Collector Eileen Harris Norton on art as a portal for change

Collector Eileen Harris Norton on art as a portal for change

Art, Los Angeles

10/23/2021 1:48:00 PM

Collector Eileen Harris Norton on art as a portal for change

Collector and philanthropist Eileen Harris Norton has long been an advocate for underrepresented artists. Profiled in her Santa Monica home, Norton discusses art as a social investment, and p...

Collector Eileen Harris Norton in her 1906 Craftsman home in Santa Monica, with interiors by Nell Alano. In the background is Unfamiliar Money, 2019, a mixed media work on canvas by her friend, American artist Mark Bradford. All artworks courtesy of the Eileen Harris Norton Collection

There are words frequently found in the art collecting vocabulary: primary, secondary, provenance, blue-chip, flip. When we speak via Zoom, Eileen Harris Norton doesn’t use any of these. Instead, she favours words like passion, education and opportunity. For her, the value of art lies in its ability to promote tangible change; art is both a social and economic investment.

In recent years, issues of racial injustice and the lack of visibility given to artists of colour have come to the fore. But, as manymuseumsfrantically retrofit their collections to include a wider range of perspectives, some voices have been championing underrepresented creatives for decades.

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Norton’s art journey began in the 1970s when she and her mother visited a Black History Month exhibition at LA’s Museum of African American Art. ‘My mom saw the ad in the paper, and we said, oh, let’s go to this because the artist was a Black woman. We didn’t know any artists, and we certainly didn’t know any Black women artists,’ Norton explains from her home in Santa Monica. The artist was Ruth Waddy, an LA-based printmaker, editor and activist. But it was only when Norton included her work in a 2020 show that the full weight of Waddy’s influence on 20th-century LA art came to light. ‘Several scholars spoke about how Ruth Waddy was apparently like the godmother of many Black LA-based artists at the time. I had no idea that she was this wonderful, powerful woman,’ says Norton. ‘I bought Ruth Waddy long before I could call myself a collector or even knew of the art world.’

Top: Yinka Shonibare,, 2003. Wood, dutch wax printed cotton, metal, fiberglass. Above:Warm Broad Glow, 2005, a neon and paint work by New York artist Glenn Ligon, photographed with a fisheye lens. Courtesy the Eileen Harris Norton Collection

In many ways, Norton – who was born in the LA neighbourhood of Watts and was once an elementary school teacher – might be described as an art godmother of sorts, but she never set out to become a collector. In the 1980s, she and her then-husband, Peter Norton (of Norton Antivirus), were working to get Peter’s company off the ground while living in an artist studio hotspot in Venice, California. ‘We would just walk around and into people’s studios and it was something we did when we didn’t have any money,’ she recalls. ‘But then we made some money.’ 

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They began collecting work focused on African American, African diaspora and women artists, often with a strong LA thread. Artists such as Glenn Ligon,Lorna Simpsonand Carrie Mae Weems, who are household names today, but were not when they were first hung. ‘When we started collecting, they were nobodies, they were these young artists, but we decided, these young Black artists are worthy,’ she says. ‘I collected Black artists who were undervalued and not being shown in the late 1980s and early 1990s, while other collectors were not.’

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