Cecil Fergerson knew where the bodies were buried at LACMA. He began his career as a janitor at a time when black employees were expected to serve coffee at museum openings. Fergerson rose to a position of curatorial assistant and became a champion of African-American artists, both at LACMA and in a later career as gallerist and independent curator. Though he died last week at age 82, Fergerson’s institutional memory is preserved online via a UCLA oral history project. Here are few museum-related excepts.
On Making Coffee
One of the duties of a [museum] helper, after putting the exhibits up during the day, you’d come back that night and serve. [laughter] In a white coat, you’d serve coffee and cookies. That’s all they used to have… And we made the coffee!… Well, you know, we used to get four hours overtime for that—no money. They called it comp time. And you could get four hours off at a later time, right.
The Museum’s Ashtrays
I know at one time we used to smoke in the galleries, and of course they didn’t want anybody to smoke in the galleries but the rich people, right? They gave out all the rules. This is at the old museum [in Exposition Park]. So [art division director] Richard Brown had a lot of ashtrays made up for the galleries while we were working in there, and he said that he told the board of directors that that was why he built the ashtrays, so that people could smoke.
I think one of the reasons they built the art museum over there was because it wasn’t around any black people at that time. I heard some of that at some of the meetings, because a USC coed got killed or something. I think the turning point in getting the real support for the museum was when this white girl got killed at USC … They say some black guy killed or raped someone… I heard some of those people who had all the money talking, because I was always there, standing around, listening to them talk, right? They were saying, “Get away from black people. Let’s build this museum someplace [else].”
LACMA’s First Catalog
All the work that was at the museum had to be cataloged. Who knew the collection better than anybody? The black guys who handled them. [UCLA interviewer Karen Mason: "So you actually cataloged?"] Helped catalog, yeah, because I knew where the stuff was.… I’ll tell you, at one point I knew every piece in the museum’s collection in my head…
Asking for a Promotion
They had this man named Bill [William] Osmun, who was one of the leading curators, and when I went to him about how I wanted to be a senior art preparator, he told me something like, “Oh, that was in 1964, Cecil, when we hired all you guys. Now we’re going to hire—” He didn’t say white people. “We’re going to hire more competent people now, because—” He almost said that “we needed you then; we don’t need you anymore.” And that’s true. He said that to me. I can’t prove this because I didn’t have a tape recorder, nor can I prove what I said to him right after he said that to me. [laughter]
LACMA Tries to Build Diversity
[LACMA opened a show of African art, and almost no one attended.] There was a guy named [Charles M.] Weisenberg.… He was the PR person for the museum. So they went to him to ask him, “Why are there no black people coming in?”… And of course, he didn’t know anything about the black community… He didn’t know where to find it or whether it existed, right. So he went through the files of the people he had succeeded—there were PR people before him—to try to find out if there were any black newspapers involved. Did the press releases get to the newspapers? And were there, in fact, some black people coming to the museum in some period? And they had a list, and the list was so invalid that most of the people on the list… were dead and unreachable.… Weisenberg was friendly with the black employees that worked there. So he tossed that around to them. And this handful of security guards—a guy named Officer [William] Knight, a guy who was head of the security force whose name was Sidney Slade… told Weisenberg, “If you let us do it, we’ll get you some black people here.”… And within a short time, this handful of security guards… had this whole reopening [of the African show] and told the black community to wear traditional clothing.… All of a sudden, black people came from everywhere and just took over the museum for that night—black people in traditional clothing, black people with naturals… And they talk about what a good time they had at the museum that night, how they scared all the white people with their naturals…