Twenty-six years after Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill authorizing a state-funded African American museum in Exposition Park, 22 years after the museum began operating in temporary quarters and 19 years after it moved into its own home, the California African American Museum is still a work in progress. As a vital component of the park's constellation of museums, it has presented many critically acclaimed exhibitions, but its dependence on fluctuating state funding has kept it off balance.
The latest development is a welcome burst of good news. The museum reopens today, after a $3.8-million renovation that kept the doors closed for the past 18 months. Much of the money was spent on fixing leaks and installing a new air-conditioning system, but there are plenty of visible improvements. The sprawling one-story structure, near the California Science Center, retains its low profile on the outside, but inside, freshly painted walls and gleaming new hardwood floors make the building much more elegant and inviting.
Inaugural exhibitions offer additional enticement. Three shows are already on view: "Urban Aesthetics: California Artists 2003," an assembly of installations by six contemporary artists; "Grafton Tyler Brown: Visualizing California and the Pacific," a survey of work by a San Francisco cartographer, lithographer and landscape painter who died in 1918; and "A Tribute to John T. Riddle, Jr.," a celebration of the influential artist teacher and L.A. native who died last year.
Visitors can also see "The African American Journey West," a sampling of the museum's permanent collection of art and artifacts installed in its own gallery. Yet another exhibition, "Finding Family Stories," featuring the work of eight Los Angeles artists, will open April 6.
But even as the museum's leaders welcome visitors to the refurbished facility, they are reeling from a massive cut in state funding. The museum's annual operating budget is a mere $2.1 million this year -- down 35% from last year's budget of $3.4 million. To cope with the loss, the museum will be open four days a week, Wednesdays through Saturdays, instead of six, as in the past.
The staff of 15 full-time and two part-time employees can't manage more than four days a week of public operations, including a lot of school groups, says David Crippens, the museum's interim executive director. A longtime administrator at KCET-TV, he took charge of the museum last June, after the departure of Jai Henderson, who led the museum for six years.
Fulfilling the museum's broad mission as "keeper of the flame" of African American history, art and culture would be a challenge under the best of circumstances, Crippens says. So would regaining momentum after an 18-month closure. Figuring out how to accomplish both goals with drastically reduced resources is doubly daunting, he says.
Nonetheless, Crippens is optimistic. He and the museum's board are deeply embroiled in strategic planning, and they are reconsidering every aspect of the museum's programs and operations. Fielding questions, Crippens often replies: "We are looking into that" or "we need to develop a policy on that." As for the possible duration of his interim status, he says, it has yet to be determined. Still, he intends to be in place long enough to help the museum play a bigger role in the cultural life of Los Angeles.
"I spend most of my time friend-raising and fund-raising," he says with a smile steeped in determination.
The museum's membership dwindled to 700 during the closure, but he hopes to increase that number to 1,000 by July and to continue to expand the membership roll.
"We have to rekindle and refresh our base," Crippens says. He also wants to build new relationships with art collectors and affluent African Americans who haven't been involved with the museum.
As for funds, he's looking into the possibility of renting museum space to other organizations for special events, and he's seeking corporate sponsorship, with some success. Albertson's, for example, sponsored the museum's invitational opening celebration on Friday night.
Another way of gaining both friends and funds is a nascent program that Crippens calls "house-raising." If it develops as planned, a fund-raiser will be held once a month at the home of a museum patron.
Although the museum needs to be better integrated into the African American community, it's not an exclusive institution. "This isn't just a museum of African American history, art and culture, it's a museum of American history, art and culture," he says. "About 40% to 45% of our visitors are Latino." What's more, he says, the exhibitions present the accomplishments and experiences of African Americans in a broad context.
The Grafton Tyler Brown exhibition, for example, tells the story of a light-skinned black man who often passed for white to make a living. But the tale is similar to that of many immigrants who have made their way under adverse conditions, he says.
"We have to think about what will attract people and what will keep them coming back," Crippens says. "I want people to be excited by what they see and to find educational opportunities here. I also want a visit to the museum to be a spiritual experience."
Walking out of the galleries into the lobby, where contemporary artworks were being installed, Crippens acknowledged that the reopening is only the beginning of a new stage in the museum's development. His work is cut out for him, but he seems undaunted.
"I'm extremely excited about this," he says. "It's a challenge. I could cry poor. But if you believe in something and see what it can do, you can make it happen."
California African American Museum
Where: 600 State Drive, Exposition Park, Los Angeles
When: Wednesdays-Saturdays, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Price: Free
Contact: (213) 744-7432