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Hahamongna News


Art museum founders bow out during 10th anniversary celebrations





Janette Williams, SGVN


Pasadena Star-News


Bob and Arlene Oltman stand with the sculpture "A Loose Horizon" at the Pasadena Museum of California Art in Pasadena on Wednesday June 20. The museum is celebrating its 10th anniversary. (Keith Durflinger / Staff Photographer)

PASADENA - It's been more than a decade since Arlene and Bob Oltman decided not to build a boutique hotel or an office building on a site they owned on Union Street in downtown Pasadena.

They built an art museum instead.

Bob Oltman described it as more a "mad impulse" than a calculated plan.

"It was - unlikely," Arlene Oltman agreed, looking back on how the Pasadena Museum of California Art got its start in 2002.

Now, on the 10th anniversary of its opening in June, 2012, the Oltmans are speeding up the process of detaching themselves from the museum they founded.

Their involvement is "greatly minimized, by choice," Bob Oltman said. "The building is now in a trust, benefiting the nonprofit PMCA."

They will continue to live "above the shop" in the third story apartment on the rooftop terrace at 490 E. Union Street.

Day-to-day operations in the 30,000-square-foot museum will continue to be run by Executive Director Jenkins Shannon and board president David Partridge.

The Oltmans are moving on.

"We think of ourselves as `kick-off' artists," Bob Oltman said. "Like the footballer who starts the game, kicks the ball and sits on the bench watching until it's time to kick the ball again."

The PMCA is a rarity among local art museums in not having a permanent collection.

At first the couple thought about putting their own "eclectic" art collection on the museum's walls.

"That lasted maybe 30 seconds, from what I was told," Shannon said, laughing.

"We knew it wouldn't work," Bob Oltman said.

With "no experience, absolutely none," they hired staff to guide the process, Oltman said. He credited Wesley Jessup, the first executive director, who left in 2008, with coming up with the idea of "traveling" exhibits.

"Arlene and Bob started a wonderful thing 10 years ago, Shannon said. "They had a vision, and also an understanding that it's important to highlight California art."

Pasadena, the Oltmans said, was the perfect place to do it.

Steve Nowlin, director of the Williamson Gallery at Art Center College of Design, said the PMCA was "welcomed" when it came to town.

"Everyone hoped they would last, and they have," Nowlin said. "It's not easy to start a museum, and they probably ran into all sorts of hurdles they never anticipated. They are the only Southern California museum dedicated to California art, and they managed to fill a niche successfully - it's not easy to pull that off."

Nowlin said the museum is a "very strong presence" in the community.

"I think their success is due to the depth of their programming," he said. "They've focused on California art, but not a thin slice of it, a broad slice - and that's hard to do and still be a museum that stands for something."

Staging shows from the traditional, contemporary and plein air to the edgy and avant garde has widened the appeal and "broken boundaries," Nowlin said.

Most of the 600-member museum's $1.5 million budget comes from contributions, boosted by grant funding and revenue from admissions and the store, Shannon said.

Even in the financial downturn the museum was able to keep going by staying within budget, she said.

"We have increased it, year by year," she said. "But we cannot do it too fast ... we are increasing in size, but in a very, very cautious way."

Putting the museum into a trust was a "big step forward," Shannon said.

"Now we have to raise funds, and we do have plans," she said. "We realize we're small, but how can we better utilize our space? ... The next step will be to look at the building and engage an architect. And we do have to raise some funding for that. We've been working pretty hard the last couple of years gearing up for the next 10 years."

Shannon said they want the exhibitions to be "more scholarly," and for PMCA to take on more challenges and build on partnering with other museums.

PMCA's current exhibit, "Edgar Payne, A Scenic Journey," will be the museum's first traveling exhibit, she said. The show of the early California plein-air artist's works - four years in the planning - will travel to Sacramento and Tulsa, Okla., and Shannon said she expects it to raise the museum's national profile.

Now the Oltmans, life-long Pasadenans, are pondering their next move to bolster arts in the city.

"We're looking for other adventures," Bob Oltman said. "For example, I think Pasadena needs a good outdoor orchestra shell, so we have been thinking about that. Obviously the arroyo comes to mind, but there are all sorts of issues even if it were possible."

Somewhere north of Devil's Gate Dam, maybe Hahamongna, could be a possibility, he said, but everything is in the very early stages.

Looking back, the last 10 years have been mostly a "wonderful experience," Bob Oltman said.

Sometimes, they did wondered what they'd got themselves into, he said. "We manage property for a living!"

Arlene Oltman said she never doubted it would work out. "I always had great faith."

For more information on the museum and anniversary activities call 626-568-3665 or go to

626-578-6300, ext. 4482