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A Pit Bull in the World of Fine Art

Emory Holmes II last wrote about dancers Fayard and Harold Nicholas for the magazine

His name may not be familiar, but there’s something about this 67-year-old man, sitting on the porch of his startling white and purple home on South Ogden Drive, dressed in faded African-print pantaloons, cloaked in sweat and cigarette smoke and the air of imperturbable dignity.

Something that demands attention.

He’s Cecil Fergerson, a pit bull among L.A.s’ cultural nationalists, a former janitor who rose through the ranks of the L.A. County Museum system to a position on the curatorial staff of its influential Modern and Contemporary Art Department. His contentious 37-year relationship with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art began in 1948, when he was a teenage hick from Watts. Its climax came with his trip to Osaka’s Expo ’70, when he traveled, as an assistant curator, with the controversial “Art & Technology” exhibition featuring such works as Robert Rauschenberg’s “Mud-Muse” installation and Claes Oldenburg’s giant “Icebag.” And during the latter half of his tenure, which ended in 1985, he waged war on behalf of minority artists who sought recognition and wall space at the county facility.

But Fergerson’s real passion is the discovery and cultivation of local artists and the exhibition of their works in community spaces.

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Blacks--and most other people of color--have been historically excluded from cultivating an appreciation of the visual arts, Fergerson asserts in his characteristic growl. “When people are worried about eating, and worried about whether they can vote, and about jobs and things, they don’t get into art,” he says. It was only through high-pressure politics, militant protest and the installation of exhibitions in places where people of color worked and lived that all this slowly began to change in Los Angeles in the 1960s. And Cecil Fergerson, by all accounts, was at the center of that change.

Using streetwise bluster, borrowed equipment, volunteered resources, occasional stipends and pocket change, Fergerson has built a reputation in the past 25 years as a contentious, Afrocentric and independently minded community curator who mounts shows primarily in South and East L.A. venues: churches, community and health centers, galleries and parks. His exhibitions, handsomely mounted and a hodgepodge of proficiencies and styles, showcase both the god-awful and the glorious in contemporary African American art. Each show is accompanied by music or lectures or historical displays and is generally framed within culturally nationalistic settings and themes.

If you’ve ever admired a painting by Varnette P. Honeywood, (whose canvases have been featured prominently in several black-themed films and television programs, including “The Cosby Show”) or admired the murals of Richard Wyatt Jr., whose works adorn many landmark sites around Southern California, including the Capitol building in Hollywood, or collected a Cynthia St. James postage stamp or print, or paused before photo-artist Willie Middlebrook’s South L.A. Metrorail montages of local black artists, then you know something of his importance. He nurtured all those artists at some point in their careers.

Painter/collagist/printmaker Honeywood met Fergerson in 1968 when she was still in college. “My mom was very upset that I wanted to become an artist,” recalls Honeywood. “Not only did [Fergerson] encourage me and encourage my family to support me, but he demonstrated how to do it. He came and got my work for exhibitions. . . . There are a lot of people who like my work, and maybe we should give credit to Cecil for keeping me strong over the years.”

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If you’ve visited the annual exhibition of black dolls that Fergerson put together at the William Grant Still Art Center in the West Adams district, or if you’ve seen any of Fergerson’s cultural and historical exhibitions extolling the contributions of L.A.'s early black and Afro-Mexican residents, you’ve witnessed his largely unheralded work. A populist in every sense of the word, Fergerson restores, from the bottom up, the original meaning of curator, from the Latin for “a tender of souls.”

“When you look back, multiculturality and diversity are now practically cliches,” says Howard N. Fox, LACMA’s curator of contemporary art, "[but] I think Cecil was ahead of his time in recognizing the almost unfathomable diversity of a place like Los Angeles.”

Fergerson’s stated mission is not simply the display of art, but the development of an “art culture” for people like him. He is specifically concerned with the growth of discourse, civility, conviviality and taste in the appreciation of art.

But he does not always make it easy.

Fergerson’s reputation can be summed up in one word: irascible. He has mastered the glower of Goya, which he matches with a low, rumbling growl of a voice, caught somewhere between the guttural registers and bass-tones of Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis. He has the layers and colors of a character in Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past,” possessed of ideas “derived not from books, but from a tradition at once ancient and direct, unbroken, oral, degraded, unrecognizable and alive.”

He is also a man in whom the prejudices, incoherence, ingenuity and promise of the American character are continually in question and on display: an outraged personality, fueled by the grim, embittering facts of U.S. race history, yet blessed with the good conscience that comes from a life lived--emotionally and intellectually--out in the open. He is, all in all, an assemblage of enigmas and grace notes only the mind of God would have the wit and effrontery to propose. And after 50 years in the art world, he is uncompromising in his rejection of all conventional “white” standards of aesthetic merit and taste.

