Columnists Earl Ofari Hutchinson Opinion

THE HUTCHINSON REPORT: Fighting for the Mayme Clayton Museum

The Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum is in mortal danger. The danger is not from fire, flood, vandalism or public indifference.

The danger comes from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. They want to oust the museum from its home in Culver City.

The museum has been served with an eviction notice. The attempted ouster from the building marks the library as yet another endangered black institution. And it is an institution in every sense of the word.

The Clayton Museum is internationally recognized as the repository of the largest collection of African-American historical film works and classics in the nation. The films have been painstakingly collected over decades.

It has been a treasure trove for scholars of African-American film and cultural history. Its exhibits of classic black films and history works has been a major influence on Los Angeles and the nation’s understanding of black film, art and cultural history.

Its tours, conferences and classes have contributed greatly to the study and appreciation of African-American film and cultural history for thousands. It also is a popular meeting place for community residents, students and leaders. 

The county does own the building, though the supervisors need a reminder that a public building is just that, public. Public buildings are owned by the taxpayers and are not the plaything of the supervisors to do with as they please.

The museum has been there for more than a decade at the county’s forbearance. And there is talk of replacing it with a constituency center and moving the collection to Cal State Dominguez Hills.

That begs the question of why close a priceless black institution that has firm roots in the community and is a proven asset to a community? The community needs more, not less, access to relevant films that tell the rich and enduring story of the African-American experience?

It’s this community access that makes the Mayme Clayton Museum unique. It would be irreparably damaged and access lost with the eviction and burying the collection at a university.

By their very existence in a community, African-American museums such as Mayme Clayton tell stories of black art, culture and history through their displays and exhibitions that, with few exceptions, big name museums don’t tell. Mayme A. Clayton is even more unique in that it tells the monumental story of blacks within and without the American film industry.

The move by the supervisors to oust a vital historical treasure, which Mayme Clayton certainly represents, couldn’t come at a worse time.

Weeks earlier, another black institution, Ebony Magazine, announced bankruptcy proceedings. The Wright Museum in Detroit a year ago made headlines with the threat of closure because of the city’s continuing bankruptcy woes. Many other black museums and art centers have had to lay off staff, scale back their programs, and shutter their buildings for days on end.

A sweeping study, “The State of Black Museums,” in NPQ, a nonprofit quarterly, paints a bleak picture of the chronic challenges facing African-American museums. They are under-funded, face racial and cultural barriers of public indifference and the reluctance of major donors to cut checks for them.  

Their plight is further worsened by the hard barrier to attaining accreditation with the American Association of Museums. That further handicaps them in their ability to secure large endowments and grants from corporate and governmental funders.

Then there’s the problem of who makes the decisions about who gets what when funds are ladled out to museums. The number of African-American foundation CEOs has dropped the past few years. The same holds true for foundation trustee boards.

The number of blacks on these crucial funding boards has also dropped. Their declining numbers and the perilous struggle of black museums to survive can’t be emphasized enough. It’s another powerful roadblock to a museum sustaining its operations.

When L.A. County “donated” the Culver City building to the Clayton Museum more than a decade ago, there was great joy. It sent the strong message that Los Angeles County supervisors believed in the vital mission of the museum to serve as a community resource and learning center on the profound history and contributions of African Americans to film production and the nation’s film industry. If It also seemed to send the message that if L.A. County could take the landmark step in providing a location that explicitly honored African-American cultural achievement, then other private and public agencies could do the same.

Now, a decade later that hope is on the verge of being smashed. By moving to shut down the Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum, the Board of Supervisors has gone from honor to shame.

The supervisors can reclaim the honor that they deserved for providing a safe haven for the museum and its historical treasures in the community a decade ago. It can do that by scrapping the eviction and instead giving full support to promoting, enhancing and expanding a priceless African-American institution such as the Mayme A. Clayton Museum.

Anything less will be their shame, and history and the community’s great loss.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of “Biden Versus Trump: Who Would Win?” (Middle Passage Press/Amazon Kindle). He also is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.