Mapping a bold vision for the California African American Museum


LOS ANGELES — Cameron Shaw had a knack for creating his own opportunities from an early age. Returning from college in the summer of 2002, she visited the offices of the Peter Norton Family Foundation in Santa Monica, was impressed by the very contemporary art covering every wall, and asked if she could work there. The organization created an internship for him the following summer.

When she moved to New York after college to take a job as an assistant at the David Zwirner Gallery, she quickly turned that into a job, which hadn’t existed before, as a research manager.

After that, as a freelance arts writer interested in how culture could play a role in rebuilding New Orleans after Katrina, she got a writing scholarship and won $10,000 on the game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire ?” to help finance his move there. She ended up co-founding Pelican Bomb in 2011, an online publication designed to support New Orleans artists and writers.

Now, she has taken her biggest professional leap to date by rising to the position of executive director of the California African American Museum (CAAM). Hired in September 2019 as chief curator and assistant director, she had been in the role for just over a year — one more pandemic year — when her director George O. Davis quietly resigned after being sued for sexual harassment.

Shaw, 39, said she recognized that a “research process could be destabilizing” and immediately wrote a letter to the board, saying she had the vision and skills to lead the museum. The board of directors met with Shaw last February and although she has never led an organization with a size or budget close to CAAM’s roughly $3.8 million, she got the job this month- the.

“I fought back,” she said. “My parents always instilled in me that nothing would be given to me as a black girl.”

Shaw declined to comment on the litigation against Davis, which names CAAM as a defendant and is still ongoing. But she said she is committed to creating “a safe and supportive workplace where I present myself with integrity, empathy, generosity and clarity. And I’m a progressing person working towards those things.

She talks about the power of listening (also meditation, which she’s been doing for 15 years) and said her “sense of purpose comes from making space or creating platforms for others” . His supporters agree that his form of ambition is more generous than selfish. One is Taylor Renee Aldridge, CAAM’s new curator, who describes Shaw’s leadership as “intuitive” and “not hierarchical at all – she’s very interested in working across the aisle.”

Another fan is artist Mark Bradford, who calls her “an amazing” collaborator. “I love that it’s very global and local at the same time,” he said. “She can see the genre, the big idea and the detail.” Bradford met Shaw last year and has previously asked for his help creating exhibitions for his non-profit space, Art + Practice, in Leimert Park.

Art+Practice has partnered with other museums in the past, but a new five-year partnership with CAAM is its biggest commitment yet. “We will create the scaffolding around CAAM’s ideas and visions,” Bradford said. (The partnership begins with a show by Deborah Roberts, adapted from Contemporary Austin, opening at Art+Practice on March 19).

Shaw’s job isn’t going to be easy. CAAM, with a broad scope in both black art and African American history, was established in 1977 by the state of California and remains primarily state-funded and free to the public. It is located in Exposition Park, a 152-acre tract rich in museums and stadiums south of downtown Los Angeles (and site of the 2028 Olympics). The museum is overseen by the state’s Natural Resources Agency, best known for managing parks and nature preserves, which can create “a complex set of circumstances,” Shaw said diplomatically.

The museum has no endowment and acquires works of art only by donation – it has a policy of not spending public funds on acquisitions – making it an uneven permanent collection. CAAM has also been chronically understaffed, with only 17 full-time employees at present.

Then there is the potential competition as many museums scramble to show and acquire works by black artists. This raises the question of CAAM’s particular role in the future. What does CAAM offer when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art across town hosts famous Obama portraits and holds an acclaimed exhibition of black portraits to go along with it?

“I want LACMA to organize an exhibition of black American portraits. It is important that black people see themselves in this space; it’s important for others to see black artists and black faces in this space,” Shaw said.

“But like all things, the experience or understanding of art and archival objects is transformed by context,” she added, citing factors such as neighborhood and audience. “When CAAM presents this work, we bring a definitely dark context and story. And we prioritize the lived experience of our black creators, thinkers, and audiences.

Shaw did not pursue the trend in the art market that made black figuration, and portraiture in particular, so valuable, but rather followed a group of artists who thought of abstraction “as a sharp act of resistance to readability requirements and requirements to make the black body visible. She points to the museum’s recent investigation into the work of Sanford Biggers, who enters into a dialogue with black cultural history by painting, bombarding with sequins, cutting and manipulating antique quilts.

She has identified black abstraction, which she sees at work in both music and the visual arts, as one of CAAM’s “four pillars” and an organizing theme for the museum’s programming. Another is “Black Lives Matter, Green Justice” or, as Shaw asks, “How can we move forward in this moment of heartfelt environmental crisis?” »

Its third pillar focuses on black spirituality and “ancestral technologies”, which it interprets as “a reflection on indigenous African knowledge and how it is carried by black people in this country, intentionally and unconsciously”. She is particularly interested in how spiritual traditions have anchored black protest movements, from abolitionism to Black Lives Matter. On February 5, CAAM opened an investigation into what Aldridge, the curator, calls “sacred geometric abstraction” by Matthew Thomas, an artist who moved from Los Angeles to Thailand a decade ago to study Buddhism.

The fourth pillar is to position CAAM as a resource for showcasing African-American historical materials from its own collection as well as other museums, libraries, and archives that live “in our basements, garages, and under our beds,” said said Shaw.

Next on that front: a show about the Buffalo Soldiers in California, hosted by CAAM history curator Susan D. Anderson, which explores, in Anderson’s words, “the role of black soldiers in the history of army violence against Native Americans” and the debate within the black community about its participation in the wars.

“I find the way she defined her pillars very interesting and inspiring,” said Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, who sees these themes as building on CAAM’s existing strengths. “She is as invested in the history of the California African American Museum as she is in creating a future for the institution.”

History and art don’t need to be separated, Aldridge said. “A lot of what I’ve learned from artists, especially artists practicing in California like John Outterbridge and Betye Saar, is that creation and history aren’t separated at all, they’re intertwined with beautiful manners.”

Aldridge and Anderson are both hired by Shaw to rebuild the conservation team after several retirements. She also appointed Isabelle Lutterodt as Deputy Director, Essence Harden as Curator of Visual Arts, and Alexsandra M. Mitchell as Head of Education and Programs, making for an all-black, all-female leadership team. .

Shaw notes that for the most part the new team members do not have experience in traditional art museums, but have founded their own organizations or worked independently, which “fuels a sense of ambition and experimentation”.

His own trajectory has also been marked by periods of working outside organizations, or inventing his own. She grew up in Los Angeles, where her father worked as an architect and her mother helped her with her business, while her aunts worked in entertainment. Shaw studied art history at Yale. In New York, she left David Zwirner after three years to strike out on her own as a writer and editor.

In New Orleans, she and Amanda Brinkman started Pelican Bomb, an art criticism website that eventually became an exhibition incubator as well, from 2011 to 2018 to see where they naturally went,” Brinkman said.

With her team in place at CAAM, Shaw is now aligning with financial donors beyond the state, she said, to create flexibility in acquisitions, exhibitions and more. She also looks back on CAAM’s history ahead of its 50th anniversary in 2027 to find ways to share its accomplishments so far.

“Museums that have historically been white centered are asking what it means to center black artists, BIPOC artists,” she said. “CAAM has been doing this work for over 40 years.


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