Southern California's Thriving Arts Scene

Pat Henderson

 Art enthusiasts will find plenty to love in sunny Southern California. The land that is synonymous with surf and sand also takes its art very seriously, with the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center in Los Angeles; and the Getty Villa in Malibu leading the way.

Thanks to these marquee attractions, San Diego and L.A. may grab the headlines, but communities in outlying areas such as Pasadena, Long Beach, Irvine and Palm Springs provide a more local feel when it comes to the arts. Each adds elements to the SoCal cultural patchwork with their own museums, arts districts, architecture and garden tours, gallery walks and art-themed festivals.

Thanks to the vision of Henry and Arabella Huntington, one of the premier cultural institutions in the United States can be found in Southern California. Travelers can see the results of the lifelong passion Henry had for collecting books and Arabella's love of English art when they visit the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in Pasadena. "Through friendships with a local college president, Henry was persuaded to create an institution that would forever serve scholars from around the world and allow the public access to enjoy and learn about art, botany and literary treasures," said Jane Sandmeier, the Huntington's group sales and tours manager. "Since the '30s, Southern California children's first exposure to world-class art and magnificent gardens has been at the Huntington."

 When the Huntingtons purchased the San Marino ranch in 1903, it was a working farm. Over the next 20 years a Main section of the property was transformed into botanical gardens, and today 120 acres are open to the public. The botanical gardens contain more than 14,000 kinds of plants that are divided into more than a dozen themed areas including the Chinese, Japanese, Rose, Shakespeare, Palm, Jungle and Camelia gardens.

Sandmeier said there are plenty of options for exploration of the art, library and gardens, but she suggested groups start with one of the private, docent-led tours."Estate tours are easy walking outdoor tours that explain who the founders were and show off the major gardens. Each of the buildings house different collections, and docents explain the collections and give guests a clear orientation to the property, which really helps them choose what they want to see on their own."

Many other specialized tours and programs are available, such as lectures on different aspects of the attraction's European and American art, the Tea & Tour offering that takes place before The Huntington opens, monthly garden curator talks and the recently developed Chinese Garden Tour that explores the Ming Dynasty-style scholars' garden called Liu Fang Yuan.

On the horizon for 2012 is the celebration of the 100th anniversary of The Huntington's Japanese Garden. This nine-acre area currently is closed for a major refurbishing but will open next spring in time for the festivities. Sandmeier said a new guided group tour is being developed in conjunction with the centennial.

 "Attractions like that make Pasadena a haven for the arts and culture lover," said Janet Zaldua, director of tourism and communications for the Pasadena CVB. "Our city is filled with world-class museums that include masterpieces by Van Gogh, Picasso and Rembrandt, an original Gutenberg Bible, and acres of breathtaking gardens."

Zaldua particularly recommends a stop at the Pacific Asia Museum, which Is one of only a handful of attractions in the United States that is dedicated to showcasing the arts and culture of Asia and the Pacific Islands. The museum is located in what was once the private residence and private art gallery of Grace Nicholson who built the Asian-style Structure in 1924. Now it is home to eight galleries and more than 15,000 objects that span more than 5,000 years of Asian and Pacific Island history.

"The first time I went to the Pacific Asia Museum I was astonished at how many different galleries they have on Site," Zaldua said. "Each one is dedicated to a different theme in Asian art. Visitors can find other things to do at the Pacific Asia Museum, too, since their ongoing special events include festivals, concerts and classes in anything from yoga to painting to Tai Chi."

Pasadena's Norton Simon Museum is home to one of the largest collections of privately owned art west of the Mississippi.When touring the galleries, visitors can see works from many of the masters such as Monet, Van Gogh, Raphael and Picasso. "My favorite collection at the museum is the European 14th-century art," Zaldua said. "Just being there makes me feel like I've spent an afternoon in Europe."

Pasadena also has a lot to offer for architecture buffs. The city is home to its large collection of Craftsman, Bungalow and Victorian homes, as well as buildings created by Charles and Henry Greene. These structures are the focal point of a series of 10 architectural tours that allow visitors to explore some of the city's most significant neighborhoods and Craftsman residences.


