Acting on a shared vision, Robert and Arlene Oltman decided to build the Pasadena Museum of California Art on Union Street in Mid-town Pasadena, a short walk from City Hall, itself a tribute to state artists and architects of the 1920s. It was an astounding undertaking for those with much museum experience, exponentially more so for someone without that kind of background. The Oltman’s mission was to fill a void by providing an entity focused exclusively on California art, and PMCA officially opened its doors in 2002.

The couple was able to attract as their founding director 32-year-old Wesley Jessup, who in four years had gone from working in visitor services to manager of budgeting and planning at the Guggenheim Museum while attending City University in Manhattan. During his tenure, Jessup reportedly brought the nonprofit’s operating budget from a quarter-million dollars a year to $1.2 million annually with a 12-member board. Jessup remained with PMCA until 2007.

On June 13, current PMCA Board Chair Jim Crawford, a partner in the Westwood architectural firm Richard Meier & Partners, recommended that the museum close permanently at the end of the current exhibit: Feminist Judy Chicago, Brody Albert and Grafton Tyler Brown, the first known African-American artist working in California. The board voted 12-1 in favor of closing the museum on Oct. 7.

Susana Smith Bautista, PhD, former director of the Mexican Cultural Institute and most recently USC’s Pacific Asia Museum, became executive director of PMCA in May 2017. “The museum has had a lot of challenges,” states a disappointed Smith Bautista, “but after years of deficits, the museum finished the last two years in the black.”

“Like many, l was shocked and saddened by the board’s decision to close PMCA,” says Carrie Adrian, collector of Latino art and founding member of the Ambassador’s Circle. This is PMCA’s major donor group, which is actively involved in the annual fundraising benefit.

Melissa Aldama, art coordinator for the Altadena Public Library, is a volunteer at PMCA, “I immediately fell in love the first time I visited the museum so I reached out to them to volunteer, and just began in January. I was really looking forward to more opportunities to support the work they were doing. They offered something really special to the community.”

“PMCA has hosted some superb surveys of California art, distinguishing itself particularly with its one-person retrospectives,” states Peter Frank, art critic, curator and associate editor of Fabrik Magazine. Frank was one of four curators for PMCA’s inaugural exhibition “On-Ramps: Transitional Moments in California Art.”

“It also has been the site of some of the most important historical surveys of local art,” says Frank. “In doing so, the museum filled a niche in Southern California exhibition programming.” 

What Happened?

“I believe our board members became tired and a little bit disenchanted,” says Robert Oltman, “It has been festering for a period of time. They were just tired of being asked all the time for money, and rightfully so. Many of them have been giving a very heavy amount.”

The PMCA has never had an endowment, having to rely simply on nonprofit fundraising efforts and admissions to meet their goals. They had been able, for a period, to rent out the rooftop patio as a popular event venue; but that revenue stream stopped when the city of Pasadena decided to enforce zoning restrictions on the property. The Oltman’s hold no ill will, claiming that they are grateful that the city let it go on for as long as it did.

Upon taking the position as director, Smith Bautista did her due diligence and actively sought out perceptions of the museum, particularly with funders, learning that the major concerns were PMCA’s history of deficits and the fact that the Oltman’s, who sold their home to be able to build the museum, lived on the property.

“As far as I know, our living here in relationship to the 501(c)3 was not a problem. There was a perception that our living here made this our candy store and we should be responsible for taking care of it,” said Robert Oltman. “Therefore, foundations, grant organizations and so forth were very hesitant, and that was often the reason they gave.”

“The city of Pasadena was one of the first ones to bring that up,” Arlene Oltman adds. “One of the articles said that PMCA paid us rent. But what they didn’t say was that in turn we made a gift-in-kind, for the exact same amount, that went right back to the museum.”

“There is no reason why people can’t give money directly to the museum with a board of directors,” states Jan Masaoka, CEO of the California Association of Nonprofits, “However, any situation that raises eyebrows, whether legal or not, generates reluctance with donors regarding funding. There are viable ways to restructure the relationship so that it relaxes those eyebrows.”

“It has been our plan to gift the building to PMCA, but that has to wait, I’m afraid, because we are not able to pay off the building just yet,” explains a visibly crushed Arlene Oltman. “We don’t want to give it to them with a payment. We’d like to give it to them free and clear.”

