The only university museum of art from Asia and the Pacific Islands reopens after extensive renovations.

Many have passed the two-story Chinese-style building on North Los Robles Avenue in Old Pasadena and wondered, What’s behind those thick beige walls topped with a green-tiled roof, curled up at the edges? A mural on the side wall provides clues — a large dragon with a twisting body, red stalks of bamboo and a seal-shaped sign containing the words “Pacific Asia Museum.” Now under the auspices of the University of Southern California, the Pacific Asia Museum (PAM) is the only university museum dedicated to the arts of Asia and the Pacific Islands, and it reopened in December after a year-and-a-half of seismic retrofitting and renovations.

I enter the reception area through an arched portal, and Christina Yu Yu, the museum’s director for the last three years, comes down from upstairs offices to greet me.  We start our interview in the first gallery of the current show — Winds from Fusang: Mexico and China in the Twentieth Century, running through June 10 as part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time LA/LA initiative focusing on Latin American and Latino art. We talk about some of the changes that have taken place, including the most obvious one: the removal of the old gift shop — it used to be in the large space where we are now seated — to make way for exhibition space.  (But don’t worry; a smaller gift shop will be installed by the entrance desk.) 

“Our mission is to promote cross-cultural understanding, through arts and culture,” says Yu Yu, a former curator of Chinese and Korean art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “How to make it happen, I think there are different strategies: before, we were very much a community-focused museum, and that is something we are still very committed to — we want to introduce Asian arts and culture to Southern California.  Now that we are part of USC, [we want] to be integrated into the curriculum, that is something we’ve added.” One thing they’re working on, for example, is an augmented reality experience for visitors, possibly involving their cellphones. This collaboration with the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Information Technology Program will be “like a treasure hunt.”

The building itself has long held a special place in the cultural history of Pasadena. It was built in 1924 for Grace Nicholson, an art collector and dealer who specialized in Native American and Asian art and artifacts. The architectural firm of Marston, Van Pelt & Maybury designed it in the style of a Chinese nobleman’s mansion, replete with a central courtyard containing a garden and a small pond.  To ensure authenticity, Nicholson ordered some of the materials — including ceramic tiles, stone and marble carvings — directly from China; other architectural details were made by local craftsmen who studied photographs of Chinese buildings. When the building opened, the downstairs rooms functioned as an art gallery and shop, while the second floor was Nicholson’s home.

In 1943 she donated the building to the City of Pasadena, retaining the right to live there until her death in 1948. Later it was occupied by the Pasadena Art Institute, which in 1954 became the Pasadena Art Museum.  In 1970 that museum moved to Orange Grove and Colorado boulevards and became part of the Norton Simon Museum.  The following year, the Pacificulture Foundation moved into the Nicholson building, starting the Pacific Asia Museum and eventually purchasing the property.

Small museums are notoriously difficult to sustain financially, unless they have a hefty endowment, and this one did not. After years of financial struggle as a nonprofit, the museum came under the umbrella of USC in 2013, a move that brought in more than $1 million to help underwrite the museum’s operating costs through its transitional period. USC also paid for an overall evaluation of the physical facilities, which led to the recent retrofitting and renovations; those cost another few million (the museum declines to reveal exactly how much).  In addition to the retrofitting, the university also improved collections storage spaces, reinstalled the permanent exhibition and began a thorough inventory of holdings. Ultimately, the museum is expected to be self-sustaining.

Visitors enter the museum building from the north wing, where the admissions desk and reception area are located. (The special exhibition galleries are in the south wing.) From there, a series of small galleries introduces visitors to Pacific Island, South Asian and Southeast Asian art, with the large galleries at the end of this wing dedicated to China, Japan and Korea. “We have 15,000 items in our collection,” Yu Yu says. “Geographically we cover all the regions in Asia, and chronologically, our oldest pieces are from 4,000 years ago. We have Neolithic pottery, and we also have contemporary art.” While museum officials will eventually pursue more acquisitions, their immediate focus is on exhibitions and programming.

There are a number of outstanding items on display in the permanent collection, and Yu Yu highlights them during a walkthrough. From India is a medium-size second-century sandstone sculpture showing a “loving couple,” as the label says. “This is actually one of the earliest stone sculptures in Southern California,” she points out.

In the Chinese section, her attention veers toward a blue-and-white plate, with a qilin, a lion-like mythical animal, painted in the center. It dates from the late Yuan to early Ming periods (i.e., the early 14th century) and reflects a Persian influence in its decorative border and use of cobalt blue. “It’s one of the most important pieces here,” says Yu Yu. In the Japan section, there are several classical woodblock prints, including the iconographic South Wind, Clear Sky by Katsushika Hokusai. This is the close-up of Mt. Fuji under a lacy canopy of clouds, part of a famous series depicting the majestic mountain from different angles.

The temporary Winds from Fusang exhibition explores a little-known topic — the interchange between Chinese and Mexican artists that occurred in the 1930s and then again in the 1950s, after China had become a Communist nation. The show was co-curated by Yu Yu and guest curator Shengtian Zheng, a veteran Chinese art scholar and curator based in Vancouver.

During an exhibition preview, Zheng explained the show’s inspiration. “Fusang is not a real place,” he said. “In Chinese mythology, it’s a mysterious place in the East.” For the Chinese in the 20th century, Mexico seemed a faraway and exotic place. In the 1930s Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias visited China twice, and several of his stylized illustrations are in the show, as well as works by Chinese artists who emulated him. Then in 1956, the touring exhibition National Front of Plastic Arts of Mexico: An Exhibition of Paintings and Prints introduced more than 60 Mexican artists to a Chinese audience, starting in Beijing. The show included works by Diego Rivera, Xavier Guerrero, Leopoldo Méndez, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. That year Siqueiros himself made a trip to China, meeting important officials such as Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, as well as a number of Chinese artists.

The exhibition shows their correspondence and pamphlets, actual artworks included in the 1956 exhibition, as well as art by Chinese artists influenced by the show. “This exhibition had a strong impact on Chinese muralists,” says Zheng. One was Yunsheng Yuan, who designed a major mural for the Beijing International Airport in 1979. Yuan had visited the minority Dai people in Yunnan Province, and his mural showed them celebrating the Water Splashing Festival, much as the Mexican muralists had celebrated the life and culture of indigenous peoples in their own country. The Chinese mural turned out to be a controversial one, since it showed nude figures.