With four art museums, the thriving East Village Arts District and the gallery-rich Retro Row area along 4th Street, Long Beach is a prime stop for culture vultures.Two of the museums in the coastal city focus on works from different regions of the world, Latin America and the Pacific Islands.

The Museum of Latin American Art is the only museum in the United States that solely concentrates on contemporary art from Latin America. Guided tours provide a look at works by cutting-edge artists from Mexico, Central America and South America, and visitors also can enjoy monthly workshops, lectures and special events such as Murals Under the Stars. Since its founding in 1996, MOLAA has doubled in size and has added a sculpture garden.

The city's newest attraction is the Pacific Island Ethnic Museum, which opened last October. Dr. Robert Gumbiner developed a passion for the culture of the Northern Pacific Islands while providing health-care services in Guam in the early 1970s, and he began building a collection of island art on his trips. His extensive collection of Pacific Islands painting and sculpture was the impetus for the attraction, and those Works are the backbone of the museum's permanent exhibits.

Both of those museums are in the East Village, which Nicole Zylstra, travel sales manager for the Long Beach CVB, said is a must-visit. "The East Village district of downtown Long Beach is a hub of art activity, with one-of-a-kind studios, unique art galleries and stylish eateries," she said. "The 2nd Saturday Art Walk, held each month, is a colorful festival of art displays, music and lively entertainment that brings in art lovers from all over Southern California."

She recommends seeing the collection of ceramics, decorative arts and contemporary paintings at the Long Beach Museum of Art, located in a Craftsman mansion that offers panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean, and visiting the University Art Museum on the Long Beach State University campus.

Farther down Interstate 405 just inland from Newport Beach is another thriving arts community, Irvine. This Orange County city boasts a varied collection of museums, galleries and performance venues that keep local artists in the spotlight.

The Irvine Museum is the only museum in the state dedicated to showcasing and preserving California impressionism or plein-air painting. This style of painting, which was popular from 1890 to 1930, took painters outdoors where they captured the state's natural beauty on canvas."There always are new paintings being featured because exhibits are changed every three to four months," said Michelle Carlen, director of sales for Destination Irvine. "And the best part is that free guided tours are available for groups."

The facility was founded in 1992 by real-estate heiress Joan Irvine Smith, who has a personal collection of more than 2,000 works. In its first decade the museum played host to 34 exhibits, all of which were tied to California artists or the impressionist movement.

"If groups are feeling inspired after visiting the Irvine Museum, they can indulge their creativity and perhaps even learn a new skill at the Irvine Fine Arts Center," Carlen said. "In addition to exhibits and events, the center offers hundreds of classes from drawing and painting to jewelry-making and cooking; many of these are single-session making them perfect for visitors."

Each June, the center plays host to the Studio Arts Festival in Heritage Park.The event showcases ceramics, sculpture, jewelry, painting, photography, textiles and glass art by more than 100 artists and includes live music and food vendors.

An Artsy Oasis

Although it's farther inland than many of Southern California's other art hot spots, Palm Springs boasts an impressive cultural scene all its own. "The Greater Palm Springs area is a mecca for art enthusiasts," said Ashlee Ciora, director of travel industry sales for the Palm Springs Desert Resort Communities Convention and Visitors Authority. "From mid-century modern architecture to the more formal museum setting, our destination offers works of art to meet a range of tastes."

The Palm Springs Art Museum has evolved into the center of the area's art community. The museum is home to a wide collection of international modern and contemporary sculpture and painting, which groups may see on pre-arranged, docentguided tours highlighting the museum's permanent collection and special exhibitions. Other options include taking in lectures, hands-on classes or relaxing at the on-site Marcuse Sculpture Garden for a meal or musical performance.

Ciora recommends supplementing a stop at the museum with a stroll along the El Paseo shopping area-aka the Rodeo Drive of the Desert-and visiting Cabot's Pueblo Museum. The latter is a four-story, handmade structure that features a collection of Native American pottery, early 20th-century photographs and artifacts from the Alaskan adventures of its builder, Cabot Yerxa.

One of the area's top events is Palm Springs Modernism Week, which will take place Feb. 16-26, 2012. The festival offers 11 days of exhibitions, tours, lectures, films, parties and special events dedicated to the mid-century Modernist movement.

For more information, contact Ashlee Ciora, +1.760.969.1336,, member since 1975. -P.H.