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Arts icon, Cecil Fergerson, succumbs

Demanded decades of recognition for people of color

Cynthia E. Griffin | 10/3/2013, midnight
Artist Elena Cervantes recounts how Cecil Fergerson helped her career.

Every July, the Black arts community found itself at the center of a big bash celebrating the birthday of a man some called the “Godfather” of L.A.’s African American arts community.

That man, Cecil Fergerson, was celebrated in a public tribute and repast held Saturday in a most appropriate place—Pheonix Hall at the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC) compound just steps from the gallery that bears his name.

Fergerson, 82, died Sept. 18, following a period of declining health.

Like at his annual birthday shindig, which happened for at least 10 years, the tribute/repast attracted the crème de la crème of the Black art and cultural world including William Pajud, Michael Massenburg, and Alice Patrick. They all came to pay tribute to a man who went from teaching history (his favorite subject) to working as a janitor at the California Natural History Museum in Exposition Park to eventually becoming the “community’s curator.”

In the late 1950s, janitorial work was the only job Blacks could get at the county, but Fergerson was not content in that position.

But his interest in art was an acquired love.

“Every night, when I was a custodian at the County Natural History Museum, I’m right there in the art gallery all by myself . . . I’d usually just sweep the art, because I had no interest in it. I was trying to get the hell out of there. Then I started leaning on the broom, getting caught up in the Lautrec and Van Gogh. I soon discovered I could identify artists, not from the labels on the wall, but because of their brush strokes, the things they painted: Cezanne, Modigliani, Gauguin, Matisse; soon I could identify all those people, like snap, snap, snap,” said Fergerson.

In addition to soaking up the art, the Boley, Ok., native who moved to Los Angeles with his parents in 1939 and grew up in Watts, had long conversations with artists and art connoisseurs.

When the museum relocated to Wilshire Boulevard, as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, (LACMA), Fergerson had become an art preparator. In 1969, he took the curatorial exam, placed number one on the list but was denied placement.

He filed a discrimination suit, which he won. The next year he went to Osaka, Japan, representing the museum as a curator.

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Cecil Fergerson

Meanwhile, he noticed something else about LACMA—their shows did not feature artists of color.

Joining forces with Claude Booker, who had a been a shipping clerk at the museum, Fergerson started the Black Arts Council to put pressure on the museum to better represent Blacks. Under the guise of that organization, the two men began staging exhibitions in the community.

At the tribute, the extent of Fergerson’s influence on the local Black arts community was evident. In addition to coordinating art shows at the Watts Summer Festival, he was key in establishing the Black doll show at the William Grant Still Art Center, sat on the center’s board, and worked with a group of residents in the San Gabriel Valley to produce the area’s first show featuring the rich wealth of Black art talent in the region.