Should your holiday rituals include "the trip to the museum" with visiting friends and relatives, these recommendations (a first set appeared last week in this spot) will lead you to small gems -- selected for their stories, their surprises and their virtuosity -- tucked into permanent collections and exhibitions now on view. Consider this list a gift guide of a different sort, a small sampling of the richness available around the region for the price of admission.
-- Suzanne Muchnic
Museum of Contemporary Art
One of the Museum of Contemporary Art's claims to fame is that it has built a first-rate collection in record time, despite being chronically under-funded. Some of the credit goes to artists such as Michael Asher, an influential conceptualist who has donated 37 works from his collection, many of them produced or exhibited in Los Angeles. A sampling, tucked in a back gallery in MOCA's Grand Avenue facility to Jan. 7, offers an enchanting walk through local art history. Larry Bell's 1961 sculpture "Lux at the Ferus," for example, is named for L.A.'s storied Ferus Gallery, where Bell and other up-and-comers showed their work in the late 1950s and early '60s. His wood, glass and mirror box is a compact bit of artistry that plays with big perceptual ideas.
Pacific Asia Museum
Throughout much of China's history -- when you really had to know your place -- members of the imperial household, civil officials and military officers were identified by intricately woven and embroidered silk badges depicting birds and animals. As the system evolved into a strict code, specific creatures were assigned to people of a particular rank. The emperor, of course, wore a five-clawed dragon; a high-ranking military man sported a lion or tiger; a judge was tagged as a xiezhi, a lion-like creature with a large horn, a dragon's head and a bushy tail, surrounded by leaping flames. The xiezhi in "Rank and Style: Power Dressing in Imperial China," a rare assembly of historical badges, at the Pacific Asia Museum to Jan. 27, is a mid-16th-century model, made for a court censor who sought out corruption and kept his colleagues in line.
Norton Simon Museum
Blissed out bodhisattvas, seated in yogic equipoise, aren't exactly rare in art from the ancient kingdom of Gandhara, which occupied territory in what is now northwesten Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. But most of the figures represent Maitreya, the future Buddha. "Siddhartha Meditating Below the Jambu Tree," an amazingly well preserved 3rd century sculpture finely carved in schist, has a far more unusual subject: the founder of Buddhism immersed in a mystical trance. As the story goes, Siddhartha was overcome by worries about the misery of life and the inevitability of death while watching a plowing match in the countryside. He wandered off, sat down to meditate under a jambu tree and entered a state of unconscious ecstasy. A relatively little-known highlight of the Norton Simon Museum's art collections, the sculpture is on view there indefinitely.