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Bowers and Pacific Asia Museum cut staff, pull back on exhibitions

December 7, 2008 |  2:30 pm

Bowers Museum

More downbeat news from the arts-during-recession front:

The Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena and the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana are cutting their budgets --20% and 10%, respectively -- by laying off employees and canceling or delaying exhibitions. The Pacific Asia Museum also plans to hike its $7 admission fee -- it remains undecided whether by $1 or $2 -- and begin charging for lectures and workshops that previously were free.

The museums share an interest in Asian and Pacific Island culture (and both were raided in January as part of a federal investigation into alleged looting of ancient Ban Chiang artifacts that is ongoing, according to a Justice Department spokesman), although the Bowers is less specialized. Executive directors of both institutions said Friday that they are not caught in an immediate fiscal emergency but, foreseeing more bad economic weather ahead, are trying to trim their sails in hopes of keeping their budgets afloat.

"It's painful to let good people go and cut back programs, but my job and the trustees' is to look at the long-term health of the museum," said Joan Marshall, the Pacific Asia's director.  "We're a small regional museum, with a small cash reserve, and can't afford to find ourselves in a crisis like MOCA," she added, alluding to the long-building financial emergency at L.A.'s $21-million-a-year Museum of Contemporary Art, which had been spending down its reserves since 2001 before seeing a substantial chunk of what remained vanish in the recent market plunge.

Both museums are coming off landmark successes but nevertheless see a need to play it safe in suddenly turbulent times.

In September, the Pacific Asia finished a three-year, $4.4-million pay-as-you-go remodeling and infrastructure upgrade that includes the museum's first interactive exhibit for kids, an expansion of its store, refurbished galleries, and improved electrical and climate control systems. Marshall said this year's attendance is expected to be about 50,000 -- a 20% increase over last year. In mid-October, the Bowers closed its exhibition of ancient Chinese terra-cotta warriors, which director Peter Keller said netted $5 million after drawing a record-setting 210,000 visitors.

Bowers leaders had decided in advance that they would not touch the $5 million, Keller said, but instead would put it away in safe if low-yielding investments as a financial backstop for the future. Although the market retreat has whittled away at the museum's regular endowment, which Keller said is less than $10 million, he said the terra-cotta money remains intact. In another conservative move, he said, the Bowers has established a $500,000 revolving fund that it plans to use to pay the upfront costs of exhibitions. The idea is to replenish the fund by the end of each fiscal year.

Establishing the exhibition fund and keeping hands off of the terra-cotta cash made it necessary to economize, Keller said, by cutting a $5-million budget (apart from the blockbuster's expenses) to about $4.5 million. Two weeks ago, the Bowers let go three staffers whose jobs had covered fundraising and ramping up memberships. Among them was Inez Wolins, vice president of development and marketing, who had been hired in mid-2007 after directing art museums in Wichita, Kan., Gainesville, Fla., and Great Falls, Mont., and then serving as head of education and visitor services at L.A.'s Autry National Center.

Besides the staff reductions, the Bowers will run "Passages," its current show of photography from Africa, until next Aug. 16 -- an extension of four months. Another show, "Spirits and Headhunters," combining photographs of Papua New Guinea with artifacts from the museum's own collection, is being pushed back from next May until early 2010.

Pacific Asia Museum At the Pacific Asia Museum, development director David Spiro and an employee in the collections department lost their jobs Monday as part of efforts to reduce the budget for 2009 from $2 million to about $1.6 millon. Marshall said that she and museum board members would assume Spiro's fundraising role and that the loss of the collections post would slow an effort to post more of the museum's collection on its website. Three smaller planned temporary exhibitions are being canceled, including a photo display on the Hindu god Ganesh. The major shows --one depicting the roots of Japanese manga animation in 18th and 19th depictions of the samurai, the other on the intersection of calligraphy and Chinese street art -- won't be affected.

Marshall said the museum's small endowment has taken a hit, dropping from $1.2 million to about $800,000, which could mean a deficit for 2008 after a run of balanced budgets. Long-term strategizing for a new wing to allow greater display of the 14,000-piece collection has been put on hold. "We don't know the extent of the downturn and how long it might last."

-- Mike Boehm

Photos: Bowers Museum (top), Asia Pacific Museum. Photo credits: Bowers, Allen J. Schaben /Los Angeles Times; Pacific Asia Museum.

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