes that the million dollars spent on this new museum would have made a much more significant impact if donated to, say LACMA or MOCA, which, he thinks, are better suited to promote California art. To that I say: Oh brother-cut them some slack.
If anything, the Oltmans deserve to be complimented for what they've achieved. Smartly, they did not make their personal collection - or their personal taste in art - the defining feature of their museum. To the contrary, they did something unheard of, in this land of big egos - they built a museum but didn't name it after themselves. Their names are not plastered on the fa-ade, not even inscribed on museum stationary. Some think this may be false modesty, but as Oscar Wilde once said, it is better to have false modesty than no modesty at all.
So what if they enjoy a tax break. What counts is their significant contribution to the cultural life of the city of Pasadena. And that, as the wise Martha Stewart likes to say, is a Good Thing.
It's been Edward Goldman with Art Talk on KCRW. Now you can see the art I've been talking about online at www.kcrw.com.
For more information:
"On-Ramps: Transitional Moments in California Art-
June 1 - September 1, 2002
Pasadena Museum of California Art
490 East Union Street
Pasadena, CA 91101