The best of the new

David Lansing

Here's a connoisseurs' guide to three new or newly renovated museums:

PASADENA MUSEUM OF CALIFORNIA ART. The three-story building was designed by Steve Johnson and James Favaro. An open-air staircase winds its way up to the second-floor entrance, where a picture window frames views of palms and eucalyptus across the street. It's all meant to include the California environment as part of the museum experience.

The exhibits connect to California art, architecture, and design from 1850 to the present. That might mean plein air paintings by California artists, as showcased in the inaugural exhibition, or a retrospective of California photography, which is on display through January 5, 2003.

ARMORY CENTER FOR THE ARTS. Come here for edgy, contemporary work in the historic former National Guard Armory. Out front you're greeted by a bullet-riddled ARTS sign that was once part of an indoor shooting range. The center's downstairs gallery is small, but as part of a two-year renovation, the space has been rehabbed to better display quarterly exhibitions of contemporary art. A new upstairs houses a photography studio and an instructors' gallery (the center's primary purpose is as a community arts center offering classes to everyone from kindergartners to seniors).

NORTON SIMON MUSEUM. With its strong holdings of Renaissance, impressionist, and Asian art, this 40-year-old institution contains, some say, the greatest collection of art in the West. A Frank Gehry redesign of the building was finished in 1999. Landscape designer Nancy Goslee Power then redid the museum gardens, installing a large pond full of water lilies and bog plants―sort of a Southern California version of artist Claude Monet's gardens in Giverny, France. Since the face lift, the Norton Simon has instituted a number of visitor-friendly programs, including a two-hour audio tour of the collection that was introduced in September.