Collector Eileen Harris Norton on art as a portal to change


There are words frequently found in the vocabulary of art collectors: primary, secondary, provenance, blue-chip, flip. When we talk through Zoom, Eileen Harris Norton doesn’t use any. Instead, she favors words like passion, education, and opportunity. For her, the value of art lies in its ability to promote tangible change; art is both a social and an economic investment.

In recent years, issues of racial injustice and the lack of visibility given to artists of color have come to the fore. But, as many museums frantically modernize their collections to include a wider range of perspectives, there are voices that have championed under-represented creatives for decades.

Norton’s artistic journey began in the 1970s when she and her mother visited a Black History Month exhibit at the Museum of African American Art in LA. “My mom saw the ad in the newspaper and we said, oh let’s go because the artist was a black woman. We didn’t know any artists, and we certainly didn’t know any black female artists, ”Norton explains from his home in Santa Monica. The artist was Ruth Waddy, an LA-based printmaker, editor and activist. But it wasn’t until Norton included his work on a 2020 show that the full weight of Waddy’s influence on 20th century LA art was revealed. “Several academics have explained how Ruth Waddy was apparently the godmother of many black LA-based artists at the time. I had no idea she was this wonderful and powerful woman, ”Norton says. “I bought Ruth Waddy long before I could think of myself as a collector or even know the art world.”

Top: Yinka Shonibare, Boy / Boy Pedagogy, 2003. Wood, cotton printed in Dutch wax, metal, fiberglass. Above: Wide warm glow, 2005, a neon and paint work by New York artist Glenn Ligon, photographed with a fisheye lens. Courtesy of the Eileen Harris Norton Collection

In many ways Norton – who was born in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles and was once an elementary school teacher – could be described as some kind of godmother of art, but she never wanted to become a collector. In the 1980s, she and her then-husband Peter Norton (of Norton Antivirus) were working to get Peter’s business off the ground while living in an artist studio in Venice, California. “We were walking around people’s studios and it was something we did when we didn’t have the money,” she recalls. “But then we made money. ”

They began collecting works focused on African American artists, the African Diaspora, and women, often with a strong common thread in Los Angeles. Artists such as Glenn Ligon, Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems, who are household names today, but were not when they were first hanged. “When we started collecting it was nothing, it was these young artists, but we decided that these young black artists were worth it,” she says. “I collected black artists who were underrated and not shown in the late 1980s and early 1990s when other collectors were not.”

Top: one of a set of 11 plates from the Commemorate series, 1992, by Carrie Mae Weems, the first African-American woman to have a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum. Above: Frank Gehry, Large and small hanging fish, 2014. Metallic wire, ColorCore formica and silicone. Courtesy of the Eileen Harris Norton Collection

His 1906 Craftsman home was designed by architects Elmer Gray and Myron Hunt. Its walls are generously decorated with works by Kerry James Marshall and Frank Gehry (the latter, whom Norton has known for many years, lives a few doors down). One of the most important artists in his collection – in more than one way – is Mark Bradford (W * 267). Norton and Bradford met during a studio visit suggested by curator Thelma Golden. “The studio visit is such a tradition in the art world, but I didn’t really know what I was doing,” says Bradford, who at that time was still working as a hairdresser and had never sold from table. “I was doing paintings with cover pages, so naturally we talked about hair. I probably even offered him treatment!

Indeed, Bradford invited Norton to his mother’s beauty salon, which later became his studio. “He talked about my hair and he didn’t like the way it was styled. So I said, “Well, can you do better?” He said, “Yes, I can do better,” Norton remembers. “We kind of hit it off. I bought some work. I mean, he was practically throwing me work.

“As she was about to leave,” says Bradford, “she said she liked two of the paintings I had hung up and asked how many there were. I had no idea! Without thinking, I said, “I don’t know. How much do you want to pay? ”Eileen didn’t miss a beat. She became my first collector that day, and we’ve been friends ever since.

Mountain peak: To break, 2003, a series of Murano glass candle holders by Bronx artist Fred Wilson. Above: Frank Bowling, Candle, 1977. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the Eileen Harris Norton Collection

Their friendship entered a new chapter with Art + Practice (A + P), which Norton founded alongside Bradford and his partner, social activist Allan DiCastro. “The three of us have similar experiences of growing up in disadvantaged neighborhoods where the opportunities to access quality education have made a big difference in our lives,” Bradford recalls. “Over time, our commitment to this vision has grown. Our evolution is always at the service of this objective. ‘

A + P’s vision is that social engagement meets contemporary art. Occupying three spaces in Leimert Park, South LA, it collaborates with world-renowned institutions and offers Angelenos free access to contemporary art held by the museum, with a focus on artists of color. Their inaugural exhibition was produced by Los Angeles-based conceptual artist Charles Gaines, with subsequent exhibitions by artists such as Ruben Ochoa and Senga Nengudi.

But A + P is more than a platform for art. Its mission is to provide opportunities (including paid internships, scholarships and other vital resources) to local youth between the ages of 18-24 who are transitioning from the foster care system to independent living. “It’s one thing to have an artistic space, which is nice, but how can you really support young people with their educational, emotional, housing and schooling needs? Norton asks.

The answer came in 2016, when A + P provided space (within Bradford and her mother’s former beauty salon) to First Place, a nonprofit social service provider founded in Oakland in 1998. and whose activities include matching young people with social workers and providing training and career paths.

Double-portrait, 2013, a silkscreen print by American artist Lorna Simpson (top photo); and another view of the sculpture by Anglo-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, Boy / Boy Pedagogy, 2003. Courtesy of the Eileen Harris Norton Collection

In 2020, A + P partnered with the Hammer Museum to open “Collective Constellation: Selections from The Eileen Harris Norton Collection”. The exhibition brought together works by female artists from several generations and ethnicities, including Mona Hatoum, Shirin Neshat, Lorna Simpson and Ruth Waddy.

His current show, “Blondell Cummings: Dance as Moving Pictures” (until February 19, 2022), marks the first museum exhibition dedicated to the late African-American choreographer and videographer. It is part of A + P’s collaboration with the African American Art History Initiative of the Getty Research Institute. In 2022, A + P will begin a five-year collaboration with the California African American Museum with an exhibition by mixed media collage artist Deborah Roberts.

It would be restrictive to characterize Eileen Harris Norton as an art collector. She is more of a social initiator, using art as a portal for change. Through A + P, as well as its own foundation, it articulates a vision that is both retrospective and prospective: to offer visibility and celebrate artists who have long gone unrecognized, and to offer the next generation the tools, the confidence and the exhibition to make their mark on the world. §

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