Monday, March 15, 2010

Selling the dream

An insurance firm's auction of African American art betrays its legacy and the community.

October 03, 2007|Cecil Fergerson, Cecil Fergerson retired from LACMA in 1985. He was designated an L.A. Living Cultural Treasure in 1998.

I'm not an intellectual. (A friend has removed most of the "ain'ts" and cuss words from this article.) I know something about art, but I'm not powerful or rich. I'm an old man now, tired and with some health issues. So it sometimes amuses me that whenever an African American cultural institution is under attack in this city, folks start phoning me like I'm the hero of "Shaft," as if I could fly out the door and take care of it.

What's got everyone so upset this time is the news that one of the black community's most admired businesses, the 82-year-old Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Co., has put up for auction 94 of the works in its important and beloved collection of African American art. Among those on the block this Thursday in New York: sculptures by Elizabeth Catlett, a print by famed painter Jacob Lawrence and drawings by the father of Afro-American art, Charles White. Each one is a priceless work by an acknowledged American master.

The whole idea of the sale has put a knot in my stomach. Golden State Mutual has struggled in recent years, and auctioning this treasure -- for maybe as much as $2 million (chicken feed in the white art world, by the way) -- may provide capital it needs. If it's true, the thought of Golden State Mutual holding out its hand for pennies is almost equally painful.

When I was a boy, in the 1930s and '40s, Golden State Mutual and its proud agents literally did hold out their hands for pennies. In those days, blacks could, if they were lucky, buy burial insurance from white companies, but that was all. White folks were ready to plant us but not protect us. All that changed when Golden State Mutual came along. Black mothers, like my own, saved their pennies for life insurance policies that initially cost less than my shoes. Golden State Mutual grew into the largest black-owned insurance company west of the Mississippi.

The Golden State Mutual insurance man, in his rumpled seersucker suit and little briefcase, was a symbol of the entrepreneurial spirit of the black community. In 1949 (one year after I graduated from Jordan High School in Watts and took my first job as a janitor at the County Museum in Exposition Park), Golden State Mutual finally had enough capital, on the strength of all those mothers' pennies, to expand its business from a one-room office on Central Avenue into a five-story building on the corner of Western and Adams boulevards designed by the renowned black architect, Paul R. Williams. Its three founders -- George A. Beavers, Norman O. Houston and William Nickerson Jr. -- understood that the black community and its capital had made them, and they wanted to give something back.

They commissioned two dynamite artists from the Harlem Renaissance -- Charles Alston and Hale Woodruff -- to create two murals for the lobby of the new building. Under the joint title "The Negro in California History," they together tell the history of black people's struggles and achievements. Also in the lobby were bronze sculptures of the founders, commissioned from another Harlem Renaissance master, Richmond Barthé. The selection of artists like this to engage big themes like this made a hell of a statement.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Golden State Mutual Life seized by California regulators

The insurer, whose customers are mainly African American, is losing $200,000 a month and about to run out of funds completely, officials say. The state hopes to find a new firm to take over policies.
By Marc Lifsher

October 1, 2009,0,6675622.story

Reporting from Sacramento - State insurance regulators have seized control of Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Co., a financially struggling company that has primarily served the African American community for the last 84 years.

The Los Angeles company, which has been losing money for six consecutive years, has agreed to immediately stop selling any new policies, state officials said Wednesday.

The state takeover shocked African American political leaders. "Golden State Mutual is a revered community institution," state Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) said. "My grandfather worked there." At the time, she said, it was "probably the only company in the Los Angeles area that would provide insurance to African Americans."

Bass vowed "to do whatever we can to restore this institution to the control of the community."

Larkin Teasley, Golden State Mutual's chairman and president, was not available for comment, and a company spokeswoman said no statement would be forthcoming from management.

Regulators stepped in after convincing a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge that the insurer's reserves had run dangerously low. By law, the state insurance commissioner has the power to reorganize and revitalize the company -- much as with a bankruptcy for corporations -- or he or she can liquidate it.

