“Imagine growing up watching the person you love most being bludgeoned, immolated, dunked in boiling wax … or doing those things to other people,” remarked Victoria Price, the willowy daughter of Vincent Price, as an eclectic mix of art patrons and horror buffs recently celebrated the 100th anniversary of her dad's birth at the Downtown Independent.
Price, who appeared in 105 movies and has three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, is best known for his ghoulish performances. But the St. Louis-born, Yale-educated actor, gourmet cook, “gray-listed” activist and art collector also was, unbeknownst to most Angelenos, responsible for creating the Vincent Price Art Museum, which recently reopened its East Los Angeles College location after an extensive renovation.
The museum, formerly known as the Vincent and Mary Grant Price Gallery, was one of the first public art institutions in L.A., before LACMA, before the Fowler, and before the Getty became a full-blown museum. Vincent and his wife, Mary, were fixtures of the emerging SoCal art world.
Accepting an invitation to visit ELAC's modest art program, the Prices were so impressed by the multicultural, working-class student body that they donated 90 pieces — then valued at more than $5 million — to the campus, which Vincent described as “two Quonset huts on a mud flat.” Opening in 1957, the museum now boasts a permanent collection of more than 9,000 pieces, 2,000 of which were eventually donated by Price, many others
donated by the artists themselves. His collection ranged from impressionist paintings to Japanese prints to pre-Columbian statues, and the permanent collection has an analogous eclecticism.
Price was an impulsive collector — at age 12 he fell in love with a Rembrandt and convinced the gallery owner to let him pay for it over three years out of his allowance. When he opened an earlier version of his gallery, on Little Santa Monica Boulevard, it became a home for “intellectuals and inebriates,” and included works by Henry Miller.
In 2009, campus growth dictated that the museum's large, one-room space be repurposed. Last month, more than 1,000 people celebrated the museum's grand reopening in its glassy, angular new building designed by Miami-based Arquitectonica.
“Round Trip: Eight East Los Angeles Alumni Artists” was a no-brainer for the reopening. Price, who died in 1993, took an interest in the ELAC students' art careers. In the early '70s, three of the artists featured in “Round Trip” — Gronk, Willie Herron III, and Pattsi Valdez — co-founded guerilla artist group ASCO with Harry Gamboa Jr. “So many ELAC students have gone on to become artists, curators, thanks to this access to world-class art,” says Pete Galindo, an East L.A. native who sits on the museum's board of directors.
Another exhibit, “The Makings of Mexican Modernism,” with objects from the permanent collection, traces the evolution of Mexican cultural identity. The Pre-Columbian pottery and sculpture of “Form and Function in the Ancient Americas” focuses heavily on pieces from West Mexico and Peru. In picking the exhibits, director Karen Rapp says, she took into account “the artistic and cultural legacy of the area. I think about what the audience needs to know.”
Galindo notes how amazing it is to “finally see the state putting resources into this place that Price had done decades ago.” But it was not without a struggle. Cue arts advocate Wallace Albertson, a spitfire of a woman at age 87. Albertson, the founding and still sitting chair of the museum's board who also sat on the board of trustees for the L.A. Community College District, fought tooth and nail to ensure that VPAM could secure its own foundation. This meant that when Thomas Silliman, VPAM director from 1957 to 2006, died, he was able to leave his entire estate specifically to the museum.
Back at the Downtown Independent birthday party, there was a rare 3-D screening of House of Wax, in which Price plays an artist driven mad. Victoria, now a designer in Santa Fe, explained that her father studied to be an art historian and “didn't want to be a matinee idol.” She mentioned that he was always thinking about art, and he claimed to choose roles based on the quality of the art found on location. The result? Sometimes, she says, “He made really bad movies.”