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Cecil Fergerson’s first paying job out of Jordan High School was burning body parts at the county hospital in Boyle Heights. It was, understandably, a chore not much to his liking, and after a short time he found employment elsewhere, as a janitor for the old County Museum of Natural History, Science and Art. “As I approached the museum in Exposition Park and looked at it, I was in awe,” he recalled last year at a ceremony sponsored by the mayor’s office, City Council and Cultural Affairs Department designating him a “living cultural treasure of Los Angeles.” Standing in the sun on a makeshift stage on the corner of Westview and Adams, a few paces from the William Grant Still Art Center (of which he was the inaugural curator in 1978), Fergerson addressed a crowd of 100, including Mayor Richard Riordan, Adolfo Nodal, L.A.'s general manager of cultural affairs, and Councilmen Joel Wachs and Nate Holden. “I had never been farther north than Santa Barbara [Boulevard],” Fergerson said, recalling that auspicious day, now 50 years past. “I shudder to think where would my life have gone if I had left the museum that day.”

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Los Angeles was a very different city in 1948. For most blacks, it meant living in one of two residential pockets, in South-Central or Watts. Fergerson and his family lived in the latter community, which at the time was also home to working-class Latinos and whites. (Fergerson once mounted an exhibition of vintage photographs of Watts, which included a picture of the president of a local bank “running out, late for a Ku Klux Klan meeting, putting on his robe.”)

On that first day of work, Fergerson’s boss informed him that there were only two sure ways of keeping his job. No. 1: keep a broom in your hands at all times and walk fast. No. 2: always keep a white man white. Meaning--always make a white man feel superior. “Now, I can’t rewrite my history,” says Fergerson. “It’s too late. I was born in 1931! I became aware of the arts 17 years later, in a very hostile community, [with] no representation of my people, none in history, in the arts, in science, not even in California history. I’m 17 years old, and I gotta walk through the halls every night, sweeping them floors, mopping and cleaning up, and not seeing any representation. So I did get bitter.”

Bitter, but wise.

During his years at the Exposition Park facility and at LACMA, which opened in 1965, Fergerson was promoted several times, from janitor to museum helper to preparator to a curatorial assistant (that promotion came after he filed suit against the county), a position in which he helped install artworks and, as a result, schoomzed and became friendly with many artists of note.

“I started to rise in the hierarchy of the museum when the museum changed,” Fergerson recalls of the 1960s. “The curators went from snobbish sons of rich white people to guys who got outta college who weren’t necessarily born with money. And they came to the museum during the hippie generation. [Curators] Maurice Tuchman, James Elliot . . . they all had a liberal kind of funkiness to them. Different from most of the white people that I met when I first got there and who would walk up and down the hallway all day long and wouldn’t speak to you . . . . Beatniks, hippies, flower children, all that was closely associated with the arts. I went through all that.”

Tuchman, a former senior curator of 20th century art at LACMA and Fergerson’s immediate supervisor, remembers him as “a bundle of energy and terrifically spirited. In a museum, these are traits that reverberate. Museums are too much like churches, and people in them are too much like church mice. People who stand out because of their personality or the way they dress, or some kind of ethnic relationship, especially in those days, they stand out. And it was not much appreciated by the gray majority that inhabits museums. And I relished that.”

The paintings shown in the museum began to change too. Out were the formal landscapes, nudes and idylls of conservative painters like Millard Sheets, and in rushed the emerging masters of contemporary American art, including the group that Fergerson was most associated with, and with whom he worked and sometimes drank, gambled and partied. They were the ultra-hip, irreverent, and superbly gifted stars from the Chouinard Art School and the Ferus Gallery: Ed Kienholz, Billy Al Bengston, Robert Irwin, Joe Goode and Ed Ruscha. All of these artists sought out, and worked, with Fergerson. Recalls Ruscha: “Cecil was not of the hierarchy, but everybody knew Cecil, and the way I viewed him is, he was the ambassador over there. Any artist who was working over there would always seek him out, [and] Cecil was right there to help them.”

But it was the 1960s, and Fergerson was becoming increasingly radicalized. He began to protest LACMA’s exhibition policies--which he loudly proclaimed “racist.” He organized protests and pickets against several LACMA shows, one of which he lobbied the museum to organize, while he was working full time on staff. By 1968, Fergerson had begun wearing African garb. That year, he and a co-worker, Claude Booker, a museum shipping clerk, formed the Black Arts Council--the first organization of its type in Los Angeles. For membership in the council, Fergerson and Booker sought out “the grass-roots people. We didn’t try to mess with the hoity-toity.” The council grew from two to 1,000 members in a couple of years. And Fergerson’s militant politics garnered him a reputation, not only as pro-black, but also as anti-white.