"For the protection of its policyholders, the company has been seized to prevent continuing financial deterioration," state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner said. As Golden State Mutual's legal "conservator," Poizner has sole authority under state law over all company business activities and assets.

State Department of Insurance examiners, who said they had been monitoring Golden State Mutual closely for a number of years, reported that the insurer was losing about $200,000 a month and was expected to run out of money by year's end.

According to court documents, state law requires that Golden State Mutual have at least $5 million in capital and surplus funds to pay claims and operating expenses. But as of June 30, the company had only $909,443, insurance examiners said.

Golden State Mutual, which started in a cubicle-size office on Central Avenue with $17,800 in capital in 1925, now offers a wide variety of financial products, including life, burial, disability and mortgage protection insurance.

The loss of Golden State Mutual is a sad event for Los Angeles' black community, said Cecil Fergerson, a retired curator of modern art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

"We owe a debt of gratitude to those men who founded that company in the 1920s," said Fergerson, who grew up in Watts. Golden State Mutual "was not only an insurance company. It was a social, political and historic institution that brought jobs and proper insurance to the black community."

In a 2007 opinion piece in The Times, Fergerson lamented Golden State Mutual's decision to sell its renowned collection of African American art. The paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings sold for a total of $1.5 million at a New York auction in October 2007.

Although most of the art is gone, the company's headquarters on West Adams still hosts a number of important murals by artist Richard Wyatt Jr. One figure, titled "The Insurance Man," portrayed a Golden State Mutual agent with "the rumpled look and briefcase that I remember seeing at my mother's door in Watts in the 1940s," Fergerson wrote.

The "Golden State Mutual Insurance man was special; he was doing something for our community, helping us live and die in dignity."

The murals and all of Golden State Mutual's assets now are in the hands of the California Department of Insurance's Conservation and Liquidation Office. The office, which currently controls 25 seized insurance companies, will oversee the payment of pending claims while it develops a plan to "wind down" Golden State Mutual's operations, the department said.

In the meantime, policyholders are being told to continue paying premiums if they want their policies to remain in force.

Customers with questions can contact their insurance agent or the California Department of Insurance at (800) 927-4357 or online, the department said.

The department hopes to broker an arrangement with another life insurer to take over Golden State Mutual's business so policyholders and their families can continue to be protected financially, spokesman Darrel Ng said.

Golden State Mutual does most of its business in California but also operates in Texas, Michigan, Illinois, North Carolina and Louisiana. In 2008, it sold about $11.6 million worth of life insurance and related financial products, with 46% of the business being done in California, mainly serving African American policyholders.

The collapse of Golden State Mutual will "send shock waves through a significant segment of the African American community, particularly older African Americans," Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said. "They came up believing that investing in Golden State Mutual was simply the right thing to do, that it was almost an act of good citizenship if you were black."

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

LACMA has a new chief curator of contemporary art: Franklin Sirmans

Franklin Sirmans, a high-profile curator of modern and contemporary art at the Menil Collection in Houston, has been appointed department head and curator of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He will assume his new position in January, succeeding Lynn Zelevansky, who recently resigned to direct the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.

A native of New York and a 1991 graduate of Wesleyan University, Sirmans is known as a critic, editor and writer as well as a curator. He was an editor at Flash Art and Art AsiaPacific magazines and at the Dia Center for the Arts in New York before moving to Houston.

His curatorial credits include organizing “NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith,” an examination of spirituality in contemporary art that traveled from the Menil to P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York in 2008. He also co-curated “Basquiat,” a show of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s painting, which appeared at L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2005. In "Face Off," a recent exhibition drawn from the Menil's permanent collection, Sirmans presented a wide variety of human faces in prints, sculptures and paintings.

At LACMA, Sirmans will oversee a department that focuses on works made since 1968. He is also expected to use his writing skills to strengthen the museum’s publication program.

-- Suzanne Muchnic