CAAM’s permanent collection consists of over 4,000 objects ranging from the 1800s to the present. It encompasses paintings, photographs, film, sculpture, historical documents, and artifacts, and it spans nineteenth-century landscape paintings to modern artworks to contemporary mixed-media reflections on cultural and political events. The Museum’s first acquisitions included a bronze bust of civil rights activist Dr. Mary Mcleod Bethune by artist Richmond Barthé and a sculpture by artist Maren Hassinger, then at the start of her career. These laid the perfect groundwork for CAAM’s mandate to assemble a comprehensive, thoughtful, and wide-reaching collection.
CAAM’s deepest holdings include art made or connected to African Americans in California and the western United States. However, the Museum also has significant works of contemporary art from the African diaspora (including Haiti, Brazil, and Jamaica), as well as traditional African art from Western, Central, and Sub-Saharan Africa. CAAM aims to represent the diverse contributions of African Americans in the United States, but also to interpret how the past has affected identity in the present.
Today, CAAM oversees, exhibits, and conserves a rapidly growing collection. Each quarter, curators review the current holdings and decide as a committee on future acquisitions. We view our collection as a living body — constantly evolving, growing, and reflecting the world in which we live.
Some examples of CAAM’s collection include the Walter Burrell Collection of audio recordings of Burrell’s interviews with African American celebrities, broadcast by a local radio station in the early 1970s; the oral histories of Celes King, who was both a local civil rights activist as well as a former Tuskegee airman; and selections from the collection of visual artist John Outterbridge.