The Huntington’s art collections began with Arabella Huntington’s passion for old masters, medieval and Renaissance devotional images, and antiques. Yet, Arabella’s pursuits were not limited to historic art. “She was hugely interested in the design and art of her time,” said Christina Nielsen, the Hannah and Russel Kully Director of the Art Museum.
An ongoing partnership with Ghetto Film School adds a new, contemporary dimension to Arabella’s legacy: The nonprofit introduces young filmmakers to The Huntington’s three collections—art, library materials, and the botanical gardens—as a source of ideas and inspiration for their work. “Every year we learn a lot by seeing our historic collections anew through these bright, emerging artists,” Nielsen said. “The space that we’ve dedicated to showing their films makes our galleries feel alive. We hear voices. We hear music. Every time I go into that space, there are young people watching the films. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement.”
Ghetto Film School was founded in 2000 by former social worker Joe Hall while he was studying cinema at USC. The idea for the school arose as a response to the lack of diversity that he perceived in his graduate program. Building on advice from USC educators, he met with young people he knew from his 10-year community service career in the South Bronx and learned what would make film school appealing to them. Their responses were clear: They did not want a thinly veiled social service program. As one respondent wryly put it, they did not want a “ghetto film school”—and so the name for Hall’s endeavor was coined.
In 2015, GFS launched a collaboration with the Frick Collection in New York that encouraged students to explore narrative and visual arts in their film work. Nielsen was familiar with the Frick Film Project and met Hall in 2017 when she was a fellow at the New York–based Center for Curatorial Leadership. “He led a class on mentorship there,” she recalled. “And the biggest takeaway for me was that mentoring is not top down. Anytime you’re in a relationship with anyone, you learn from each other.”
Nielsen’s experience at the Center for Curatorial Leadership eventually led to a March 2019 meeting among Stosh Mintek, then-CEO of GFS; Montea Robinson, current CEO of GFS; Nielsen; and Elee Wood, who at the time was curator of The Huntington’s Jonathan and Karin Fielding Collection of Early American Art. The initial plan was for GFS students to explore and respond to objects in the Fielding Collection.
“From the beginning, Christina’s and my goal was to get young and fresh perspectives on The Huntington’s art collections,” said Wood, who now serves as the Nadine and Robert A. Skotheim Director of Education and Public Programs. “It was an opportunity for new voices to tell stories about the collections, to see what sparked their imaginations, and to learn what elements of our collections connect with new audiences. It is very much in keeping with The Huntington’s goal to see how art of the past informs art of the present. We see that clearly in each iteration of the GFS-Huntington partnership.”
The inaugural project got underway in February 2020, but COVID-19 stalled progress. Eventually, the first cohort of 17 students conceptualized, planned, and shot motion picture self-portraits based on the theme “Portraits in Light.”
Prompted by the 2021 theme, “Reimagining Portraiture,” the second cohort immersed themselves in the work of Kehinde Wiley and grand manner portraiture in The Huntington’s European art collections. Last year’s students delved into Sandy Rodriguez’s works in the “Borderlands” exhibition and created visual narratives focused on the theme “Nuestro Pueblo” (“Our Town”), capturing the diverse and complex cultural fabric of Los Angeles. This year, a new group of students explored the idea of cultural dichotomies (“Everywhere and Nowhere”) in the work of LA-based artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby (whose paintings are on view now in the Huntington Art Gallery) and the “Borderlands” exhibition. All the films produced to date are accessible via The Huntington’s website.
Kyle Provencio-Reingold, the program director of GFS Los Angeles, cites the late Carlos Almaraz, a leading member of the Chicano art movement, as a source of inspiration in his work with young filmmakers. Almaraz was known for creating colorful vignettes of everyday life, primarily in his Echo Park neighborhood. “When you think about Black and brown culture in Los Angeles, it’s very important to understand that what we see around us is contextual. It’s temporary,” Provencio-Reingold observed. “We need to preserve our stories. When we see value in our own stories, then other people will think that it’s important to preserve our stories. And that’s what we’re doing here: celebrating the power of our voices, the power of community, and the power of looking back in order to go forward.”
Sandy Masuo is the senior writer in the Office of Communications and Marketing at The Huntington.