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Frieze Week Los Angeles 2024

Eileen Harris Norton on Learning and Connecting Through Collecting

Clifford Prince King takes the photos as the philanthropist and co-founder of Art + Practice discusses her journey, from buying her first artwork to the publication of a new book on her collection

BY Taylor Renee Aldridge in Frieze Los Angeles , Frieze Week Magazine , Interviews | 17 JAN 24

Taylor Renee Aldridge: Let’s start by talking about the publication of the first book on your collection: All These Liberations: Women Artists in the Eileen Harris Norton Collection. It focuses on works that were made by women and especially women of color. I’ve had the pleasure of editing it and there are contributions from brilliant art scholars including Genevieve Hyacinthe, Steven Nelson, Legacy Russell, Lowery Stokes Sims, and others. What motivated you to pursue this book project and why its focus on women artists in particular?

Eileen Harris Norton: To honor the 100th anniversary of the women’s suffrage movement in 2020 my co-founders at Art + Practice, Mark Bradford and Allan DiCastro, and I thought it would be great to organize an exhibition featuring the women artists in my collection and specifically those of color. We reached out to the Hammer Museum, our initial museum partner (from 2015–16), about the idea, and the curator Erin Christovale took the project on. She titled the show “Collective Constellation: Selections from the Eileen Harris Norton Collection”. It was phenomenal to see the diversity of women artists in my collection from Betye Saar to Sadie Barnette, Ruth Waddy to Julie Mehretu, and all the connections between. To welcome the community to see the works at Art + Practice was a great joy as well.

Alma Thomas, Azaleas in Spring, 1968; Kara Walker, The Bush, Skinny, De-boning, 2002. Photo: Clifford Prince King
Alma Thomas, Azaleas in Spring, 1968; Kara Walker, The Bush, Skinny, De-boning, 2002. Photo: Clifford Prince King

Sadly, due to Covid-19, the exhibition was only up for six weeks at Art + Practice, and so we had to think about other ways of continuing the project and presenting the artists in my collection to the world. We decided a book was the best way forward, and then we met with you! It was wonderful how you brought in many different curatorial voices to talk about my collection while expanding the scope of the original exhibition’s artist roster to further explain the artists’ connections.

TRA: What do you hope readers will get from the book?

EHN: I wanted the book to be an educational tool. I lack a formal arts education, but I’ve learned so much going through the process of collecting and I’ve developed personal connections with artists, curators and other voices in the field. I want All These Liberations to be more than just a coffee-table book, and to include all these wonderful writers and thinkers solidified my original intention.

Pictured: Uta Barth, Deep Blue Day (12.9), 2012.
Uta Barth, Deep Blue Day (12.9), 2012. Photo: Clifford Prince King 

TRA: I think so many people know you as a patron operating behind the scenes. You’re not really someone who likes a lot of attention. But the exhibition made your collection visible as well as you and the work that you’ve done over recent decades, and how your contributions have shifted the entire arts ecosystem.

In our many conversations developing the book, you mentioned Ruth Waddy as an important artist in your collection. In 1976, you purchased your first artwork: The Exhorters (1976) by Waddy. She was an LA-based organizer, art patron, artist and printmaker who was operating on the West Coast and she was really formative in developing a Black arts ecosystem in LA. She was also an art historian who documented the artists of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s up until her passing. Can you tell me about that purchase in 1976? How did you come to be exposed to Waddy’s work? And how has it foreshadowed your collecting overall?

EHN: It was a happy accident. My mom and I saw an article in the LA Times advertising an exhibition at The Museum of African American Art. Artist Ruth Waddy was going to be demonstrating and showing her work at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. So we went along and there she was working on some prints. My mom and I had been to museums and were art enthusiasts, but a working, living artist and a Black woman based in LA besides—wow, that was fabulous! We were the only ones there and we walked up to her and just started talking—asking her what she was doing, what she was making, how she did it.

My mom was kicking me, saying, “You got to buy something from the lady.” So I picked out a print. I don’t remember why I chose that particular work. There were a lot. I was a teacher at the time. That was my first experience meeting a living artist and a Black artist—right here in LA.

Pictured: Alison Saar, Congolene Resistance, 2020.
Alison Saar, Congolene Resistance, 2020. Photo: Clifford Prince King

I met my ex-husband, Peter Norton, in 1981. We lived in Venice and there were artists all up and down the block at that time. We would walk around and wander into studios. A few galleries started to open up there in the early 1980s. We just fell into looking at art. We didn’t have any money then to buy, but as time went on we realized we had enough money and we could start collecting.