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Fergerson argues that American racism has functioned, and continues to do so, as a kind of affirmative action for white artists and trends, focusing unwavering attention on them to the exclusion of all others. It is for this reason that he dogmatically refuses to praise white artists. “They have plenty other people to do that--not me,” he says. And he now sees his mission as shining a singular beacon on L.A.'s underexposed artists of color, a community that, he now believes, is “thriving” because of the activism of individuals like himself. Moreover, the contemporary artists of importance, he flatly asserts, “who are making the biggest contributions are people of color . . . . I just don’t think European artists are doing anything.”

In 1972, the Black Arts Council co-sponsored the first-ever group exhibition of works by African American artists at LACMA--the landmark “Panorama of Black Artists” show. That exhibition, installed in a small rental gallery in the lower recesses of the museum, showcased, to those who could find it, 51 African American artists, including Betye Saar, Elliott Pinkney, Noah Purifoy, Richard Wyatt Jr., David Hammons and John Outterbridge, artists who today have international reputations. At the time of the exhibition, they were all but unknown outside of the black community.

“I’m really not anti-anyone. I felt I had to be anti-establishment to be able to project what I wanted to do. I just couldn’t go to [LACMA] and say, ‘I love you white people! Not in 1960 [and get them to say], ‘OK, Cecil, we’re gonna give you a big show.’ It was because of a lot of political reasons that they had a ‘Black Panorama’ show. It didn’t just happen because white people was happy to have us in the museum. It was a lot of pressure brought on them by two people who never got the credit for the show--and that’s me and Claude Booker.”

Fergerson’s color-conscious stance has been criticized by legions of his friends and enemies alike: It was the subject of intense arguments between Outterbridge and Fergerson. “We don’t fight about these things anymore,” says Outterbridge, “because what I’ve decided about Cecil Fergerson is this: He is uniquely Cecil. He will never be anything else.”

LACMA curator Fox voices concerns that such color-specific exhibitions as espoused by Fergerson, which were so important in the ‘60s and ‘70s to the development of ethnic unity, identity and pride, could lead today to “a kind of apartheid mentality, a separate art for a separate people.”

But there is also praise.

“I’ve clashed with Cecil,” says James Burks, director of the William Grant Still Art Center and founder of the African Marketplace. “But I have a lot of respect for his point of view. You have to realize that we all don’t necessarily do it according to the status quo . . . . Cecil’s raspiness has gotten us a lot of things happening.”

Richmond artist Gregory Wiley Edwards, who benefited from Fergerson’s encouragement when he was starting out, is more poetic. “Cecil Fergerson is like jazz. [He has] hands-on experience of all the great artists that ever came through Los Angeles. His articulation of it may be less than what is desired, but his experience is unparalleled and unmistakable to young black artists, no matter what, ‘cause he’s playing the right notes.”

Fergerson is also respected and admired within the Mexican American artistic community. Wayne Healy, a Chicano artist and president of East Los Streetscapers, says: “I’ve known [Cecil] for 25 years. The people we knew in common were Los Four [Frank Romero, Gilbert Lujan, Roberto de la Rocha and Carlos Almaraz, whom Fergerson assisted during their first LACMA show in 1974]. We come from East L.A., and it took a while for us to spread out in the city as far as venues and things, exhibiting. But Cecil invited us to participate in several projects. I can only speak for myself, but I imagine a lot of Latino artists see that as being a crossover influence for our art community.”

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Cecil Fergerson is looking ahead. “Art Education Consultant Services,” the art exhibition and advocacy company he founded with his wife, Miriam, and artists Greg Pitts and Varnette Honeywood, organized an artists retreat this past winter to push for wider communication and recognition among artists of color. More retreats are planned for this year. And the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, located a few blocks from his childhood home, has named a gallery in Fergerson’s honor. Now Fergerson is looking to his place in history. “The accolades are fine. I have no problem with them,” he says. “I am more bitter about what happened to me 40 years ago than I am [about the present] because I was young then, and full of hope and ambition. And from the very first day that man told me, ‘Keep a white man white'--that started my bitterness.” He ponders a moment, then says gravely, “I don’t like the word ‘mellow'--that ‘I’ve mellowed out.’ But I want to be part of the change. And I don’t want my legacy to be that I was just an angry old man. I want them to understand that whatever change takes place, in the next 10, 15 years in South Los Angeles, that I was part of the positive change.”

And just as Fergerson’s militant, Afrocentric view of life and art has expanded over the years to embrace once unknown Latino stars, the shifting parameters of his age and understanding have pushed him to make other unexpected changes. For the last 6 1/2 years, since the mayhem and riots of 1992, Fergerson has curated at the Watts Health Center, which has a joint exhibition space showcasing African, Latino and Korean American artists. So perhaps there is hope that others--even white folk--might be drawn into his orbit. At the very least, he’s always willing to debate the issue. And whether one encounters him at some local exhibition, or at home, arguing and declaiming in one of his informal salons amid the clutter of his living room or seated in his characteristic pose, smoking, shirtless in the sun on his white and purple porch, Cecil Fergerson is hospitable and open to all comers--no matter who they are.


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