In the fall of 1962 a group of black artists gathered in the back of Safety Savings and Loan’s community room. Brought together by a 53-year-old woman with no formal knowledge of art and limited resources, Ruth Waddy’s pitch to the group was a simple one:
Her goal was to create a juried art show at a prominent museum in Los Angeles. A simple pitch, but a formidable task.
Editor’s Note: Today I read an extensive series of interviews with Ruth Waddy conducted by Karen Anne Mason with UCLA’s Center for Oral History Research. This recounting of Waddy’s foray into the art world was just too good to keep hidden. Ok, back to the artists in the community room in 1962.
The group liked the idea, but the daunting part was looming. In order to hold the show, they had to convince a museum to gamble on the group. Waddy was no stranger to challenging tasks. As a young single mother living as a domestic in Chicago during WWII, Waddy was studying to be a blueprint reader and solderer. When she was denied employment at Lockheed Martin because she was black, she moved to Los Angeles to become a riveter for Douglas Aircraft Corp. Her curiosity and a desire to bring people together guided Waddy to the art world and a late stage career that ultimately allowed her to travel the globe. But first she had to pull together the museum show.
Recognizing she needed art world gravitas and the negotiational acumen required to get a foot in the door of a cultural institution, she enlisted the help of artist Charles White and Norman Houston, the President of the largest black owned insurance company in the Western U.S., Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company. With White as the artist and Houston as the negotiator, Waddy was armed with the air cover needed for a meeting with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. At the end of the meeting, the director appeared to be on board with the show, but there was a catch…
According to Waddy, they had to find a Henry O. Tanner painting for the museum’s collection. Tanner was the most recognized and lauded African-American artist at the turn of the century; acquiring a painting was a herculean task that the three of them would not likely achieve on their own. It’s hard to say if the director’s condition was an intentional roadblock, but nevertheless the ask was too formidable. As Waddy recounts in her 1991 interview with Karen Anne Mason,
“I came back and told the artists the condition of having the show, and none of them knew where to get a Tanner. So we didn’t have the show. That was the end of it. But the artists were so happy to be sitting so close together. There were about fifteen or twenty, we’ll say. Maybe there were more. There weren’t any less than that, but maybe there were more than that. They were so happy to be together, they said, “No, we’ll form a group.”
Once again, a rejection turned into an opportunity. Waddy and her group of artists formed Art West Associated, an organization dedicated to promoting art and artist’s advocacy to create a broader market for African-American art and to engender institutional recognition and support. It was during this time that Waddy’s own artistic practice came to fruition and she became a printmaker in her own right.
As a champion for African-American artists, Waddy’s advocacy created a powerful network. This constellation of art stars included Noah Purifoy, Samella Lewis, Romare Bearden and Charles White among others. The foundational work of Art West Associated expanded the pioneering work of co-op galleries like Eleven Associated and laid the groundwork for canonizing the work of black artists in Los Angeles in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Her stories are some of the most captivating ones I’ve come across in recent memory. So much so, that I am dedicating my 2017 “Artist a Day Challenge” to her. My daily posts during the month of February will feature artists who have collaborated with, promoted or inspired others, with each artist featured connecting to another. Many will link back to Waddy and all have ties to the diaspora. This is my 3rd year of focusing on African diasporic artists during Black History Month and I am once again excited to take on this writing challenge in 2017. If you follow along, please let me know what you think in the days that follow!
Digital Archive, NOW DIG THIS!: ART AND BLACK LOS ANGELES 1960–1980 https://hammer.ucla.edu/now-dig-this/artists/ruth-waddy/
African- American Artists of Los Angeles, Ruth G. Waddy interviewed by Karen Anne Mason, Oral History Program, University of California Los Angeles, Copyright, 1993 https://archive.org/stream/waddyafricanamer00wadd/waddyafricanamer00wadd_djvu.txt