William Pajaud was a New Orleans based artist who lived in Los Angeles and specialized in design and watercolor. He was also the first appointed art director for Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company. During his tenure as art director and later as a public relations director he amassed a collection of over 200 works for the company with a limited annual acquisition budget of only $5,000. Through art world contacts and his involvement in Art West Associated, Pajaud leveraged his network and own artistic ability to barter works with artists who were committed to Golden State’s mission and reputation in the community for fostering self-sustainability. The collection was heralded as one of the most comprehensive collections of black art in the world and included works by Elizabeth Catlett, Charles White, and Betye Saar among others.
His own work of watercolors is beautiful, there’s a quiet fluidity in his brush strokes that balance the emotive, figurative work that he created later in his career after he was creatively influenced by the social upheaval created by the Watts Riots.
Of all of his accomplishments the collection he amassed during his career with Golden State stands at the top of the list: “I’m very much happy with what I have contributed. But the main thing I’m proudest of is that collection down at Golden State. I feel much prouder of that than I do of any single piece that I’ve ever done,” the artist told NPR in 2006. William Pajaud reminds me of the legendary Herb Vogel in New York—he was a collector with the soul of an artist. His love for Golden State’s collection is evident in the works themselves, they tell a story of a time that is unique to black Los Angeles. The role that the insurance company played in the city was a crucial one. Golden State took a bet on the community, invested in black builders and architects to build its headquarters (the building is a landmark that is listed on the National Register and is a Historic Cultural Monument in Los Angeles) and the company invested in the cultural vibrancy of Los Angeles through investing in the artists who made their home here. Golden State Mutual became the economic glue for black Americans who migrated to Southern California in the 1920’s through 1970.
Sadly Golden State, which was originally founded in 1925 and quickly grew to become the largest black owned insurance company in the Western U.S., ultimately struggled with profitability issues starting in the 1980’s and the company dissolved in the late 2000’s. This culminated in the tragic auction of 94 pieces of the collection in 2007 which effectively erased the legacy of the collection that had been cultivated so carefully. The lots sold for $1.5M total, a small fraction of what these works are worth now.
While Pajaud retired from the company in the 1980’s he remained a passionate advocate for the legacy and stewardship of the collection. In a series of interviews with William Pajaud by NPR station KPPC taking place before and after the sale, the artist foreshadowed the demise of the collection and later offered this cautionary message to future owners of the works sold:
“Take care of the work and take care of the concept of the people. If for instance you are able to get your hands on a piece of that work, any of it, realize that all of it was put together in love, for you and anybody else in the world to see.”
Artist William Pajaud’s Jazzy New Orleans, KPPC, January 2006 http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5125966
Selling the Dream, Cecil Fergeson, August 2007 http://goldenstatecollection.blogspot.com/2007/09/golden-state-mutual-life-insurance.html