The Vincent Price Art Museum at East Los Angeles College
At its inception, the Vincent Price Art Museum - a small building in the center of the East Los Angeles College campus - was a novel institution. The collection that anchored the gallery was donated by the college’s benefactor, actor Vincent Price, in the ‘50s. Thus, this museum predates many of Los Angeles’ existing art institutions. It was a world-class art collection, and at the time, it would have been unconventional to use these original works, rather than mere reproductions, as tools for arts education. The museum was expanded into the centerpiece of a three-building performance and fine arts center in 2011.
The late actor Vincent Price, best known for his villainous roles in Hollywood period epics or cult films, was always artistically inclined. This set him apart from the rest of his family. As part of a prosperous St. Louis clan in the 1910s and ’20s, he was hardly discouraged in his youthful interests, but he’d later characterize his household as culturally tin-eared and disinterested.
Vincent Price visits the Gallery in the 1970s
Michael C. Hsiung
His first acquisition was a small Rembrandt print, from a gallery that permitted him to pay in installments. Later on, at Yale, he was as hungry for beauty as ever, essentially seeking a lightness of spirit that he felt was missing from the American artistic tradition. In his coffee table book, The Vincent Price Treasury of American Art, he noted that American Colonial-era painting was a commodity-driven form, with its official portraits of merchants and nautical vessels, and in which pragmatism far outweighed frivolity and personal expression. Relatively speaking, European aesthetics were grounded in pleasure for its own sake.
From a contemporary perspective, it’s only been a few decades since the time when authoritive art history texts were focused almost solely on events or movements within Western Civilization. This was to the exclusion of the ancient East, and numerous other artistic traditions. Since visual art and architecture present a portal through which to view and understand other cultures, past and present, this was a striking omission.
After Yale, Mr. Price attended the University of London and toured the continent, seeing old world artifacts, as well as the European, canon firsthand.
During his subsequent film career, when sent on location abroad, he’d use his actor’s per diem to purchase paintings and sculpture to be sent home to Los Angeles. These and other travels were the basis for his extensive personal collection.
The growing Price family holdings featured an international amalgam of works by African, Oceanic, Native American, and Asian artists. The collection he’d built up was adventurous for its day, and that forward-thinking attitude carries over into the museum’s vision. The collection formed the VPAM permanent collection, which has grown exponentially in the years since.
The 1950s and early ’60s were an eventful time for Mr. Price, in his active avocation as an art educator and advocate. He briefly ran a private gallery with his film colony compatriot and fellow connoisseur, Edward G. Robinson. According to the author’s notes dust jacket blurb in his ‘visual autobiography,’ I Like What I Know, “In 1956, he was awarded a Doctor of Fine Arts Degree from the California College of Arts and Crafts.” Finally, Sears & Roebuck engaged Mr. Price as a consultant and spokesperson to collect vintage and contemporary artworks to be sold in galleries within select housewares divisions of the department store chain, as part of the “Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art.”
In the early ’50s, Mr. Price, and his wife, Mary Grant, first visited the East Los Angeles Community College to give a commencement address, and became involved in the academic community. They began donating art in 1957, with an initial “90 pieces from their personal collection. This formed the basis for the first ‘teaching art collection’ to be featured at a community college,” according to the museum’s website.
Daisy Rosas is a student worker at the museum, doing their PR. She maintains their Instagram and Facebook presence, and generally represents VPAM in support of their current exhibits. “I’ve been working here for almost going to be a year. I also work as a guard on the gallery floor.”
Ms. Rosas also helps out with installations and staffs the front desk; multitasking that’s fairly typical of a staffer at an arts organization. The guiding principal of the museum is that ‘art is for everyone’; that it’s an essential part of the human experience. Mr. Price actively subverted what he saw as elitist attitudes in the museum world, which might result in intimidation rather than in a connection with the art. His sensibilities are actively reinforced by policies regarding student participation. For example, students work hands-on during training in conservation techniques with the invaluable, often ancient objects in the collection.
Los Angeles County.com - How many students, like yourself, currently work at the museum? How are things run?
Daisy Rosas- We usually have six student workers, right now including myself.
I was wondering about the administrative oversight.
There’re the six student workers, the preparator, and the museum director. The preparator helps the museum director as well. And then we have interns.
How is the work that comes in actually chosen? To what extent do the students have influence on programming?
I would say that the museum director, Karen Rapp, is always looking for contemporary artists that the student body can relate to. We just had a big ceramics show (Corporeal Impulse, featuring five West Coast artists who use clay sculpture to comment on the figure). We have a really good ceramics program here on campus.
We have three shows every semester. So there’re three artists, and these exhibitions tend to have something to do with each other thematically. They kind of speak to each other in a way, by the theme or the type of artist that we have.
While the permanent collection is culturally diverse in nature, with Meso-American, African, Native American and European works—spanning ancient and modern eras—contemporary arts organizations are somewhat different in nature and mission than they once were.
I don’t think the (original) collection was as ‘contemporary’ as (the programming) is now.
While different, mostly native Californian demographic groups are represented, its Chicano artists that are the group featured most prominently.
Which makes sense, considering the setting of the college. And the work’s mostly from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. We have an illustration show coming up by the illustrator Michael Hsiung; he makes the sort of drawings you kind of have to check out for yourself.
Some upcoming shows at the museum:
- Hoy Space: Michael C. Hsiung, will be on view from June 7th to July 26th.
- Also, a career retrospective of the late, LA-based photographer Ricardo Valverde, Experimental Sights, 1971 – 1996, will be on exhibit from May 17th to July 26th.
Address is 1301 Avenida Ceasar Chavez, Monterey Park, CA 91754-6099
By Larry Rodman, LosAngelesCounty.com