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Smithsonian's African Art museum courts L.A. donors

October 15, 2010 | 10:29 am

What’s a Washington, D.C., museum devoted to the art of Africa doing holding a fundraiser in Santa Monica?

As its name suggests, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art does have one of the more ambitious geographical agendas an art museum could attempt: serving a nation while collecting and exhibiting the art of a continent.

And, says museum spokesman Eddie Burke, it has embarked on a concerted effort to show its flag and raise awareness while adding to its coffers -- including the $250 per person cocktail soiree Saturday evening at the M. Hanks Gallery.

The museum’s 10,000-object collection makes it a leading showcase for African art, but “we have always been regarded as the best-kept secret,” Burke says.

Hence, the fundraising event in Santa Monica, organized by the Sanaa Circle, a recently formed support group that Burke says is “primarily a group of African-American lawyers” who aim to raise money and awareness for the museum. Hosts for the event include Camille Cosby, a member of the museum’s board and wife of Bill Cosby, and her brother, gallerist Eric Hanks (the M in the gallery's name is for his daughter, Monika), who shows African American rather than African art.

Guests will hear what’s what at the museum from Johnnetta Betsch Cole, who became its director last year after a career as president of two historically black women’s colleges, Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C., and Spelman College in Atlanta. Judging from some of the facts and figures on the Smithsonian’s website, Cole has a job ahead of her.

The African art museum runs neck-and-neck with the National Postal Museum to avoid last place in attendance among the Smithsonian’s museums on the National Mall. In 2009 it drew 403,000 visitors and the postal museum had 349,000; this year, through Sept. 30, the African art museum had tallied 229,000 visitors and the postal museum 259,000. Last year, according to Smithsonian budget documents, the African art museum had a budget of about $6 million, with $905,000 of that raised from donors.

LACMAYorubaArt Two major Los Angeles museums collect and display African art -- the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Fowler Museum at UCLA. So do they feel poached-upon by a Smithsonian fundraising effort on their turf?

“No feathers ruffled,” says Melody Kanschat, LACMA’s president. “We all understand” that museums compete for the attention of potential donors and collectors who might be persuaded to make gifts of works of art, and “it’s all to the greater good.”

Fowler spokeswoman Stacey Abarbanel said that, given its “national purview,” it's understandable the Smithsonian's African art museum would extend its fundraising reach around the country. For the Fowler, she said, that is “not a problem.”

But L.A.’s museums and others throughout the country may have to get used to assorted components of the Smithsonian -- whose museums all have free admission -- trolling for dollars in their neighborhoods more intensively than in the past. According to the Smithsonian’s website and its strategic plan for 2010 to 2015, the $761.4 million it currently receives from the federal government covers about 70% of an annual budget of more than $1 billion. To meet its goals through 2015, it projects needing to rake in as much as a third more money than it does now. Less than half the additional funding is expected to come from the federal government.

“The Smithsonian will become a more entrepreneurial organization, and we envision funding new initiatives through a variety of sources,” says the strategic plan. “These include a national campaign….”

In other words, Saturday’s gathering in Santa Monica to spread the word and take home some cash for one of the Smithsonian’s smallest museums could be a harbinger of more to come from its bigger sisters. It’ll be interesting to see whether the locals here and elsewhere will simply grin and bear it -- or complain, perhaps, that the feds either should stop courting their donors or start sending more U.S. government dollars their way.

-- Mike Boehm


Now, Africa

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Photos, from top: Smithsonian National Museum of African Art; Yoruba mask at Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Credits: National Museum of African Art; Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times