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The California African American Museum is now a Smithsonian affiliate

by Kevin Ferguson | Off-Ramp

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Opened in 1981 at LA’s Exposition Park, the California African American Museum one of the smallest museums in a place that's becoming a renewed epicenter for Los Angeles culture. Kevin Ferguson/KPCC

Opened in 1981 at Exposition Park in Los Angeles, the California African American Museum is one of the smallest museums in a place that houses institutional giants like the California Science Center and the Natural History Museum. But the museum's collection just got a lot bigger — sort of.

In a ceremony Wednesday morning, CAAM staff announced the museum is now formally affiliated with the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.

What does that mean?

The affiliation gives CAAM easier and cheaper access to items in the Smithsonian's huge permanent collection, and means it can share exhibitions with other museums in the affiliate network.

"We know that the Smithsonian has over 8 million objects in their permanent collection," said Naima Keith, the museum's deputy director. "The ability to be able to loan and borrow those things for the museum to be on view here in California is a huge accomplishment."

The move is yet another step in the museum's push to become more visible and more relevant. CAAM is a state-run institution that over the last five years has struggled to bring in private donations. But the museum has taken steps to change that, making a few big new hires, including Keith and George Davis, who has served as executive director for a little over a year.

Davis hopes that as Exposition Park becomes more visible in the coming years, so will CAAM:

We have been around for 30 years. I tell people all the time that we are blessed and cursed by being a state museum. I mean we're blessed to get the appropriation, but sometimes we haven’t really hustled and really kind of taken things for granted. And also there's a lot of changes in Expo Park, there's great changes in the city with The Broad and a lot of the cultural institutions, L.A. is becoming more a global contemporary arts headquarters for the world.

And so we have some new leadership coming with a fresh pair of eyes – I was on the board here years ago — but we just really wanted to look at things differently, tackle some things that have always been done the same way. The museums and cultural institutions in the United State and the world just cannot stay stagnant. They have to change and be more relevant to younger people and attract new audiences. We just can’t attract only attract, for example, an African-American audience – 40 percent of our attendance is Latino. So we just have to evolve.

The museum currently has a handful of exhibits showing through September 2016, including one focused on photography in West Coast hip hop, but no future exhibitions have been announced.

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