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One of Black Southern Art’s Greatest Advocates, William S. Arnett, Dies at 81

Through his scholarly and curatorial work, Arnett aimed to amend the conventional history of artmaking in the United States to center the significance of formally untrained Black artists.

William Arnett in his living room (1992) (photo by Bard Wrisley)

Art collector, historian of the American South, and founder of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, William S. Arnett, passed away in Atlanta on August 12. He was 81. Over the course of 40 years, Arnett amassed a singular collection of art made by Southern Black Americans and a corresponding archive comprised of photographs, interviews, and oral histories. Through his scholarly and curatorial work, Arnett aimed to amend the history of artmaking in the United States as it had been conventionally understood — a history dominated by white men, mostly European émigrés and educated elites working in coastal centers. His work centered the significance of formally untrained Black artists like Thornton Dial, Lonnie Holley, Mary T. Smith, Loretta Pettway, and the communities from which they came. Arnett sought to dismantle the very art history that privileged men that looked like him, and construct in its place a more accurate, representative, and radical account of this country’s artistic production. As he would often tell anyone who would listen: “My goal is simply to change the history of American art.”

Did Arnett achieve what he set out to do?

It was from Arnett’s collection that the blockbuster 2002 exhibition The Quilts of Gee’s Bend was organized. Beginning at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston the show traveled around the country for the following six years to eminent institutions such as the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the de Young Museum in San Francisco, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, bringing broad public recognition and critical reception to the included works. The sheer presence of these Southern quilts in these spaces challenged the Eurocentric origin myth of pure abstraction in visual art. Making sure the artists of Gee’s Bend were able to see the exhibition, Arnett “organized the bus trip for dozens of artists journeying from Alabama to the song-filled opening,” recounted Maxwell Anderson, then director of the Whitney Museum and current president of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation and Community Partnership. But Arnett’s interest in Southern Black art and its potential to explode accepted art historical narratives began long before the Gee’s Bend exhibition.

Lucy Mingo, China Pettway, Bill Arnett, Nettie Young, Ruth Kennedy, and Nancy Pettway in Baltimore, MD (2007) (photo: Matt Arnett)

Beginning in the mid-1980s, Arnett, a native Georgian, sought to understand and document the visual traditions of the region. The South, well-known for its cultural contributions in the realms of music, cuisine, and literature, was not recognized as a center for the visual arts. With his sons, Matt and Paul, Arnett spent the ensuing decades driving through Southern states, knocking on the doors of homes with incredible displays of yard art. Over the course of his research, Arnett came to believe that art made by Southern Black Americans was the “most quintessentially American art ever produced.” While contemporary, the history of these visual traditions — which include but are not limited to quilting, metalwork, assemblage, and painting — have their origins in slavery, and reflect the intersection of contact between enslaved Africans, Indigenous peoples, and European immigrants. Arnett began collecting with urgency, quickly assembling an unparalleled collection with particular strength in work dating from the end of the Civil Rights era (about 1968) to the 2010s.

In conjunction with the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, Arnett organized the first ambitious survey exhibition from his collection, Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South, presented at Atlanta City Hall East. While the exhibition faced a number of bureaucratic and institutional challenges, the accompanying two-volume book publication still serves as arguably the most comprehensive set of texts about the history of Southern art made by formally untrained artists. The books feature artist interviews, scholarly essays, and critical thoughts by Black activists, including John Lewis, Amiri Baraka, and Andrew Young. Perhaps most importantly, they include almost 2,000 color photographic reproductions of artworks and environments, the majority of which had never been published. These images made the books extremely costly to produce, and Arnett personally financed their publication with significant assistance from actor and activist Jane Fonda, a longtime supporter of Arnett’s work.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Arnett facilitated, supported, and sponsored numerous exhibitions from his collection. But he wanted more than just a show here and there; he wanted museums to reflect the historical and aesthetic significance of Southern Black art by accessioning works into their collection and committing to their preservation and display. Although the West Atlanta warehouse that housed the majority of Arnett’s collection already resembled a disorganized private museum, Arnett never intended to hold onto his collection for long. In 2010, Arnett established the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, transferring 1,200 works from his personal collection and providing the initial endowment. One of the foundation’s first and most important gifts was to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2014. The Met accepted 57 objects into its collection, marking the first of a series of gifts and partial gift-purchases to major museums. In this and many subsequent cases, it was the first time work by any of these artists — Thornton Dial, Ronald Lockett, Joe Minter, Mary T. Smith, Mary Lee Bendolph — had been accessioned into a prestigious institution’s collection.

