A golden collection of African American art in Los Angeles
In 1928, William Nickerson Jr., along with Norman Houston and George Beavers, founded the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Co. in Los Angeles to provide insurance to black people unable to purchase policies from white-owned institutions. The company flourished, evolving into one of the largest black-owned insurance companies west of the Mississippi.
Through the years, the company amassed an extensive assemblage of African American art, one of the biggest corporate-owned collections in the nation. The California African American Museum takes a closer look at the art and history of the company with “The Legacy of the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company: More Than a Business,” up through December.
“Insurance was the main focus of the business but by no means the only thing they were about,” said curator Markhum Stansbury Jr. “They had an employee library and educational opportunities.”
In 1948, African American architect Paul Williams commissioned two murals for the lobby of the insurance company’s new headquarters, a late Moderne-style, midrise on Western Avenue in the West Adams district completed in 1949. Measuring 16 feet, 5 inches wide by 9 feet, 31/4 inches tall, the oil on canvas murals painted by Charles Alston and Hale A. Woodruff depict important figures, landscapes and scenes spanning four centuries of black history in California.
Facing bankruptcy in 2007, the company auctioned off 94 of its 239-piece collection, earning $1.5 million.
The exhibition features 65 of the remaining paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs and artifacts by artists such as Elizabeth Catlett, Charles Dixon, Harvey Johnson and Willie Middlebrook. The murals are reproductions of the originals, which remain hanging in the West Adams building and are the subject of a continuing court battle. The dispute centers on whether the murals are an asset separate from the structure or a permanent fixture like wallpaper. Several community and preservation groups maintain that the murals are site-specific, part of the original design, and that they should remain intact inside the city-designated historical cultural monument. Opponents argue that the canvas murals were hung as artwork.
Another significant piece is Beulah Woodard’s 1949 brown clay sculpture of freed slave and local real estate entrepreneur Biddy Mason. A founding member of the city’s First African Methodist Episcopal Church, Mason donated the land to build the church.
It wasn’t until 1965 that the collection grew exponentially under the curatorial guidance of New Orleans artist Bill Pajaud, who had joined the insurance company’s publicity department in 1957. “I asked the executives if they would like to have their portraits on the walls and at that point I had them,” recalled 88-year old Pajaud from his home in Windsor Hills. “At that time, they had the two murals and Mr. Nickerson’s bust. Except for a few desert scenes done by nonblack artists, they had no fine art in the building.”
With no budget to start, Pajaud would barter with his own artwork.
“I noticed the company published a calendar every year with photographs, which I thought was pedestrian thinking,” said Pajaud. So he approached artist Charles White, who taught art classes at the company for kids in the neighborhood, to do a calendar. “The mock-up he did was the poem ‘I’ve Known Rivers.’ He introduced the company and me to Langston Hughes. After that calendar, I had a blank check.”
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