POWER BROKER
Wallpaper|November 2021
Home is where the art is for American collector and philanthropist Eileen Harris Norton
HARRIET LLOYD-SMITH

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 favors 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 color have come to the fore. But, as many museums frantically retrofit their collections to include a wider range of perspectives, some voices have been championing underrepresented creatives for decades.

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 the 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.’

In many ways, Norton – who was born in the LA neighborhood 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), we're 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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