Norton Simon Museum

One of the most impressive private art collections ever amassed can be seen at the Norton Simon Museum. Over a 30-year period, industrialist Norton Simon collected a world-class collection of South Asian art spanning 2,000 years and European masterpieces extending from the Renaissance to the 20th century. The collection also features modern pieces from Europe and the United States that were acquired by the museum from the defunct Pasadena Art Museum.

Norton Simon Museum’s origins can be traced back to the Pasadena Art Institute. Inaugurated as a private, charitable organization in August 1924, the Institute has been in operation since its inception in 1922. Founded by interested residents, the Institution’s original mission was to promote interest in and knowledge of the visual and performing arts through the establishment of a museum, library, and educational program.

A 22-room Victorian estate called the Reed Mansion, located in Pasadena’s Carmelita Park at the intersection of Orange Grove and Colorado Boulevard, was purchased by the Institute after its formation.

At its inception, the Institute included annual exhibitions by California artists and works from other cultures, in addition to displaying 19th century American and European art. To save Carmelita as a public park was the primary concern of the Pasadena Art Institute, which wanted to use the land in the future for a new structure. Trustees and workers at the estate made ends meet by selling grandstand tickets to the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California, even during the Great Depression.

Carmelita Park was a donation to the city of Pasadena that came in 1941. The Pasadena Art Institute was required to be given a suitable piece of land as part of the endowment. The Institute and Pasadena eventually settled on a mutually agreeable arrangement. The Institute was given a free 20-year lease on the land provided that a permanent museum was built there.

The Institute and the Pasadena Museum of Art, which had been open for a year at the time, combined in April 1942. Keeping the Pasadena Art Institute moniker, the organization has set up shop in a Grace Nicholson Studios gallery. The Pacific Asia Museum has moved into the former location of Grace Nicholson’s Chinese House and Emporium. The Museum’s mortgage was paid off in 1943 thanks to the efforts of a dedicated group of locals. Later, Miss Nicholson transferred ownership of the studios to the city of Pasadena, which then granted the Museum a free, 25-year lease on the property. A museum was also required to be constructed on the Carmelita land as part of the deal. After Miss Nicholson passed away in 1948, she left the Institute about $40,000.

In 1953, the Pasadena Art Institute received a bequest of about 500 artworks from the estate of Galka Scheyer E. This was a watershed moment in the institution’s history. Her record of correspondence with the artists was included in the donation along with the artworks. The Institute boasted in its announcement that the donation made it one of the world’s wealthiest modern art institutions. One year later, the Institute rebranded itself as the Pasadena Art Museum, with a focus on collecting and displaying contemporary works.

As the next two decades progressed, the Pasadena Art Museum became known around the world for its groundbreaking displays of 20th century art. They held a significant Bauhaus exhibition, as well as showings of the works of Andy Warhol, Joseph Cornell, and Claes Oldenburg.

The museum made the decision to broaden its offerings in 1964. On the old Carmelita Park grounds, it had Pasadena-based architects Ladd & Kelsey create a brand-new 85,000-square-foot building. The Pasadena Art Museum first welcomed visitors in November 1969. Among the modern artists whose work was acquired or donated were Richard Diebenkorn, Larry Bell, Roy Lichtenstein, and Ellsworth Kelly.

The Museum rebranded itself to better reflect its emphasis on exhibition and instruction. It was renamed the “Pasadena Museum of Modern Art” in March 1973. Expenses spent during the new Museum’s construction proved to be an intractable and chronic drain on the institution’s finances. The Museum’s Trustees came to an arrangement with Norton Simon in 1974 after years of trying to resolve the Museum’s financial problems without success, and in the face of the possibility of bankruptcy and closure.

In exchange for taking on the Museum’s debt, Simon was given control of the organization. Again, a major turning point in the Museum’s history marked a radical shift in its mission and purpose. The Pasadena Art Museum name has been reinstated for the time being.

The Museum closed for refurbishment in June 1974. It reopened in March 1975 after merging the Pasadena Art Museum and Norton Simon collections. The Norton Simon Museum of Art at Pasadena officially opened in October of that year.

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