Without any formal education in art, we just bought what grabbed our eye in the moment. We were buying prints by George Grosz and Edward Hopper; The Hundred Gilder Print by Rembrandt. They didn’t cost much. That was our collecting start. Then we became a little more sophisticated with our collecting process, and we would go to artists’ studios and started meeting artists.

TRA: People came to understand you as having a distinct collecting style, one that is more intuitive. You weren’t guided by an advisor or by market trends. You were drawn to a lot of avant-garde works. For instance, you collected some of the first pieces by Kara Walker as well as Lorna Simpson, buying works that belonged to her MFA thesis show from 1989. You had Gary Simmons’s “Noose” works, Liza Lou’s Kitchen (1991–96), which was one of your children’s favorite works growing up, and which was installed in your basement. So, how do you decide what you’re going to buy?

EHN: Well, I don’t have a collecting style, and Peter and I certainly didn’t have one. It came from our curiosity, our sense of passion, and our experiences growing up.

I grew up in Watts in South LA. My mother worked at a drugstore and we lived with my grandfather and my two uncles. They both worked for the post office, but they had real passions, including food, the outdoors and travel. My mom and I would travel with them when we could. Later, as I got older, my oldest uncle took my mom and me on a world trip. We went to Egypt, Kenya, Morocco and all the major capitals of Europe. We were not a traditional family. Everybody had their interests and passions.

Pictured: David Hammons, Rocky, 1990.; Kara Walker, Untitled, 1995; Carrie Mae Weems, Commemoration Plates, 1992.
David Hammons, Rocky, 1990; Kara Walker, Untitled, 1995; Carrie Mae Weems, Commemoration Plates, 1992. Photo: Clifford Prince King 

TRA: So, having grown up in Watts, you went on to attend UCLA, worked as an English as a Second Language teacher (ESL) in the 1980s, and have gone on to serve on a variety of museum and educational boards, as well as co-founding Art + Practice in Leimert Park. You are a product of LA and you have poured so generously back into the city. Can you talk about the ways in which local art and culture has informed your philanthropy and collecting?

EHN: I’m a product of growing up in LA in the 1960s. I remember the Watts Riots vividly. The looting, the fires. My mom and I didn’t leave our home. My uncles would go out to see what was happening. That was a very frightening time.

TRA: I imagine it left an indelible mark on you as a young child witnessing that unrest.

EHN: Yes, and as time went on you would hear about the same thing happening in other cities. The world that we lived in changed. All the basics that people depended on. Things were burnt and never came back.            

TRA: That’s right, the rebellion materialized the anger and apathy that Black folks felt in the country at that time. I think about the artwork that comes out of such ruins and Watt’s Rebellion artists in particular were so formative to the Black contemporary arts landscape here in LA. John Outterbridge, Betye Saar, Noah Purifoy all utilized that ruin to really comment on what was happening in LA, and cast Watts—and Black LA more broadly—in a more positive light.

EHN: Exactly. I have works by all three of those artists. But at the time I was living in Watts, my family and I didn’t know about any of them.

TRA: You were instrumental in the early careers of Thelma Golden, Lorna Simpson and Mark Bradford. All of these people you now know well and have a friendship. In an interview with Thelma featured in the book, she says her landmark exhibition, “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art” at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1994, wouldn’t have happened without your support. That is such a big statement. What draws you to emerging voices in contemporary art?

EHN: At that time, Peter and I were probably in our heyday of collecting and meeting all these young Black artists who are now well established. At a certain point, along with collecting young artists, we were providing funding support to young curators—like Thelma—because they had no voice in the museums and they were the ones that were interested in these younger artists. 

Pictured: John Outterbridge, Untitled, 2011.
John Outterbridge, Untitled, 2011. Photo: Clifford Prince King 

TRA: “Black Male” was foundational in my art history education. Thinking about that period, socio-politically, you had the Central Park Five—the young Black boys erroneously accused of raping a white woman in Central Park. You had “stop-and frisk” policing starting up in New York. All of these ways in which Black men in particular were being criminalized and associated with violence. Thelma comes in and takes heed and decides to make some social commentary through an exhibition at one of the most prestigious art institutions in the world. It feels comparable to how daring you were at the time (and continue to be) as a collector, and your desire to focus a lot of your patronage and acquisitions on these newer nuanced voices that were really addressing the issues and the realities that were surrounding us at the time, and now in the present.

