There's a lot to discover inside the Museum of African American Art (MAAA). That sense of discovery begins before you actually enter the museum, which is discreetly located inside the Macy's at Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza.
While you'll see a sign outside the department store advertising the MAAA, the space itself is a bit more hidden: it's located on the third floor, tucked behind a mattress display.
Upon entering, you might notice a small art exhibit next to a gift shop that's filled with treasures that include arts, crafts, jewelry and books. Look to the other side and you'll see a sizable gallery.
If that were all that was inside the museum, it would be enough to satisfy your afternoon art fix, but there's much more. Behind the reception/cashier desk in the gift shop is a small maze that takes you through an office-lined hallway, down another corridor lined with art works, and into a massive gallery/event space that can hold several different exhibitions at once.
The design of the space creates a sense of wonder - it feels like there's a surprise around every corner. The content of the museum, though, makes this an educational experience.
The Museum of African American Art was founded in 1976 by artist and art historian Dr. Samella Lewis and a group of community leaders. Over the years, it has amassed a significant permanent collection of art while also hosting temporary exhibitions.
It was one historic collection in particular that helped launch the Museum of African American Art.
"The Palmer Hayden collection, which includes the John Henry series, is really the centerpiece of our permanent collection," says Berlinda Fontenot-Jamerson, president and CEO of Museum of African American Art. "It's important because Palmer Hayden was really on the cutting edge of the Harlem Renaissance period."
Palmer C. Hayden led a fascinating life, which is documented in the book Echoes of Our Past: The Narrative Artistry of Palmer C. Hayden, published by MAAA in 1988. He was born Peyton Cole Hedgeman in Virginia and was a self-taught artist who honed his skills while working for Ringling Brothers Circus, and later serving in the U.S. Army. His career developed in 1920s New York City, where he took a few classes at Columbia, found a benefactor, had his first solo show and won the William E. Harmon Foundation Award. The prize was a turning point for the artist.
"Not only would winning first prize align the recipient with the leading Black intellectuals of the era…but he would also be perceived as the country's leading Black painter," writes Allan M. Gordon, Ph.D. in Echoes of Our Past. Throughout his decades-long career, Hayden depicted many facets of African American life. One of his crowning achievements was the John Henry series (1944 - 1947) - 12 paintings with titles that reflect the famed folk song about the "steel drivin' man."
Hayden had hoped that this series would find a home in the National Collection of Fine Arts at the Smithsonian Institution, but this wasn't meant to be. He died in 1973, before a donor could be secured for the collection.
After his death, Hayden's widow tried to donate the works to the Smithsonian as well, but that didn't work out. However, she had met Dr. Lewis and opted to bequeath 42 paintings, including the John Henry series, to MAAA. The Smithsonian's loss was a gain for the then-burgeoning museum in LA. "We've received those 42 pieces never to be sold, never to be given away, but to be shown and enjoyed both locally and around the world," Fontenot-Jamerson explains. The paintings have traveled to museums across the United States, and some have even been shown at the Queen's Gallery in the U.K. and at The Vatican.
Fontenot-Jamerson notes that Hayden's work has increased in value over the years - not just financially, but culturally and historically. "He depicts the everyday living experience of the '30s, '40s and even '50s." The John Henry series has also gained historical significance. "It was thought to be a fable back in the day," says Fontenot-Jamerson. "In recent years, artifacts were discovered in West Virginia and the train route that substantiated the fact that John Henry actually was a real person." She adds that the museum often uses these paintings to talk about various aspects of the John Henry story.
Hayden's works weren't on view when I recently visited the museum - Fontenot-Jamerson says MAAA typically shows them about every 18 months - but there was plenty more to see.
Currently on view through Mar. 29, 2020, No Crystal Stair: The Photography of John Simmons focuses on images shot by the photographer and Emmy-winning cinematographer in the late '60s and early 1970s in Chicago and the southern U.S. While there are images of civil rights-era luminaries like Shirley Chisholm and Angela Davis, many of Simmons' photos depict ordinary people in the midst of everyday activities. The exhibition title references "The Sweet Flypaper of Life," a collaboration between photographer Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes that influenced Simmons as a young photographer.
Located at the front of the museum next to the gift shop, "African Forms" is a small exhibition that focuses on the institution's collection of works from Africa, including masks.
The spacious back gallery features several different exhibitions, including a collection of lampshades made by Terry McMillan, the best selling novelist of Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back, as well as pieces from her personal art collection.
"Terry McMillan has been a long-time supporter and friend of our museum since her very early days," says Fontenot-Jamerson. She's also an avid collector of artists who are of African descent. McMillan selected 10 pieces from her art collection for the museum to sell. Fontenot-Jamerson says that one has sold, and as of the end of 2019, the remainder were being donated to the museum. Some will become part of the permanent collection.
In addition to the Palmer C. Hayden works, the museum's permanent collection includes works from other renowned artists - artifacts that founder Dr. Lewis collected on her travels, movie memorabilia, and more. "It's a jewel, really," says Fontenot-Jamerson of the museum.
The Museum of African American Art is open Thursday through Sunday from noon until 5 p.m. There's no admission fee and reservations are not necessary.
You can also become a member of MAAA. Membership starts at $40 a year and can include gift shop discounts, invitation to special events and more perks.
Museum of African American Art
Macy's 3rd Fl.
4005 Crenshaw Blvd, Los Angeles 90008