Museums are changing. To be relevant in a moment of content overload and increasing criticism of institutions that uphold crumbling hierarchies, museums are going beyond exhibitions and other conventional programming – they’re offering yoga classes, serving as hubs for information about local social services (much like libraries have done), and creating programs for younger and more diverse audiences. And to be sustainable in a time of economic precariousness and ever-increasing wealth inequality, small museums are joining forces.
The Wende Museum and the Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum (MCLM), two nonprofit archives in Culver City, California, have just announced a strategic partnership that would allow both organizations to continue to provide – and expand – access to rare historical collections that are otherwise at risk of neglect or disappearance.
The Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum (MCLM) holds one of Southern California’s leading collections of African American art, media, and literature. Founded in 1973 by a librarian who independently amassed a vast collection and housed it in her garage for decades, MCLM holds about 2 million rare books, films, artworks, and artifacts, including a signed copy of Poems on Various Subjects by Phyllis Wheatley, an ex-slave who was the first African American woman to see her writings published, in 1773. Alex Haley conducted research for Roots in Dr. Clayton’s garage archive.
MCLM had the opportunity to move from that garage into a County-owned Culver City building in 2006. But this summer, the County evicted them. Months of community protest could not halt the eviction. So now community partnerships aim to find a way for MCLM to stay in Culver City.
Across the street from MCLM’s now former headquarters there is a public park, and on the other side of that park, since late 2017, is the nonprofit Wende Museum of the Cold War, which houses a unique collection of art and artifacts from the Eastern Bloc nations, and aims to tie a geographically and historically specific collection to broader themes that affect all of us today: conflict resolution, peace, questioning binaries, and the importance of creative expression and critical interpretation to civic engagement and a thriving community. Since the Wende became neighbors with MCLM, the two have partnered on events and programs including a walking tour of the Culver City Cultural Corridor, a panel discussion on racism in Culver City’s history, and a jazz night presented by MCLM as part of the Music at the Wende free concert series.
When MCLM received the eviction notice from the County, the Wende was a natural ally, putting a petition against the eviction at the front desk where visitors check in and sharing information gleaned from the Wende’s own search for affordable collections storage. (Most of the Wende collection is stored in a warehouse in El Monte, where rents are cheaper than in Culver City.)
At the same time, the Wende was hosting a series of community forums to hear what the community hoped to see at an abandoned City-owned building adjacent to the museum. With community input, the Wende developed a proposal to turn the empty property into a Creative Community Center for cultural and educational programming and social services offered by multiple community organizations working together. It was a perfect opportunity to formalize a partnership between the Wende and MCLM.
The MCLM and the Wende signed a formal partnership agreement in June. If the City accepts the Creative Community Center proposal put forth by the Wende for the City-owned building at 10858 Culver Boulevard, the MCLM would have full access to the new facility to present exhibitions and programs. The Wende would fund renovation of the building through its circle of donors. This would be the foundation of the Creative Community Center model: a space where multiple independent organizations would come together, sharing resources and each providing the programs and services it does best.
“We have a history of working together with the Wende. When we heard about the vision for the Creative Community Center, we were ecstatic. Working together and pooling resources to provide a greater public benefit while also demonstrating the value of arts and culture collaborations as a model is a win-win,” said Steven Fisher, MCLM Board Director.
In July, nearby West LA College offered to provide temporary storage space for the MCLM collection. “West Los Angeles College is acutely aware of the importance of the Clayton collection, and we’re glad that we can be good neighbors and provide the necessary space to store the museum’s artifacts and archival materials while a search is conducted for a permanent location,” said Dr. James Limbaugh, President of West Los Angeles College.
CSU Dominguez Hills has also offered to provide facility space for collection housing and preservation.
“Whether it’s a museum, a public institute of higher education, or a social-service nonprofit, the old ways of operating are obsolete. Strategic partnerships are the only viable model,” said Wende Museum Executive Director Justin Jampol.
Jessica McCormack, Wende Museum
Steven Fisher, Mayme Clayton Library and Museum