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Naima J. Keith, artistic force behind the California African American Museum, is headed for LACMA

Naima J. Keith, artistic force behind the California African American Museum, is headed for LACMA
Naima Keith, the California African American Museum’s deputy director and chief curator, is headed to LACMA. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Naima J. Keith, the California African American Museum’s deputy director and chief curator, is headed to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as vice president of education and public programs.

“It’s a great time of change for LACMA, and I’m really excited to be a part of it,” said Keith, who takes her post April 1.

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Keith joined CAAM in February 2016 and is credited with transforming a then-sleepy museum in L.A.’s Exposition Park into a must-visit destination known for popular, spirited art openings. Visitorship has doubled from nearly 55,000 in 2015 to more than 100,000 in 2018.

The museum’s collection went through growth spurts as well under Keith. In 2016, collector and Art + Practice co-founder Eileen Harris Norton donated 10 works by artists including Gary Simmons, Yinka Shonibare, Kianga Ford and Albert Chong. In March, it received a gift of 32 paintings, sculptures and mixed media works from L.A. collector, scholar and artist advocate Gordon W. Bailey.

“And just CAAM’s visibility in the city, and press wise, has grown,” said Keith, who previously had been a curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem and also worked at the Hammer Museum in L.A. “It wasn’t nonexistent before, but it wasn’t this consistently reviewed.”

So why leave?

“I was brought into CAAM, in a lot of ways, to really rethink the exhibition programming and bring new audiences to the museum and work with George to reinvigorate the museum,” Keith said, referring to Executive Director George O. Davis. “And I do feel like I’ve been able to make some in-roads in doing that.”

LACMA Director Michael Govan released a statement that said Keith “brings a wealth of experience in engaging a broad range of audiences from her curatorial and educational projects and initiatives. We value our ongoing collaborations with CAAM, including our partnership in hosting concurrent exhibitions related to Charles White this season.”

Under Keith’s guidance, CAAM organized well-regarded installations and exhibitions including Simmons’ “Fade to Black,” still up in its atrium, as well as Shinique Smith’s “Refuge” and Genevieve Gaignard’s “Smell the Roses.”

The museum also brought in traveling exhibitions. “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85,” is a highlight of Keith’s tenure at CAAM, she said.

“That was a big deal — a highly lauded exhibition that was open at the Brooklyn Museum,” Keith said. “It was an opportunity for CAAM to enter into a national dialogue about artists working at this time, and for us to assert the importance of the West Coast in a lot of these artists’ careers.”

Keith has directed CAAM’s educational programming, such as lectures and gallery discussions, the last three years. The opportunity to do that at LACMA was especially appealing to her.

“I’m from L.A., and the work they’re doing in Magic Johnson Park or Watts Towers or Charles White Elementary School, this is a real moment for them for innovation and creativity and experimentation. And I’m excited about being part of the conversation about LACMA in the city,” Keith said.

CAAM will start the search for a new deputy director “as quickly as possible,” Davis said.

“Naima was fantastic,” he said. “She changed the museum from one catering to people over 50 and not that relevant outside of the African American community — and even within some parts of the African American community.”

He called Keith “the face of the creative side of the museum,” and said CAAM will “continue in her direction — more relevant, more cutting edge, more contemporary art.”

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Keith’s last day at CAAM is March 8.

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