“Take me into the museum, and show me myself, show me my people, show me soul America.” – June Jordan (1969)
Los Angeles is a known for many things: Hollywood, celebrities, fashion, beaches and palm trees, five-star restaurants as well as its reputation as the “Creative Capital of the World,” but it is also a city that is full of history and community. Thinking back to a voicemail my friend Jenell left me a while ago thanking me for showing her a different side of LA that’s not “superficial,” I wanted to share some of that here — especially since I’m in a city with a population around 3.9 million where nearly 48% of the population is Hispanic or Latino, nearly 50% is white, an estimated 13% is Asian, and Black/African Americans account for roughly 9% of the population.
And despite the fact that Black/African Americans make up 13% of the national population, according to James Heaton, African Americans only account for 3% of museum attendees nationwide. I believe that number is growing among black millennials, but still that’s a huge gap.
There’s a lot of history and culture to be explored here, and more specifically there is a great deal of black history and grassroots arts movements that are integral to the cultural, political and social landscape of LA as we know it today. As an indie historian and information professional, it’s critically important to know that in this vast city there are important cultural sites where black art, history and culture are not only thriving, but are well-documented, preserved, supported, and available for multicultural audiences to learn and experience.
No shade to LACMA, Hammer, or The Getty, but I highly recommend adding these 5 sites to your “places to visit” list:
1. Papillion Art is a contemporary art gallery founded in 2010 by gallerist and art dealer Michelle Joan Papillion. Papillion Art Gallery is a multicultural arts space with a strong focus on emerging artists. It is an important site to visit if interested in contemporary works by artists in all media, and especially works by African American and Los Angeles based artists. Located in the historic Leimert Park neighborhood, Papillion Art Gallery occupies the space that was once home to Brockman Gallery, LA’s first black-owned commercial art gallery that emerged during the Black Arts Movement during the 1960s and 70s. Leimert Park Village is considered the center of historic and contemporary African American art and culture in LA.
2. The Museum of African American Art (MAAA) is a hidden treasure in one of the most unlikely spaces you’d expect to find a museum– the 3rd floor of Macy’s at Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. Don’t let the walk past the bedding section in Macy’s Home department fool you, this is an abundant space with a remarkable collection of African American art including 40 original paintings by Palmer C. Hayden, one of the leading artists of the Harlem Renaissance, in its permanent collection. Founded in 1976 by artist and art historian Dr. Samella Lewis and a diversified group of community leaders, their goal was to promote and support African American artistic expression. The MAAA operates solely from the support of individual and corporate donors, event rentals, and memberships.
3. The Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum (MCLM) is located in the old Culver City Courthouse and continues the mission and legacy of Dr. Mayme Agnew Clayton (1923-2006), was an academic librarian, collector, and historian. For more than 40 years, Dr. Mayme Clayton single-handedly amassed a collection that has been described as “one of the most academically substantial collections of African-American literature, manuscripts, film and ephemera independently maintained” and is second only to New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The MCLM includes 25,000 magazines, 20,000 books, 17,000 photographs, 1,000 pieces of sheet music, 700 films and 300 movie posters and counting. Dr. Clayton began her library career working at USC’s Doheny Library and later as a law librarian at UCLA. At UCLA she served as a consultant and founding member of the Afro-American Studies Center Library.
“I wanted to be sure that children would know that black people have done great things and at the time I didn’t see anyone else saving the history.” – Dr. Mayme A. Clayton
In 1975, MCLM began as the Western States Black Research Center (WSBRC) in the converted garage of Dr. Clayton’s Los Angeles home. It drew a diverse crowd of visitors throughout the state of California and the United States, as well as visitors from Asia, Africa, and Europe. In her lifetime, Dr. Clayton was able to acquire thousands of rare and out-of-print books (more than 30,000 books written by or about African Americans in the collection), including a rare first-edition signed copy of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral (1773), the first book of poetry published by an American female author of African descent. In addition, Dr. Clayton was able to acquire the entire film library of Lincoln Motion Picture Company, the first black film production company organized by Black filmmakers, as well as the photo “morgues” from local black newspapers–all of these items were duly catalogued by Dr. Clayton and became a part of the collection.
4. California African American Museum (CAAM) is located in Exposition Park right across from the University of Southern California (USC) and is easily accessible via the Metro Expo Line. CAAM was chartered by the State of California and began formal operations in 1981. Its current facility was designed by two African American architects, Jack Haywood and the late Vince Proby and boasts a 44,000 square foot facility with 3 full-size exhibition galleries, a theater, a research library that houses more than 20,000 books, periodicals, and records, and conference/multi-purpose rooms, an accession room, and a humidity controlled vault for art and artifact storage (that’s important!). Visitors can expect to engage art that reflects the rich and complex history of African Americans in California and throughout the African Diaspora. CAAM’s permanent collection includes traditional African wooden sculpture art and masks; contemporary art works from Haiti, Jamaica, and Brazil by François Turenne Des Prés, Justino Marinho, Hector Hyppolite, and Renee Constant; Modern and Contemporary works by Sargent Claude Johnson, Betye Saar, Charles White, and David Hammons to name a few as well as works by African American Los Angeles based artists.
5. The William Grant Still Arts Center (WGSAC) is named after the highly acclaimed African American classical composer William Grant Still (1895-1978), who conducted musical arrangements for W.C. Handy and Harlem stride pianist, James P. Johnson, played in the pit orchestra for Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake in the African American musical revue, Shuffle Along (1921), and wrote over 150 music compositions in his lifetime. Still was once a resident of the West Adams neighborhood where the center is located. The WGSAC, formerly an old fire station, was erected in 1926 and later transformed into a community arts center complete with exhibition space in the main rotunda, meeting rooms, offices, kitchen, and an outdoor patio/amphitheater through a joint collaboration with the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA), the West Adams community and local Council District 10.