Change is not always an organic process, sometimes it needs a little nudge. When it came to diverse cultural representation within Los Angeles museums in the 1960s, LACMA in particular needed a few nudges… and a good push toward progress.
One late December evening on Wilshire Boulevard in 1968, a curious crowd formed around the Ahmanson’ building at LACMA. A festival which included musical performances, a fashion show and celebrity guest appearances, drew a large crowd of African-Americans eager to take part in an event which would have otherwise been unheard of on LACMA’s campus. The festival was coordinated in conjunction with a fledgling exhibition that featured the African art collection of Paul Tishman; attendees were given guided tours of the exhibition by museum security guards. But these guards also played another key role in the event–they planned it. The festival was unapologetically black and it planted seeds that would be later cultivated by other LACMA employees, artists and activists.
The Black Culture Festival featured South African jazz singer Letta Mbulu, congo player Big Black, Zulu Dancers, comedians, actors and other performers who were there “to commemorate the awakening of black culture, and to stimulate established institutional awareness of the black community of Southern California”, Valley News, December, 1968. The “Black Culture Festival” was a deemed a success and it placed the museum on the radar of African-Americans who were alienated from the cultural institution. It also inspired the formation of an organization dedicated to increasing the numbers of black artists and black curatorial staff at the museum.
The Black Arts Council (BAC) was the brainchild of two black LACMA preparators who attended the Black Culture Festival and were encouraged by the energy and engagement of the community at the event. They also didn’t want LACMA to consider it a one and done event. Claude Booker and Cecil Fergerson’s goal was to build on the success of the program by creating a catalyst for equal representation among artists and staff at LACMA. Early BAC members included artists like John Outterbridge, Ruth Waddy, David Hammonds, Alonzo Davis of Brockman Gallery and Charles White. Through the leadership of Booker and Fergerson BAC’s original mission was to aim its advocacy within the system to encourage exhibitions. The group organized a successful 3 part lecture series in its first year featuring artist scholar Samella Lewis and Charles White, with the attendance to all three events exceeding expectations and capacity at LACMA. The group was extremely involved in non-LACMA shows fostering educational programs and exhibits around the city. Determined to leverage the successes by the group, Booker and Fergerson drafted numerous proposals for group shows to be shown within the main gallery at the museum. LACMA’s response was anemic.
Finally in 1971 LACMA planned a small group show called 3 Graphic Designers and the show would feature the work of Charles White and two emerging artists. While BAC appeared to be on board with the show, Booker and Fergerson had problems with White being paired with two emerging artists. Their argument was that White, as an established artist, deserved his own solo show. There were also lingering concerns over the shrouded visibility of these shows which were never held in main gallery spaces, but smaller less visible galleries. The frictions over these issues led to a publicized protest at the opening of the show. One of the two “emerging artists” featured in this show was David Hammons.
LACMA would go on to take a stair step approach in scale and scope for future shows, holding Panorama in 1972, but the slow rate of progress, particularly surrounding the improvement of diverse employees in curatorial and essential staff positions in the museum had stalled. As a result, BAC decided to pivot away from their focus on LACMA to lay the groundwork for an independent black museum. Eventually this shifted focus laid the foundation for the creation of the California African-American Museum (CAAM). BAC dissolved in 1974, however their tireless work was not in vain. Through the relentless efforts of BAC, key players on LACMA’s board of trustees picked up the torch originally ignited by The Black Culture Festival. Their continued fundraising, awareness and advocacy eventually led to LACMAs first black group show called Two Centuries of Black American Art, held in 1976.