Foundation Looking to Preserve L.A.’s Black Art History

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Charles Alston’s “Exploration and Colonization” is a landmark painting, depicitng early black life in Los Angeles./Photo Credit: Golden State Mutual Legacy Foundation

By Dennis J. Freeman

John Brown and the Golden State Mutual Legacy Foundation (GSMLF) want to keep the legacy of black art here in Los Angeles by preserving a couple of iconic paintings that many in the general public have no idea about. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. is aware of the artwork that Brown and GSMLF would like to own.

After offering a $700,000 proposal for the right to own that artwork, the Smithsonian Institution feel entitled to it.  Brown and GSMLF believe differently. They feel they have been stiffed out of the process to have a chance to own the art outright. Thus, a battle to own two distinguished and highly valued pieces of art is on.    

“The Smithsonian is a good alternative, but it is not the best alternative,” Brown said in an interview with news4usonline.com. “It’s part of our history. Most of our people don’t even know that it is there. It is important that we learn to tell our own history and our own stories. Golden State Mutual was a lot more than a life insurance [company]. It was the most prominent corporation here.

“It was a large social outlet. It gave a lot of benefits to the community. We need to preserve the legacy of that and understand where we came from. We’ve got to understand what was before us to understand where we are. That’s just not just the African American experience. That’s an important part of the history of Los Angeles. We can’t let that history of Los Angeles leave the city.”

The Smithsonian Institution already has prominent displays of work by renowned African American artists Charles Alston and Hale Woodruff. It now wants to add to that collection. The brewing legal fight with GSMLF and its representatives, however, may keep the famous historical institution from picking up the two revered murals Alston and Woodruff painted.

Alston and Woodruff was commissioned to produce the murals for Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company. Independent appraisals put the value of the two murals anywhere between $2.2 million and $5.5 million.

A court hearing on Monday in downtown Los Angeles will be a step in determining the fate of “The Negro in California History” murals that Alston and Woodruff first unveiled to the public in 1949 in the lobby of the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company’s office on West Adams Boulevard in South Los Angeles.

Established in 1925, Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company was the first and largest black insurance company on the West Coast. Part of the allure of the company was that its building was designed by legendary black architect Paul R. Williams and featured the many works of Alston and Woodruff and other African American artists.

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Hale Woodruff’s “Settlement & Development” painting./Photo Credit: Golden State Mutual Legacy Foundation

Alston’s “Exploration and Colonization” and Woodruff’s “Settlement & Development” murals were the highlights of the art collection. However, as business waned in later years for Golden State Mutual, so did much of the art work that it had featured. In 2009, Golden State Mutual was placed under state conservation.

By then, the historical legacy of the art collection were either sold or disappeared. It is estimated that other parts of the art collection sold for at least $1.5 million. And that is at the low end of the art pricing spectrum. All that remains now from that art collection are the two gigantic murals that Alston and Woodruff collaborated on.

Since then California Department of Insurance Conservation and Liquidation Office has been getting rid of Golden State Mutual’s assets through liquidation. The two murals, which Brown and GSMLF contend rightly belongs to the city of Los Angeles, are considered to be part of the company’s assets.

This is where things become murky. Joshua Solomon, who was brought in by the state to liquidate Golden State Mutual’s assets, formed a group interested in keeping the artwork in Los Angeles. After getting wind of the Smithsonian Institution’s proposal of $700,000 to buy the artwork, GSMLF offered a $1 million payout to obtain the murals.

According to GSMLF’s documentation of events that have transpired between the two entities, that offer was subsequently rejected by the state’s Conservation and Liquidation Office.

Brown, an associate attorney with The Bedford Group, a real estate development company in Los Angeles, is crying foul on the way the California’s Conservation Liquidation Office did business with GSMLF.

Brown and GSMLF allege that shortly after their offer was turned back, the state’s Conservation Liquidation Office went back door on them to begin exclusive negotiations with the Smithsonian Institution. In its statement of facts, GSMLF assert that its group was never given the opportunity to come up with a counter offer for the murals or negotiate its bidding price.

Worst, the deal with the Smithsonian Institution is not expected to be consummated until June 30, 2012, Solomon and Brown told news4usonline.com.

“The legacy foundation made an offer, and part of the offer is the distribution of the materials,” Brown said. “The CLO (Conservation Liquidation Office) understood and liked our distribution of the materials; they just didn’t believe we could raise the money. For that reason, they would not negotiate. They made the opinion that we could not raise the money.

“They also made the statement that they didn’t have time to give us to raise the money. What we were asking for was a commitment. They never gave us a commitment. They never set a price. They never negotiated. The Smithsonian put nothing down. Yes, I was disappointed. I think they were wrong in taking that approach. I think they took what they thought was the best political solution.”

Austin Moore, who is president of the Golden State Mutual Alumni, said the whole ordeal has been neglectful towards the best interest of the local community and the city of Los Angeles as a whole.

“They have had no respect for us whatsoever,” Moore said. “They have no respect for our community. This is a black mural, a historical mural that has historical significance towards the community. It has historical significance to Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company, which faced the same challenges that were put forth in its developmental stages.”

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