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USC takes the reins at Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena (photos)

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The University of Southern California announced on Tuesday that it's taking over management of  the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, one of just a handful of U.S. institutions dedicated to Asian art.

Under the new arrangement, the museum will become the USC Pacific Asia Museum and its 14 staffers will become USC employees.  USC's Fisher Museum of Art chief Selma Holo will take on the added role of interim executive director at the new organization, effective immediately.

Holo said university leadership recognized the important role the Pasadena museum and its massive collection - 17,000 art items spanning more than 5,000 years - could play. USC wants to spotlight its relationship with Asia as it positions itself as a top Pacific Rim university. China alone accounted for more than 3,700 USC students last year.

"When the opportunity (came up) to be able to focus on the arts of the Pacific Rim - that really got to be too tasty to deny," Holo said.

The Asian artwork will also help to fill a void in the Fisher Museum collection of some 1,800 objects, which are primarily from the Americas and Europe.

A museum in search of a bigger endowment

Though USC embraced the idea of running the Pacific Asia Museum, it was the museum's board that approached USC officials in July about forming a partnership.

Board chair Katherine Murray-Morse said she and fellow members felt USC could help grow the museum's approximately $1.5 million endowment to provide for a healthier share of the annual operating budget. In recent years, the budget has run between $1.5 million and $1.7 million.

"USC is a very well-established university," Murray-Morse said. "They have great financial strength and would help the museum raise its endowment" through fund-raising.

As is the case with many small and mid-sized museums, money has long been tight at the Pacific Asia Museum.  Joan Marshall, who led the museum from 2003 to 2010, said physically it was too small to earn much side income as an event space.

"Frankly, the museum has struggled for many years to raise enough resources to really utilize its potential," said Marshall, who now heads the The Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin. "It was really about having enough money to pay the staff adequately, to put research into exhibition development ideas."

Marshall, who described being pleasantly surprised by the news of USC taking over management, said she's excited to see how USC will bring its resources to bear.

Changes the public will see

One thing officials at USC and the museum readily point out is that the aging facility could use an update. Founded in 1971, the museum moved into a 1924 Chinese Qing Dynasty-inspired mansion that's listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

USC, which has experience with historic buildings - it operates the Gamble House in Pasadena - plans to do repairs on the North Los Robles Ave. building, and make sure it meets earthquake safety standards.

"The building is going to be really, really spiffed up," Holo said. "The building has a lot of deferred maintenance and we'll make sure that everything looks as beautiful as it can possibly be."

Expect new signage and also more visitors from USC, Holo added. The museum could be of great interest to students and faculty at USC's East Asian Studies Center, the Korean Studies Institute and the USC U.S.-China Institute.

USC's six arts schools also enroll many students from Asia, who may feel more inclined to travel to Pasadena because of their school's affiliation with the museum. 

Prominent holdings at the newly-named USC Pacific Asia Museum:

  • Harari Collection of Japanese paintings and drawings from the Edo (1600-1868) and Meiji (1868-1912) periods, one of the largest collections of Japanese folk paintings outside Japan
  • South Pacific bark cloth collection
  • Collections of Chinese ceramics and textiles
  • Buddhist art from throughout Asia

New name, new era

The museum will also undergo changes largely unseen by the public.

The board of trustees — which unanimously agreed to enter into the arrangement with USC, according to Murray-Morse — is also undergoing transition.

Some, including Murray-Morse, will stay on to help in the search for a permanent executive director.

Many members have been attached for a long time to the museum, back to when David Kamansky was executive director - from 1977 through 2003.

Kamansky had been credited for building much of the museum's current collection. After his retirement, in 2008, he was implicated in a federal investigation into whether museums were acquiring art pieces that had been smuggled.

In the years since, neither Kamansky nor any museum officials have been indicted. The Pacific Asia Museum went onto become accredited by the American Alliance of Museums in 2009.

Holo said USC is fully aware of the problems the museum has faced in the past, as well as future challenges.

"They know the assets and liabilities they're inheriting," Holo said. "USC will bring all of its wisdom and strengths to making (the museum) into a true jewel of what it can be."

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