IN 1963 JOHN OUTTERBRIDGE LEFT CHICAGO for a new life in sunny Los Angeles. Born in North Carolina and an alumnus of Chicago’s American Academy of Art, Outterbridge, then 30, was making art but supporting himself with a day job as a city bus driver. L.A. beckoned as the kind of place where Outterbridge might be able to work full-time as an artist—something that was just then becoming imaginable for an African-American. “People were really coming to this area for change—to be artists,” says art historian Kellie Jones. “Outterbridge was doing well in Chicago, but he was driving a bus. He heard that L.A. was ‘cool’—and that it was warm—and the idea was to be able to work in the arts.”
Today Los Angeles is a global capital of contemporary art, and artists working here—including such stars as Mark Bradford and Edgar Arceneaux—can earn their place on the international art scene without regard to skin color. But that was hardly the case when Outterbridge hit town almost 50 years ago. At that time, the city’s large cultural institutions and influential private galleries were essentially “segregated,” says Jones, or at least strikingly inattentive to African-Americans. She points out that when painter David Hammons—who later crossed over to achieve mainstream success as a conceptual and performance artist in New York in the Nineties—arrived in Los Angeles from Springfield, Illinois, in 1963, his reaction to the nascent black art scene was utter surprise. “He said, ‘I didn’t even know that there were African-American artists, just like there were black cowboys,’” Jones recounts as she sits in the café at UCLA’s Hammer Museum to discuss the exhibition she has curated, “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980.” “All of the artists in the show were born in a segregated country.” Opening on October 2, “Dig” is the Hammer’s contribution to “Pacific Standard Time,” a sprawling look at postwar Los Angeles organized by the Getty and involving some 70 collaborating institutions.
According to Jones, although the establishment largely ignored African-American art throughout the Sixties, the first generation of black artists in L.A. “willed” their community into existence by organizing exhibitions in homes, community centers, black-owned businesses and churches. After the 1965 Watts Riots, a new creative neighborhood took root in the Leimert Park area around Crenshaw Boulevard and Vernon Avenue—the first black-owned commercial galleries opened there, followed by African-American art writers, critics, and a black collector class composed mostly of doctors and attorneys. It was L.A.’s African-American SoHo.
“What was happening here in the Sixties and Seventies was really a cultural renaissance,” says attorney Stan Sanders, 69, who began collecting art in 1970 and was close to a number of artists in the Hammer show. “Guys were welding [sculpture] in their backyards. Outterbridge was collecting the detritus of Los Angeles and creating something beautiful.”