Living History: ArtCenter Off-Campus #workingit trip to the California African American Museum

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Celeste Guarneri, Associate Director, Leadership Programs, ArtCenter March 12, 2019

At ArtCenter it can seem as though we live our lives in 14-week marathons, with such focus on the day-to-day tasks that the month’s or term’s end can sneak up on us like a surprise. 

For some of us, including myself, the work that goes into these scheduled marathons has us living in both the past and future, with limited time for the present. As artists and designers, we must carve out space and time to recognize that history shares space in the past, present and future, mandating that we invest in the stories of the people who came before us (artistically, academically, culturally, etc.) so that we can create meaningful and long lasting work. Our work at ArtCenter, regardless of our medium of choice, follows a similar beginning pattern of ideation, research, concept development, and trial, even if we don’t see these steps as clearly as others.

Very early on in the ideation and research stages of planning the trip to The California African American Museum (CAAM) I started to learn a history that was not taught to me in school, required readings, or through personal experience.  The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn. And, although most of what I was reading and seeing were stories and images filled with pain and inequity, I also was inspired by the drive, perseverance, and perspective of people that had shaped the future- AKA our present. 

I learned that out of the original 44 settlers who founded Los Angeles in 1781, 26 had some degree of African ancestry.  *I learned that until 1981, and only then through the trailblazing efforts of California’s first college-trained black librarian, Miriam Matthews, Los Angeles essentially hid the history of the pobladores. I learned that, although black communities were thriving in the early 1900s, they were still governed by discriminatory laws and practices and after the earthquake of 1933 residents scattered and the land they had built the first African American school, pharmacy, churches, and community hall on was reallocated for a low-income housing project. But, none of what I learned in advance could have prepared me for the history illustrated at CAAM.

Students take in CAAM’s collection, which spans 19th-century landscape paintings to modern artworks to contemporary mixed-media reflections on cultural and political events, during a self-guided tour. Photo Credit: Juan Posada

We traveled by train to Expo Park and immediately began dialogue centered around the history of Los Angeles, slavery, gentrification, cultural identities, how slavery has impacted other countries, modern day slavery, and how all of this contributed to and influences what is being taught in the classroom. Once on location, we explored five rooms that housed CAAM’s permanent collection which consists of over 4,000 objects (paintings, photographs, film, sculpture, historical documents, and artifacts) ranging from the 1800s to the present, including. contemporary mixed-media reflections on cultural and political events. Every room was filled with images and items that reminded me of my immigrant family, and at the same time solidified that our experiences of becoming “American” were so different. The African experience of coming to America was not one of choice, not one of hope, but one of abuse and imposed limitations, and their collective fight for equality, freedom, and a connection to their past has proven to also be a long and challenging battle. Minh Williams, a Transportation Design student, shared that he was motivated to attend “to discover some of my culture”, which in hindsight is so powerful because I can still see him in my mind’s eye looking at everything, quietly absorbing his own history.

I was so moved by the stories and faces within the “California Bound: Slavery on the New Frontier 1848-1865” that I had to catch my breath. I had never learned about the Fugitive Slave Act, and I most certainly had never seen the faces of those that were affected by California’s wavering stance on freedom. The feature on Biddy Mason’s life, in particular, has stayed with me. I learned that Bridget “Biddy” Mason was a slave living in the “free” state of California in the early 1950s who worked to care for a family from Mississippi who went West on a religious pilgrimage to establish a new Mormon community. In 1956, she petitioned the Los Angeles District Court for freedom for herself and her extended family of 13 women and children and won. Mason worked as midwife and nurse, saved her money and purchased land in the heart of what is now downtown Los Angeles. She is now known as a noted philanthropist, inventor, and a founding member of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church. Seeing this exhibition made me think critically about how the treatment of African Americans continues to influence America’s political and local community structures today.

The California African American Museum is free and open to the public with rotating exhibits. I encourage everyone to take the time to visit, learn, and reflect. The students who participated shared that, not only did they learn about local and national history, but that they could identify how this experience would help them to value storytelling, critical observation, research, intercultural competence, empathy, and group discussion in their own work. Michelle Romero, added, “It was so helpful as an environmental student to see how people interact within an exhibit. i.e. the distance need to comfortably read graphics and the amount of time spent at each program.” And, Tiffany Kang, a graphic design student, reflected that she “will think more about inclusivity and researching a more comprehensive history through different POVs in future projects.”

The #workingit series was first developed in Fall 2015 to introduce students to resources, cultural experiences, interdisciplinary programs, career workshops, and networking opportunities. In an effort to foster student success through community support and engagement, students are invited to broaden their awareness, interests, and soft skill sets through self-selected participation.   

Celeste Guarneri is the Associate Director for Leadership Programs at ArtCenter College of Design. Her main function is to help students to connect with experiences that promote soft skill development and networking beyond the classroom. She leads orientation programs and the #workingit student success series, as well as helps advise ACSG and all clubs, and coordinates traditional college programing for welcome back and wellness weeks.

Before starting at ArtCenter, Celeste worked for 9 years in Student Affairs on the East Coast of the United States and received degrees in Fine Art from School of Visual Arts and Long Island University. Her artistic practice focuses on themes of femininity, control, distortion, and color.  You can reach her on Instagram at @ceecoaster or via email at