Brand building through storytelling

Raising a ruckus at the Norton Simon Museum

I used to think of Pasadena, California as the setting of a Jan and Dean song about a little old lady (their words, not mine) with a zest for tearing up the streets in a shiny, red hot rod. I can hear the refrain in my head: Go, granny, go, granny, go, granny, go!

Pasadena didn’t sound like my kind of place. I pictured broad lawns lined with prim-and-proper white gardenias like the ones the oldster grew as a cover for her inner scamp. Then my husband and I started planning the Great American Art Road Trip from Toronto to California and back (final tally: 49 art museums in five weeks). Lo and behold, Pasadena is home to the Norton Simon Museum, the kind of treasure trove that can only be created through a perfectly timed confluence of taste, ambition and serious wealth.

The late Norton Simon bought his Rembrandts and van Goghs at a time when discerning high rollers could still snap them up. He knew what he liked, but he also had to know where his Raphael ranked among the world’s five best (this according to his biographer, hired by Simon as a typist and now the museum’s senior curator). His legacy, according to NPR, “just might be America’s least known great museum.” That settled it. Norton Simon Museum, here we come!

We arrived at the museum on a Wednesday afternoon to find the parking lot clogged with circling cars and uniformed attendants whose sole function appeared to be protecting spaces mysteriously reserved for staff. You might as well have waved a knife at a Picasso as try to pull into one of those. My husband rolled down his window and asked the closest keeper of the spaces, “Where can we park?” It took a forceful honk to elicit the suggestion that we might try our chances on the street. And it was there on Colorado Boulevard, scene of the little old lady’s joy rides, that we finally got lucky. A quick bite of lunch and we’d be ready to immerse ourselves in art.

By this time it was pushing 2:30. Gastronomically speaking, that’s the witching hour at museums. We had already learned the hard way that you can’t show up after 2 assuming the cafe will be open. Not about to make do with yet another chocolate bar from the gift shop, we dashed into a nearby supermarket for a couple of hearty sandwiches. Surely the museum had a bench somewhere on the grounds? Not that we could see. But it did have a sunny interior courtyard where, in a scene worthy of Renoir, happy art lovers were noshing away and an empty table seemed to be waiting just for us.

We had barely unwrapped our sandwiches when a young staffer appeared, all aflutter. No outside food allowed. No exceptions. Rules are rules. Everyone else had patronized the cafe (wonder of wonders, it was open after all).

My husband and I look like mild-mannered people of a certain age. Decorous, even. We seldom go anywhere unhatted. We speak in complete sentences. We turn off our cell phones at the movies. But the older we get, the less patience we have with shoddy customer service and hide-bound procedures. We’ve found that there are times for decorum and times to let the indignation rip.

“You can’t do this to us!” I told the young staffer. “We’ve driven all the way from Canada to see this museum. We’re on an art road trip and we thought today would be a highlight. But ever since we got here we’ve been told what we cannot do.” Out came the tale of the parking lot, the hunger pangs, the contraband lunch as a substitute for the officially sanctioned one we were all but certain we had missed. If I’d had a cane, I would have thumped it. The staffer looked almost young enough to be my granddaughter. Her pained expression told me she she couldn’t bear to argue with crotchety elders. I appealed to her better nature: “We’ll be out of your hair in no time. How long can it take to eat a sandwich?”

As she scurried away and my husband decamped in search of another spot, I took a leisurely bite of my grilled chicken/avocado sandwich. And a fine sandwich it was. In a moment of shining clarity, I figured I could polish off most of it before being given the boot.

Of course the boss arrived soon enough. In his take-charge years, he projected long experience with rebels like my husband and me. I detected both the strength and the resolve to march us out the door if we continued to make trouble. Terribly sorry, he said. But we would have to understand: the museum has a contract with a food supplier. Rules are rules. No exceptions. While he talked, I savoured a few more bites, stopping just long enough to repeat my sorry tale and work up to a crescendo of frustration: “We’ve have driven from Toronto on an art road trip. We’ve been to more than 20 museums. And never have we felt so unwelcome as we have today at this museum, from the moment we drove into the parking lot.”

I have to give the boss credit: he listened. He apologized for the sorry first impression, and I could tell he meant it. Then he made us a deal: if we put away our sandwiches, he’d reimburse our admission fees. Okay, fair enough. Norton Simon masterpieces, here we come at last!

Now that we have seen them, I can tell you that they justify the hype. But it’s not for transcendant works of art that I’ll remember our trip to Pasadena. In the courtyard at the museum, I realized I had come of age. My younger self would have tossed her offending sandwich in the trash, then let resentment poison the day. She would not have dared to flout the rules, much less make a scene in a temple of culture. I’m beyond that now. I’ve reached the age when women are invisible–in fact I got there some time ago, not that I wanted to admit it. Denial stopped me from claiming the reward: freedom to speak my mind and be heard. I rather liked the role of angry old lady from Toronto. Bring it on, I say. Go, granny, go!

Posted by Rona

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