EHN: Yes, exactly. We had collected a few LA artists, the edgier ones, of course, like Mike Kelley and Jason Rhoades. So we were buying works by these artists who became mainstream. But we were collecting Black and Latino artists as well.

TRA: In 2014, along with Mark Bradford and Allan DiCastro, you cofounded Art + Practice in Leimert Park, a nonprofit which provides free access to curated exhibitions of contemporary art in South LA, and supports transition-age foster youth in the city, as well as refugee children from around the world. What inspired you, Mark and Allan to create this particular kind of organization that combines visual art presentations with social service?

EHN: Well, the art part was easy. At the time, Mark’s studio was in Leimert Park in what had been his mother’s beauty shop. He said he would see young kids out on the street during the day when they should have been in school. He talked to them and found out they were foster youth. My background as an English as a Second Language teacher and with LA Unified, as well as my personal philanthropy, had always been directed towards women and children’s issues and education. Allan’s interest was always in the community—he had a long history working as a community volunteer in the neighborhood he lived in.

Pictured: Unknown, Untitled (Vintage Glass Ornaments), approx. 1940s.; Carrie Mae Weems, Commemoration Plates, 1992.
Unknown, Untitled (vintage glass ornaments), approx. 1940s; Carrie Mae Weems, Commemoration Plates, 1992. Photo: Clifford Prince King

With our sense of community, our values, our shared interest in people of color and in Leimert Park, we thought it would be great to have an art gallery that was accessible to the folks living in South LA. The California African American Museum is a little further away, and LACMA and MOCA are much further away. So, like I said, the art part was easy. But we also wanted to address a need in the community, and with South LA having the largest concentration of foster youth in the nation, that need presented itself naturally.

At first, from 2014 to 2016, we collaborated with the RightWay Foundation, a nonprofit providing mental health and job training services to foster youth who leave the system at 18. Currently we work with First Place for Youth, a nonprofit that provides housing, education and employment support to young adults up to the age of 24. First Place addresses all the basics so that our local foster youth can become self-sufficient and empowered.

We also are in partnership with Nest Global, an NGO that provides early education learning opportunities to refugee children at the US-Mexico border, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zimbabwe. Art + Practice pays for the teachers’ salaries. This two-year partnership also speaks to my history as an educator, and the importance of providing good-quality education for all.

Eileen Harris Norton, Santa Monica, 2023
Eileen Harris Norton, Santa Monica, 2023. Pictured: Alma Thomas, Untitled, 1968. Photo: Clifford Prince King

TRA: I want to return to your collecting style and as a final question ask what was the last work that you collected and what excited you most about it?

EHN: Lately, I’ve been looking at Sandy Rodriguez, who was an artist in residence at Art + Practice from 2014 to 2015. During her residency, she worked with Hammer Museum curator Jamillah James to organize a group show of her work with two other artists in residence, Aalia Brown and Dale Brockman Davis. During her residency she was an educator at the Getty, but has since transitioned into being a full-time artist. She has blossomed. She’s having exhibitions at the Huntington Museum in Pasadena, and across the country. Sadie Barnette is another one. I met her at Charlie James Gallery a few years back. She’s young, interesting and she incorporates pink—my favorite color—into her practice as a symbol of empowerment! I just love her references, her connection with her father and the Black Panther Party. And Betye Saar. I’ve probably been collecting Betye for 30-plus years, and I admire her continued expansion of her practice. She’s over 90 years old now. From time to time her gallery will say, “Betty’s made a new work.” And I’ll say, “Are any available? If so, I’d love to buy one!” These wonderful women are from different backgrounds and different generations, with different practices. I greatly admire all three.

All These Liberations: Women Artists in the Eileen Harris Norton Collection, is published by Yale University Press in March 2024.

This article first appeared in Frieze Week Los Angeles 2024, under the title “A Witness to Change.”

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Main image: Eileen Harris Norton, Santa Monica, 2023. Pictured: Sherin Guirguis, Untitled, 2009. Photo: Clifford Prince King

Taylor Renee Aldridge is a writer and visual arts curator at the California African American Museum, Los Angeles. In 2015, along with writer Jessica Lynne, she co-founded ARTS.BLACK, a journal of art criticism from Black perspectives. She lives in Los Angeles.