Community Impact

“Susana Smith Bautista has brought to the table a sense of professionalism and broadened our fundraising efforts by adding a full-time development director to the staff,” Robert Oltman expresses, “And she showed us how to open with a splash.”

“I place a high priority on the visitor experience, and how visitors engage with the museum and the art.” Smith Bautista explains, “We started working to increase our programming partners, to offer bold programming, to seek funding for education, and with the current show we decided to offer a cell phone audio tour, family guide and incubator space inside the exhibition, all for the first time.”

Shortly after becoming executive director, Smith Bautista expressed a strong desire to engage with Los Angeles area artists and talked about plans to utilize the third floor as ongoing local artist exhibition space. It was also very important to her to cultivate partnerships with other entities. Not having perhaps as strong a support staff as she could have had left very little time to spend on future exhibits.

“The loss of PMCA cannot be looked at as anything other than a tragedy,” says Alan Zorthian, executor of the Zorthian estate. “We were looking forward to producing a show on the life’s work of my father, Jirayr Zorthian, that incorporated not only his prolific production as a fine artist but also the architecture, art and sculpture he produced and incorporated on the Zorthian Ranch. We were delighted that Jirayr’s work was going to be given the recognition that it deserved.”

“It breaks my heart. It was a great venue for the city of Pasadena,” states Suzanne Zada of Gallery Z in Beverly Hills, previously one of the original PMCA board members and executor of the Edward Biberman estate. Zada, recently featured in the Los Angeles Business Journal, was intending a Biberman retrospective at PMCA, curated by Ilene Susan Fort from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Smith Bautista was open to the idea but could not move forward without her exhibitions person being on board.

“I am sad to see PMCA closing, but I think their shortcoming was that they did not cater to local tastes. I went there several times and I was always somewhat disappointed,” admits Pasadena artist Rudy Cole who recently had a very successful show at a local gallery. “I wish they could work something out to keep the place. Pasadena is considered an art city but we do not have enough places to show local talent.”

That is a a sentiment shared by former Pasadena Society of Artists Exhibitions Chair Atanas Karpeles.

“As a local artist, I went to see many exhibitions at PMCA. I enjoyed the different topics and really appreciated the earlier California artists,” says Karpeles. “But, for some reason, I didn’t see any local artists exhibited who live and work in Pasadena and Altadena.”

It’s true that the Grafton Tyler Brown exhibit is the museum’s first time exhibiting a historical black artist in a city with a large African-American demographic; having previously exhibited only two contemporary African-American artists, Betye Saar and Corey Newkirk.

Doing Things Differently

Both the Oltmans and current PMCA Board President Crawford said that they steer clear of the running of the museum, leaving it to the experts. Since Jessup’s departure, despite good intentions, the only real experts that have had any involvement with PMCA would be Jay Belloli, who acted as interim director for 11 months, until they were able to find Smith Bautista, the current executive director.

The reason why the museum has been without professionals until recently is because salaries usually only attract the very inexperienced. Unfortunately, instead of recognizing that eventually this would have repercussions, the board is known to boast about “PMCA being a training ground for their staff to move on to bigger and better things.”

The current board has no plans to resurrect the museum, although they do plan to keep the 501(c)3 status open. It is unfortunate that Bautista’s momentum was cut short by the decision of the board.

“We realize that nothing is so wrong that money would not be able to fix,” said Oltman, who recently conducted his own survey of area museums in regard to cost per visitor per square footage of exhibition space, with PMCA coming in at the top, “The very first thing we would do is set up an endowment.”

This is a perfect opportunity for a philanthropist, cultural entity, foundation or corporation to step in and give the community of Pasadena, and beyond, the museum that it deserves. California is a state filled with artists. It is extremely important to have a museum dedicated to California art.

“If circumstances change and the museum could continue, it would not need only a new infusion of funding, but a new legal structure that would allow for a more independent and professional museum. Then I would happily stay and work hard to grow the museum,” says Smith Bautista.

“I’d like to leave this world knowing that PMCA is stable,” Arlene Oltman says. “We still believe in the gift that we provided here. We believe we owe it to the community.”

According to Frank, “PMCA always maintained a more-than-respectable place in local museology, and surprised and gratified us again and again. Galleries and even museums come and go —especially in Pasadena. But this one I’m going to miss dearly.”

“Without question it’s with great regret that the museum is closing and we can only wish our employees, board members and all who supported the museum over the years our deepest thanks for their support,” concludes Robert Oltman.