WILLIAMSTOWN -- The exhibition "Now Dig This: Art & Black Los Angeles 1960-1980," currently at the Williams College Museum of Art, looks at how black artists found their own voices and vision within a nascent mid-20th century art scene in a racially divided city.

Originally organized by the city’s Hammer Museum in 2010 as part of a larger project sponsored by the Getty Foundation to document Southern California’s postwar art history, it is the latest in nearly two decades of exhibition programming at WCMA to focus on African and African-American art. In a recent interview, WCMA Director Christina Olsen talked with The Eagle about the origins of that focus, why it’s important and the role it may play in the way we look and think about art in the future.

Q: How did the idea of presenting African and African-American art over such a long period get started?

A: I suspect previous director Linda Shearer [1989-2004] had a lot to do with it. Linda had a real commitment to broadening art history and to using the museum as a mechanism for exposing the breadth of contributions to the history of art -- in terms of thinking beyond white men.

Q: From your knowledge, were they ad-hoc decisions or was there a larger vision?

A: I haven’t seen anything written that lays it out as a prescribed priority. My guess is that it was opportunistic. It was an interest and a desire and it found resonance here at Williams Š because of Williams’s decades-long commitment to diversifying the student body and to diversifying the faculty. I think the museum responded to it and maybe had a role in catalyzing it as well. Those things kind of go back and forth.

Q: Some of it is African; some of it is African-American; some of it is historical; some of it is contemporary Š

A: It is also more broadly about people of color and diversifying the range of artistic expression beyond the traditional white male canon.

Q: The college has had an Andrew Mellon Foundation endowed fellowship in diversity for a number of years. Has that fueled any of this?

A: Yes. The story would probably begin with Linda’s tenure, and it would get strengthened with the college’s commitment [to diversity] and then wisely under [former director] Lisa Corrin [2005-2011] there was a real interest in institutionalizing that effort, to say: "Well if we’re serious, we need to see it in the staff here, we need to be helping the museum field to also be diversifying its practices and the people coming into it." That’s what that fellowship is about. So I see them all as a kind of an increased effort across several areas.

Q: Can you give me a sense of what’s in the collection of African art?

A: The majority of WCMA’s African collection comes from West Africa. Nearly 12 percent of the entire collection comes from the Yoruba culture alone, followed by the Igbo, Akan and Bamana cultures at approximately 7 percent each. In terms of African-American art, we have a great deal from Carrie May Weems, to David Hammons to Charles White.

Q: Were these mostly alumni gifts or are you purchasing as well?

A: Mostly alumni gifts. Right now acquisitions are in a little bit of a hiatus because we have a new deputy director of curatorial affairs [Lisa Dorin] who is looking at that whole process. So we have no immediate plans to purchase, but African-American art is always an important priority.

Q: It seems unusual that a college museum would have a collection of this kind. How does it compare with others?

A: It’s not a common way to slice a collection. I think that we have tried harder than most of our peers to assemble a collection of American art that has significant holdings by African-Americans and that speaks, thematically and broadly, to concerns and issues of African-American history and culture.

Q: Does that have anything to do with the Clark Art Institute and Mass MoCA being here as well?

A: I don’t think so. I think it has more to do with the college’s commitment and with the energy and intellectual attention given to issues around race and around race and around gender at the college.

Q: What other college museums have African-American programming and collections similar in scale or bigger?

A: I can’t think of a lot of college museums with a focus on African-American programming. I can think of civic museums: the Oakland Museum of Art or the L.A. County Museum of Art or, obviously, the Studio Museum of Harlem. Those places have significant holdings. (In terms of African art holdings, she named the Yale University Art Gallery, the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College and the Smith College Museum of Art.)

Q: You know I look at this work and see how good it is, and I think "Where have I been?" It’s like a whole chunk of my art knowledge is missing. When I was in college, the whole Western art canon was about European white men. Now it’s changing. I wonder if looking at this black art that’s been neglected has changed your view as an art scholar.

A: It has, very deeply. I spent a lot of time upstairs looking in particular at the work of Melvin Edwards and Charles White and thinking about their experience. To me, it’s mind-boggling to imagine them coming to Los Angeles in the late 1950s. They’re coming to a city that is deeply racist, with redlining around neighborhoods, with intense police brutality, and following some of the most intense moments of the civil rights movement and there’s nothing, no model for them at all about how to be a black artist. They had nothing. They had to make it up whole cloth. To look at some of the boldness and creativity it takes to do that is powerful for me to think about. I learned it not unlike you did. I had a narrow notion. And now I want to go back and look at the periods and look at the gaps and look at what was overlooked and neglected.

Q: I too felt what a struggle is must have been for the artists in "Now Dig This" to come to California without any model for being black artists and how their white colleagues tried to help them see things as white artists did. The white artists didn’t know any better and so the black artists had to find their own voices. Surprisingly, in the show, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of anger and protest

A: It’s there. It’s integrated. It’s incorporated.

Q: I guess maybe this search for identity had to take place out in California where the art scene was new rather than in New York because New York had an older, more rigid art system.

A: Exactly. There was more space. There was less institutionalization of activity. It was more open.

Q: Do you get any feedback from the Williams students about being surprised at black art? Or do they just accept things the way they are?

A: What I hear from interns is a great pleasure and joy in it, but not the same as what you and I talked about. They don’t know the canon so well. That’s all just getting formed for them now. And it is broader than it was. So it’s less ‘Oh my gosh. My own education was so narrow,’ and more like an excitement about how many voices were contributing and how complex the picture was.