Cynthia E. Griffin | Our Weekly Co-Editor
Still, PST may start the clock ticking on Black arts growth
If nothing else, the region wide arts effort called Pacific Standard Time (PST) has turned the spotlight back on the African American art scene in Los Angeles and is stirring conversations.
Some of those conversations are fueled by anger, some prodded by indignation, while others involve discussions about using PST as a jumping-off point to strengthen the foundation for growing the market for Black art.
Pacific Standard Time is a collaboration among more than 60 arts institutions throughout Southern California, launched about 10 years ago, that is being underwritten and led by the Getty to tell the story of the birth of the Los Angeles art scene and how it became a major new force in the art world.
The goal of this six-month endeavor, which officially began this month, is to shed light on the little-known ways that Southern California gave birth to many of today’s most vital artistic trends.
Within the African American arts community, this task has taken on distinctive sociopolitical tones that begin with the people and institutions involved in putting together the exhibitions.
Perusing the PST guide, the first challenge that jumps out is that only two of Southern California’s Black arts institutions are included as exhibit venues—the California African American Art Museum (CAAM) and the Watts Towers Arts Center. Left out are such locations as the Museum of African American Art, Watts Labor Community Action Committee’s (WLCAC) Cecil Fergerson Gallery, and Santa Monica-based M. Hanks Gallery.
The exclusions, which in many ways mirror what has happened with Black artists in L.A. for decades and was the impetus behind the creation of most of the Black venues, is no surprise to Eric Hanks.
“I wasn’t directly invited to participate. . . . the curator over at the Hammer did contact me and ask me questions about some of the artists,” Hanks said. “Exclusion is the history of my gallery, and this is not the first time and probably won’t be the last. I’ve had very challenging and difficult times getting shows at the gallery reviewed by major mainstream newspapers,” said Hanks about his 23-year-old art space.
Rosie Lee Hooks, director of the Watts Towers Arts Center, is insisting that WLCAC be included in her PST programming. The visual part, “Civic Virtues,” opens Dec. 17; a second show, “O Speak, Speak II,” which goes up in January, will feature public art by five women; and then a literary festival hosted by noted spoken-word artist Kamau Daood will take place in January at the WLCAC complex.
And then there is the politics of who exactly is organizing the shows. For example Kellie Jones, who is curating the exhibition at the Hammer Museum (“Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles”) and Pilar Rivas, who organized the Watts Towers Arts Center’s “Civic Virtue: The Impact of the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery and the Watts Towers Arts Center” are both East Coast based. This is a sore point with some in the Los Angeles Black arts scene because, even though each of these curators found their way to the doorsteps of L.A. Black arts dean Cecil Fergerson, there is the question among some of “why not use L.A.-based curators?”
And Fergerson himself, who first learned about the effort in 2010 when he was approached by Jones about who should be included in the Hammer show, is challenged by the perspective: “They’ve got White institutions speaking for Black people, and that’s not good.”
Charmaine Jefferson, executive director of CAAM, found herself stunned by some of the verbiage written by some of the venues hosting exhibitions of Black artists.
“The title of our show—‘Places of Validation, Art & Progression’—came out of a description I read of the Hammer show (that called it) the first significant show on African American artists in L.A. I went ballistic. Excuse me! How can they say they’re the first show, when people like Samella Lewis and John Outterbridge have previously done such shows.”
Jefferson also questioned what she called LACMA’s “rewriting of history” to claim support and nurturing of the Black Arts Council (BAC) and its activities.
Founded in 1968 by Fergerson and Claude Booker, LACMA writes that BAC was “the driving force behind African American programming at LACMA, and their activities paved the way for the seminal exhibition, ‘Two Centuries of Black American Art,’ organized by the museum in 1976.”
In actuality, the executive director said the activities of BAC were relegated to the basement, and the museum took pains to distance itself.
Those “views” of the Black arts scene from 1945-1980 was the impetus for the CAAM show, which Jefferson said is designed to look at the people and places that facilitated showings of art created by African Americans at a time when major institutions and galleries refused to exhibit their works.
Among other concerns addressed by those in the L.A. Black art world was the fact that the same small group of African-descended artists seemed to be included in all the PST shows.
But Ayndrea Wilson, executive director of the California Artists Coalition of Los Angeles (CACLA), is not necessarily bothered by this apparent lack of diversity, because she believes that PST itself is recognizing Los Angeles artists in a more universal way.
. . . “thousands upon thousands of people will go to the Getty; thousands will go to LACMA, and all of these places have Black art . . . this is certainly not the end-all, be-all. It’s the beginning of the conversation.”
And according to artist, art critic and former gallery director Greg Pitts, the conversation must include planning for and developing an infrastructure for growing the Black art market that includes collectors, museums and galleries, critics and historians, media and auction houses.
“What is going to have to happen is a protracted commitment to the arts in a systemic kind of way. What that means is we need to sit down, take a look and assess what we have; be honest about what we have to bring to the table. Then come up with a course of action to move forward.”