For most visitors to Los Angeles, art museums are not on the radar. After all, one has the beaches, Hollywood, a dozen or more ethnic neighborhoods, theme parks, and more to explore. But that shouldn’t lead anyone to believe that the art scene in LA isn’t phenomenal, because, while the city lacks that one must-visit iconic art museum (see: Prado, Louvre, Met, etc…), it makes up for that with a large number of afternoon-worthy pilgrimages for art lovers.

The hilltop Getty Museum, huge LA County Museum of Art (LACMA), and futuristic Broad Museum get most of the love, but my personal favorite is a smaller enclave in Pasadena: the Norton Simon Museum. Sitting on Colorado Boulevard, it is perhaps best known as being in the background of many Rose Parade broadcasts. However, this fairly plain brown building houses one of the region’s best collections – including one of the most iconic works ever created.

The last time I was here was decades ago, something that shames me given its proximity to my home; it is about a twelve minute drive away. My maternal grandmother would bring me here, and together we would spend an hour or two looking at pretty paintings. I was too young to have a favorite artist, or even a favorite style, but “pretty” is a quality that even a small child can relate to.

Just outside the museum entrance is this sculpture

I am now forty, and have visited (and written about) art museums all over the world. I have even been lucky enough to collect some pieces from a few of my more affordable favorites. (Sorry, Monet. I love you, but freelance writing will never allow me to afford you.) Returning here to the Norton Simon could be disappointing. It isn’t as large or as famous as many of its brethren. And yet, a couple hours later, I am as satisfied as after a visit to a European art palace.

The gardens are lovely also!

The Norton Simon Museum began life as the Pasadena Art Museum in 1954, devoting itself mainly to modern art, as this was a void in Los Angeles at the time. In the 1960s, the museum was home to exhibits on modern masters like Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters. After moving into its current building in 1969, the museum experienced some major financial hardships, and was in danger of closing. Enter Norton Simon, an industrialist who was worth an estimated $10 billion from his founding of Hunt’s (yes, the ketchup). Simon was also one of the preeminent art collectors in the world at the time, having amassed a collection of more than 4,000 works. In return for being able to use 75% of the museum’s space to showcase his collection (the remainder continued to house the original modern art for which the museum was founded), Simon took over an $850,000 loan on the building and an additional $1 million in debt. An additional $3 million gift yielded a name change, and the Norton Simon Museum was born. (The reallocating of the space in the museum away from modern art was said to inspire the creation of LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art – MOCA – in 1979.)

Some of the contemporary art still exists, as well

After Simon’s death in 1993, his estate donated an additional $5 million for a Frank Gehry-led renovation to the building, as well as redesigned gardens and a new theatre. The outside remains the same brown facade.

Upon entering the museum’s lobby, visitors will be faced with a choice. To the left, impressionists, modern masters, and the remainder of the modern art collection. To the right, religious art and classicism. I prefer the left. Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, and a delightful collection of French impressionist masters that exceeds that in most museums of a much larger size. My personal favorite: Henri Rousseau’s Exotic Landscape, a poster of which has adorned many a wall.

Exotic Landscape by Rousseau

On the way to the classical wing, head downstairs to a truly superb collection of Asian art featuring Buddhist, Hindu, and Jainist sculpture and altar pieces that, to me, exceed the beauty of the Christian art a floor above. This exhibit is vast, much larger than it would appear from a basic concept of the floor plan of the museum, and is worthy of at least a half hour to see it all.

Don’t miss the Asian art collection

Outside, beautifully placed around a lily pond, is the Norton Simon’s sculpture garden. However, for the highlight, one must exit the museum and walk along the Colorado Boulevard facade. Here, easy to see from the street – though missed by nearly every passer-by – is one of the most iconic sculptures ever created, The Thinker, by Auguste Rodin. About 28 of these were cast and are exhibited at museums around the world, but it is truly awesome to have one right here.

Because you have to

Due to Covid, the Norton Simon Museum is keeping limited hours currently, open Thursday through Monday from 12-5pm. Two hours (or a bit more if you are one who likes to read inscriptions) is enough to experience the collection, making it an easy diversion on a Los Angeles trip that includes the Pasadena area. In a city that houses an overwhelming number of worthwhile museums, this gem is one worth making a trip to see!

Thank you to the Norton Simon Museum for your generous policy of sponsoring admission for writers.

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