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Artists’ Works at California African American Museum Are Wide-Ranging

Charles Alston, The Negro in California History: Colonization and Exploitation

In the art world, fluff shows of corporate art collections are generally the lowest of the low. An exception is at the California African American Museum through June. “The Legacy of the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company: More Than a Business” surveys art from a storied corporate patron. In 1965, GSM, a black-owned firm, initiated a collection of African-American art at its Los Angeles headquarters. That was three years before the founding of the Studio Museum in Harlem. GSM became a crucial collector when the art market and museums weren’t interested in black art unless it came from Africa.

Then Golden State Mutual fell off a fiscal cliff. In 2007 it sold the cream of its art collection at Swann Auction Galleries, New York. The works at CAAM are mostly second-string, supplemented by a few loans. The quality is wildly uneven, but that’s part of the interest. This is a core sample of one of the first systematic collections of its kind. A wall label describes, in hopeful tones, the possibility of the museum acquiring the remaining works in the GSM collection.

Most interesting are two works that aren’t actually in the show. In 1949, before the official art collection began, GSM commissioned two major Harlem Renaissance painters, Charles Alston and Hale Woodruff, to paint a pair of murals for their Paul Williams-designed building in Los Angeles at Western Avenue and Adams Boulevard. They were both titled The Negro in California History, with Alston doing Colonization and Exploitation and Woodruff Settlement and Development. In 2011 the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History offered $750,000 for the two murals. The Smithsonian withdrew after a West Coast outcry (and claims that the murals were worth more than offered).

That leaves the fate of the murals in the air. Though neither painting is at CAAM, the museum has a room on their history with documents, installation photos and large color reproductions. For the time being, both murals can be seen by appointment in the GSM building.

Read more: Art Info


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