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New Museum Will Celebrate California Art

Art* The Pasadena site, dedicated to displaying works from 1850 to today, will open June 1.


Five years after art collectors Robert and Arlene Oltman purchased a piece of property in downtown Pasadena with the vague idea of building a residence for themselves in a mixed-use facility, their dream is becoming a reality. But they won't be living above a boutique or restaurant, like a growing number of urban dwellers. Instead, they are moving into the top floor of a three-story building that houses the new Pasadena Museum of California Art.

Dedicated to California art, architecture and design from 1850 to the present, the $5-million museum will open June 1 with "On-Ramps: Transitional Moments in California Art," a four-part exhibition of definitive developments in California art history. Visitors will park on the ground level, ascend to the second-floor deck and proceed to the galleries, then check out the view from the rooftop terrace. Located at 490 E. Union St., just around the corner from the Pacific Asia Museum, the building is the work of MDA Johnson Favaro Architecture and Urban Design of Culver City.

Unusual as it is, the Oltmans' project has won the support of city leaders. "It adds to Pasadena's standing as a center for arts and culture, while making a unique contribution," said Mayor Bill Bogaard. The museum's artistic mission is particularly appropriate because it deals with "a period of California art that is very much a part of Pasadena's past," he said.

Robert Oltman, 63, and Arlene, 62, are longtime residents of Pasadena. "Some people have said we are giving something back to the community," said Robert, who practiced architecture for 17 years before co-founding his profitable business, Space Bank Mini Storage, with partner Clayton H. Schubert. "We may be. But our real focus is making people more aware of the arts movements that have taken place here and the serious experimentation that is still going on today."

Wesley Jessup, an art historian and former assistant director of the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas in Lawrence who is executive director of the new museum, has lined up an ambitious exhibitions program by hiring guest curators and booking traveling shows. "On-Ramps," which runs through Sept. 1, is an in-house creation compiled by four independent curators.

The "Impressionism to Post-Impressionism" section was organized by Nancy Moure, a specialist in early California art; "Post Surrealism," by Michael Duncan, a critic for Art in America magazine; "Hard Edge Abstraction to Finish Fetish," by Peter Frank, a critic for L.A. Weekly; and "Bay Area Conceptualism," by Thomas Solomon, a former Los Angeles gallery owner. The artworks have been borrowed from museums across the country, including the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and the Phoenix Art Museum in Arizona.

The second show, "Capturing Light: Masterpieces of California Photography, 1850-2002" (Sept. 14 to Nov. 24), was organized by the Oakland Museum. Next year will bring three home-grown exhibitions: "Towards a New Cathedral: Calatrava, Meier, Moneo," focusing on three architectural projects; "California Design Biennial"; and "Edward Biberman: A Retrospective." Another 2003 show, "Not-So Still Life: A Century of California Painting and Sculpture," will come from the San Jose Museum of Art.

"We have a great breadth of material to work with," Jessup said. While some exhibitions will probe particular styles or periods, others will "create a dialogue between the old and the new," he said. "There is such a divide. Aficionados of plein-air or Impressionist painting have difficulty appreciating contemporary art, and it's hard for lovers of contemporary to get into Impressionism. I hope that 'On-Ramps' and shows that look at one genre over the course of a century will cultivate an audience with a broad appreciation of California art."

Critical and public response to the fledgling museum remains to be seen, but some of Jessup's peers have already expressed approval.

"I'm impressed with the curators they've gotten involved and I think very highly of the architects," said Jay Belloli, director of art programs at the nearby Armory Center for the Arts. "This city is not very good about knowing its own artistic history. Anything that helps that along is certainly worth doing."

Gloria Williams, a curator at the Norton Simon Museum, said the new museum is "only going to be good for the city." Along with its artistic point of view, the museum will provide an occasional showcase for works in other institutions' collections that are often in storage, she said. For starters, the Simon has loaned four pieces of contemporary art to the opening show. "It's a wonderful opportunity to present these works in a different circumstance," Williams said.

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