African American Museum director Charmaine Jefferson steps down

Charmaine Jefferson is resigning after 11 years as executive director of the California African American Museum in Exposition Park, to focus on an arts consulting business attuned to audience-building and education.

Jefferson, 60, said Friday is her last day at the museum, which is owned and primarily funded by the state of California. It focuses on African American arts and history, with an emphasis on California and the west.

“I walk away excited about what we’ve accomplished, and that there’s still a future in front of me to test my wings on,” Jefferson said.

She said her achievements include building attendance to more than 100,000 visitors a year on a campus where the African American Museum operates almost literally in the shadow of two much larger museums -- the California Science Center, which recently has added the space shuttle Endeavour and a large ecosystems wing to its regular procession of touring exhibitions, and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, where recent renovations have yielded vastly improved galleries for dinosaurs and ancient mammals and a new nature lab.

Todd Hawkins, president of the African American Museum’s board, said Jefferson had made it clear she was thinking of moving on after more than a decade, so “it was not a complete surprise” when she sent a resignation letter last month.


“We’re of course saddened, but we’re at a place we were not at 11 years ago when she arrived,” he said. “We feel well-positioned for a future that can only expand on what she has done.”

Hawkins said the board, whose seven members all are gubernatorial appointees, will decide on an interim director, then begin a national search for Jefferson’s successor. One essential qualification, he said, will be an ability to work with legislators who primarily control the museum’s funding.

The African American Museum gets by on budgets of about $3.5 million a year. Admission is free. The state provides $2.5 million, augmented by funds from a private nonprofit museum foundation that in recent years has generated annual contributions and other revenues of $650,000 to $1.4 million.

The foundation’s public tax returns show that its net assets, which can function as a sort of reserve fund for the museum, had dropped steadily since the recession, from $1.2 million in mid-2007 to $200,000 in mid-2012.

Jefferson said one of her main objectives as museum director was to demonstrate that exhibitions focused on African American arts and history could be relevant to all races and ethnic groups.

“I had an extraordinary opportunity to show how African Americans can be a voice for everybody,” she said.

Exhibitions included touring shows such as the Smithsonian Institution’s retrospective on how the Apollo Theater in Harlem influenced the development of American entertainment, and solo exhibitions by Los Angeles artists Betye Saar and Mark Greenfield, whose show will open this fall.

Jefferson’s tenure included the preliminary planning for a major expansion and renovation of the museum that has yet to gain a financial foothold and move forward. A 2011 announcement by its design firm, Huff and Gooden Architects, pegged the cost at $67.3 million for a project that would nearly triple the size of the 44,000-square-foot museum.

“We have a plan in place, and it will happpen,” Jefferson said. She also is confident that the museum’s annual allotment from the state eventually will improve with California government’s brightening financial picture.

Hawkins, the board president, said the construction plan probably will have to be “scaled back to some degree” unless a major donor steps forward and makes it possible to fund the existing plan. At this point, he said, there are other priorities beside starting a capital campaign, including expanding the base of donors who fund regular programs and exhibitions.

He credited Jefferson with raising the museum’s national profile by forging alliances with partners such as Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History, which sent a recently-closed exhibition on the long-lasting marital and creative partnership of dancer-actors Geoffrey Holder and Carmen de Lavallade. Hawkins said it demonstrated how “Charmaine was able to use her relationships in finding opportunities to bring new things to the museum.”

Jefferson didn’t want to get into what the agenda might be for her successor.

“I don’t want someone trapped by `Charmaine said you should do this, why aren’t you doing the same thing?’” she said.

Her 2013 state salary was $101,314, according to the state controller’s government compensation database, plus $38,712 in health and retirement benefits. Financial reports of the museum’s support foundation show that it provided about $15,000 a year on top of her government salary.

As she renews the private consulting practice she’d had before becoming a museum director, Jefferson will still be a public servant in the arts, albeit as a volunteer. Since 2007 she has been a member of the California Arts Council, which oversees state government’s arts grantmaking, and she also serves on the city of Los Angeles’ Cultural Affairs Commission, which advises the Department of Cultural Affairs. Jefferson also is a trustee of California Institute of the Arts and a board member of the advocacy group Arts for L.A.

A native Angeleno, Jefferson has had a varied arts and entertainment career, starting in her teens and 20s as a professional dancer. Having earned a degree in dance at UCLA, she went on to add a master’s degree in dance education from New York University, and became an entertainment lawyer as well, studying by night at Georgetown University’s law school in the 1980s while working by day as a dance program specialist for the National Endowment for the Arts.

Her managerial jobs in the nonprofit arts sector included two front office hitches with Dance Theatre of Harlem – first as general manager and then as executive director – sandwiched around four years as New York City’s deputy commissioner of Cultural Affairs.

Jefferson returned to Los Angeles in the mid-1990s to work as an entertainment consultant, then joined Disney Entertainment Productions to help plan theme park entertainment at its venues in Anaheim. She’s married to entertainment lawyer Garrett McKinley Johnson and said their daughter recently earned an art history degree from USC.

“I just believe the arts is part of our life every day,” Jefferson said. Now one of her aims as a consultant will be finding ways to restore arts education in Los Angeles public schools to resemble the varied menu of courses she enjoyed in the 1960s and early ‘70s.

“I want to fight for our children to have the same resources we had,” Jefferson said.

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