Founded in 1977, the California African American Museum (CAAM) is the first African American museum of art, history, and culture fully supported by a state. CAAM’s mission is to research, collect, preserve, and interpret for public enrichment the history, art, and culture of African Americans with an emphasis on California and the western United States. The museum existence is a direct result of a sustained, multi-year campaign of activism undertaken by its founders and community members.
CAAM started operating in 1981 within temporary quarters until it found a permanent home in Exposition Park, just south of Downtown Los Angeles in 1984. The museum’s new home was now a 44,000-square-foot facility designed by African American architects Jack Haywood and Vince Proby. CAAM’s inaugural exhibition featured “The Black Olympians 1904-1984”, curated by CAAM’s history curator Lonnie Bunch, now founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. The exhibition debuted in July 1984 just as the Games of the XXIII Olympiad were opening in Los Angeles. Longtime arts advocate, Aurelia Brooks was the museum’s first director, and the first object acquired for CAAM’s permanent collection was a magnificent bronze bust by Richmond Barthé of civil rights activist Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune.
The museum’s permanent collection houses 4,000 objects that span landscape painting and portraiture, modern and contemporary art, historical objects and print materials, and mixed-media artworks. Though the collection emphasizes objects pertinent to California and the American West, it also houses a growing collection of artworks from the African diaspora as well as important works by African Americans from across the United States.
CAAM supports under-represented artists of color and showcases how Black artists influence the world. It has also featured thought-provoking, inspiring and in-depth exhibits such as “No Justice, No Peace: LA 1992”, a history exhibition that marks the 25th anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising, “The African Legacy in Central America: Tony Gleaton’s Photographs from CAAM’s Collection” and Films at CAAM, which screens mostly first run, thematically linked, award-winning and critically-acclaimed documentary films and countless events and more for the community.
The museum is one of many local institutions changing the landscape of Exposition Park and the South Los Angeles area, including the California Science Center, the Natural History Museum, and the coming Lucas Museum of Narrative Art.
Its creation was an early and tangible recognition by the State of California of the critically important role African Americans have played in the American West’s cultural, economic, and political development.
For more information on the California African American Museum and exhibits running during Black History Month, please visit https://caamuseum.org/
Brian W. Carter contributed to this article.