Other medical students she knew were doing the same. Simmons recalls Banks and older physicians as important role models, including cardiothoracic surgeon George Jackson, who commissioned painter Suzanne Jackson to cover one exterior wall of his private practice with a mural. One small detail of the LACMA show, however, helped clarify Simmons’s sense of mission as a collector: She couldn’t help but notice that most lenders of the show’s historical material had Jewish surnames.
“It was really eye-opening for me,” she recalls. “The major pieces of our work were not owned by us. That’s a reason I’ve tried to assemble a collection that is museum-worthy.” With the exception of Hammons, few of the artists in the “Dig” show have been widely pursued by contemporary white collectors or large public institutions, although Banks, Lewis, and others have steered select pieces into the permanent collections at the Oakland Museum, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Whitney in New York, and LACMA. That attitude is quickly changing, however, with a growing awareness of the historical importance—not to mention the rising market value—of black L.A. artists.
Recognition on the scale of the “Dig” show would have seemed unthinkable when Outterbridge was scraping by as a bus driver in Chicago. Equally unimaginable at that time was the establishment’s embrace of an African-American artist such as Walker, who has had solo exhibitions all over the world, including a midcareer survey at the Walker Art Center. Contemporary star Mark Bradford even eschews labels of race, such as “African-American artist”—which shows just how much has happened since Stan Sanders was arguing politics and art with Hammons, Outterbridge, and other members of the “Dig” crowd back in the Seventies.
“People would wrestle with that,” Sanders explains, “like, What is a Negro? We didn’t quite know what a Negro was. We had arguments all night long about whether the word should be capitalized.” He recalls with a chuckle that the birth certificate of a former law partner, who was born in Los Angeles in 1940, categorized his race as “Abyssinian.” Sanders’s wife, Debbie, shakes her head at what now seems a historical absurdity—one which only underscores how fluid yet intractable the issue of race continues to be in America.
“My parents were ‘colored,’ ” she says. “I was a ‘Negro.’ My daughters were ‘black.’ And now my granddaughter is ‘African-American.’ Go figure.”