Ahead of a major Frieze Week exhibition of work from Eileen Harris Norton's collection, we speak to the pionnering founder of Art + Practice
A highlight of Frieze Week in Los Angeles, Art + Practice and the Hammer Museum present 'Collective Constellation: Selections from The Eileen Harris Norton Collection'. Curated by Erin Cristovale, the exhibition features artworks by women of color, from the personal collection of philanthropist and Art + Practice co-founder, Eileen Harris Norton. We spoke to Eileen about the exhibition and her pioneering life in art.
Frieze: Your interest in collecting was sparked after encountering and acquiring work by artist and arts advocate Ruth Waddy in 1970s. What was it about this work that so inspired you?
Eileen Harris Norton: I remember it was Black History Month and my mother took me to an exhibit at The Museum of African American Art in the May Co, Department Store in the Baldwin Hills Mall. I believe we were just looking for something different to do and I think I was still in college.
When we got there, I saw an older Black lady sitting at a table with her artwork in front of her. No one was paying her any attention. My mother encouraged me to go over and talk to her, just kind of nudged me over. I knew nothing about art so I asked the lady about the artworks she was selling. She explained the process to me—they were all wood block print pieces—and it was very inspiring because I had never met an artist before. It was new and novel and exciting, just wonderful to meet Ruth Waddy. My mom told me I should buy a piece and so I bought a few.
Tell us about your collection. How has it evolved over the last 30 years?
That answer would be a whole book! The way my collection started came out of the relationships I formed. In the 1980s, my ex-husband and I were working and living in Venice, CA trying to get his new company off the ground. When we needed a break, we would walk outside and talk to people. We just happened to live near many artists and their studios—kind of the hotspot of that time; and got to know many of the artists and their practices. They introduced us to their world and we started going downtown as more artists started moving there. When we started making money, our collecting was organic. We already had established friendships with Carla Pagliaro, Betye Saar and others. It was natural. We did always focus on emerging artists or artists from LA. Partially because that’s all we could afford, but also because it was art we believed in.
Why did you found Art + Practice? How do you think it contributes and responds to California’s unique culture and communities?
Art + Practice was founded by three of us: Mark Bradford, Allan DiCastro and me. We wanted A+P to be located in the neighborhood near where both myself and Mark spent a lot of our young lives. Mark was actually a hairdresser at his mom’s salon there. Allan, A+P’s now Executive Director, also has a history in community engagement, so putting our interests—social engagement and contemporary art—together made great sense.
I’m not sure about California as a whole but A+P contributes and responds to Los Angeles and specifically to the areas of Leimert and South LA. There were few to no art galleries and museums south of the 10 freeway when we started. Now A+P is based in Leimert Park and always free to visit. It gives residents of Leimert Park and South LA access to experiencing museum-curated art by world-class, living artists of color. Plus, the public programs A+P organizes present closer access to emerging and established artists so that people can learn about their practice. My experience co-founding A+P, along with Mark and Allan, has been wonderful in seeing how the community has responded and enjoyed its presence.
Art + Practice has organized pioneering exhibitions – from Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s first LA show in 2015 to “Time is Running Out of Time: Experimental Film and Video from the L.A. Rebellion and Today” in 2018. Which shows are you most proud of?
I honestly don’t have a favorite show. There are many shows I loved. However, I do think there are select shows that were very important. For instance, I think the Charles Gaines show, which was our first exhibition, was an important show. Not only for A+P but also within context of the art world. Sandy Rodriguez, who was part of our artist-in-residence program, and has gone on to further her career and name. Same with Alex Da Corte who has been receiving great recognition. I love that they had shows with us on their way to success. But also Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Maren Hassinger, Ruben Ochoa and Senga Nengudi—all the shows have been wonderful and impactful in my opinion.
Opening February 8, “Collective Constellation” features artworks by women of color, curated by the Hammer Museum’s Erin Cristovale. How did the idea for the exhibition come about, what are you and Erin hoping to illustrate or achieve?
Well, actually, Mark, Allan and I knew we wanted to organize an exhibition at A+P that would commemorate the fact that 2020 is the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the US. I didn’t think I was going to be involved but when A+P and the Hammer Museum approached me about the exhibition, I happily accepted the opportunity. I believe that the women artists I’ve met over the years and collected are so extraordinary. They should be celebrated!
There is also the element that all the works included in the exhibition are by women of color from different backgrounds, the curator is a Black woman and me, the collector, is a Black woman. In the museum world, institutions don’t typically entertain an arrangement like this. But A+P does. The show is remarkable.
Frieze LA is full of so much good stuff but I suggest the following exhibitions and gallery shows that focus on women artists of color. Truly great talent and very different mediums. I’ll be at a few of these for sure.
'Collective Constellations: Selections from the Eileen Harris Norton Collection' opens at Art + Practice in Los Angeles from February 8, 2020 to August 1, 2020.
Pictured at top of page: detail, Carrie Mae Weems, Coming Up For Air, 2003 – 2004. Video. 51 Min, 34 sec. © Carrie Mae Weems. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. The Eileen Harris Norton Collection. Photo: Charles White.