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USC absorbs Pasadena's Pacific Asia Museum in friendly takeover

November 19, 2013|By Mike Boehm
  • The Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena. USC is absorbing the museum in a friendly takeover announced Monday.
The Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena. USC is absorbing the museum in a friendly… (Los Angeles Times )

USC is taking over the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, bringing more than 15,000 works of Asian art dating from ancient times to today under the university's control, along with the nearly 90-year-old replica of a Chinese palace that houses the museum.

USC and museum officials described the new relationship as an “alliance” and a “partnership” in a written announcement Monday, but Robert Cooper, the university’s vice provost, said in an interview that the existing independent nonprofit board that runs the museum will cede full control to the university starting next month.

Cooper said operations will continue unchanged for now, including operating hours and the $10 admission fee to the Pacific Asia Museum’s 9,600 square feet of galleries and spacious internal courtyard.

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He said the museum’s 14 employees will remain in place if they choose to stay on, with a better benefits package than they have now.

It’s a friendly takeover, initiated by the Pacific Asia Museum’s board when it approached USC in July.

“We felt a partnership would better enable the museum to more fully realize its mission,” said Katherine Murray-Morse, who chairs the museum’s board, and USC seemed like a good fit because of its academic interests in art and Asian history and culture.

Financial filings show that the museum, which opened in 1971, has had a hand-to-mouth existence in recent years, with annual spending of about $1.7 million and an endowment of just $995,422 at the end of 2011, the most recent year immediately available.

Cooper said it’s unclear how much money USC will provide for operations, but plans call for using the university’s fundraising reach to build the endowment and sources of operating support so it can stand on its own financially, without a subsidy. But for now, he said, USC will provide an as-yet-unspecified amount of money to keep the museum running.

“This is a natural connection for us,” Cooper said. “It’s an extension of what we’re already doing as a Pacific Rim university with many interests in Asia. It’s wonderful on both sides, because it provides stability for the museum for the future, and gives USC something it didn’t have before.”

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USC embarked in 2011 on one of the most ambitious fundraising efforts ever undertaken by a university, aiming to raise $6 billion by 2018.

Murray-Morse said the museum director’s job has been vacant at the Pacific Asia Museum since July, when Charles Mason left after about two years to head a new art museum now under construction on the campus of Hope College in Grand Rapids, Mich. 

Cooper said USC will begin a search for a new museum director early next year, with some members of the current museum board serving on the search committee along with university officials. USC provost Elizabeth Garrett will have the final say over the hiring, and the new director will report to her.

Selma Holo, director of the USC Fisher Museum of Art, said bringing the Pacific Asia Museum under USC’s control adds a completely different dimension because its holdings don’t overlap the Fisher’s collection of works from Europe and the Americas dating from about 1500 to the present.

Holo said she will head the search committee that will identify candidates to lead the Pacific Asia Museum, but that the two museums will be separate operations. “I’m sure there will be lots of collaboration and things we think about together.”

“I think it’s exciting,” added Holo, whose museum on USC’s campus is about 14 road miles from its new sibling. “It puts something materially and culturally powerful into [USC’s] conversations about the Pacific Rim.”

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USC had confirmed last December that it was in preliminary talks about a possible unspecified partnership with L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which was suffering from tight finances. In March, MOCA trustees announced that they were committed to keeping the downtown museum independent and boosting its endowment from about $20 million to $100 million. The firmest known offer had come from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which proposed raising $100 million in conjunction with a merger and keeping MOCA’s downtown presence.

The Pacific Asia Museum becomes the second independent museum to come under a university’s umbrella in the L.A. area: in 1994, UCLA began a 99-year agreement to manage the Hammer Museum. The art museum on UCLA’s Westwood doorstep had run into immediate trouble when its founder, Armand Hammer, died 15 days after his museum’s November 1990 opening.

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