Sheena Wagstaff, head of the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Met, stewarded the substantial gift and shared with me the larger museological impact of the Arnett’s work: “By the time I was aware of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, the newly created board was already thinking carefully about how to do the very best by the artists represented in Bill Arnett’s sizeable collection,” Wagstaff remarks. She continues:

As a museum curator, it offered me the possibility to learn about — and from — the truly remarkable constellation of artists working primarily in Alabama, and Georgia. It was this experience, shared subsequently by many other museum curators, that constitutes part of Arnett’s legacy, which then became manifest within the collections of the Metropolitan Museum and other major museums across the United States and internationally.

In support of future scholarship about Southern Black art, Arnett also transferred the archival material he collected during his research to the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “His gift of his Souls Grown Deep archive,” remarks Bernie Herman, George B. Tindall Distinguished Professor of Southern Studies and Folklore, “insures that future generations will have full access to the photographs, interviews, and field notes he amassed over the four decades he championed the art of an African American South.” Arnett eschewed graduate school himself — in truth, it was unlikely that any art history program would have supported his project anyway. There weren’t institutional archives for the material that interested him; he had to make the archive himself. When asked about the overall impact of Arnett’s scholarship, Herman replied: “His legacy is nothing less than a compelling expansion of the histories of American art and its makers.”

While Arnett championed the work of many artists, his most ardent and everlasting support was reserved for Alabamian Thornton Dial Sr. Born to a sharecropping family in rural Alabama, Dial was a metalworker for much of his life until he turned to making art in his fifties. Dial’s monumental found-object assemblages and paintings are forceful confrontations to systems of power, using abstraction to tackle harrowing episodes in American history. Arnett organized Dial’s first solo museum exhibition, Thornton Dial: Image of the Tiger, which jointly debuted at the American Folk Art Museum and the New Museum in 1993. Arnett helped with a number of subsequent solo exhibitions of Dial’s work and the art world began to take notice of Dial outside of Arnett’s projects. Two of Dial’s sculptures were featured in the 2000 Whitney Biennial, and more museum curators and commercial galleries started taking an interest in his work. Arnett continued to steadfastly support Dial’s professional career and nurture a close personal relationship. “They really understood each other, like twins,” remembers Richard Dial, one of Dial’s surviving children, “They really, really loved each other. Not like they didn’t argue, because they did … but the respect they had for each other was unmeasurable.” Dial passed away in 2016, marking the end of Arnett’s most important working — and, perhaps, personal — relationship.

Dial working on his sculpture “Having Nothing Is Having Everything,” outside his studio in McCalla, AL (2005) (photo: Matt Arnett)

Those close to Arnett describe him as someone committed to supporting artists, and indeed, he continued to work with many artists until his death. Arnett “understood that artists needed stability and encouragement to achieve their full potential and was willing to do whatever necessary to create the environment in which they could thrive,” said Philip March Jones, inaugural director of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. Arnett, Jones continued, “was that point of connection for so many artists.” Longtime friend and collaborator, Atlanta-based artist Lonnie Holley, calls Arnett “a good troublemaker,” referencing the late civil rights activist and House Representative John Lewis, and said that when “William S. Arnett came into our lives, he saw our struggle.” Holley’s contemporary Joe Minter, the creator of a sprawling Birmingham art environment he calls the African Village in America, remembers Arnett as “a gift for a generation of us, here, in the Southeastern states, that [sic] had something to say.”

Arnett’s work was not without a substantial share of controversy, so much so that his career and interactions with artists served as the basis for the book The Last Folk Hero: A True Story of Race and Art, Power and Profit, and a misleading 1993 “60 Minutes” report that painted Arnett in an especially damning light. Arnett’s efforts to organize projects from his collection often met resistance from the mainstream art world, for reasons having to do both with Arnett and the art in question. While at times Arnett’s conflicts with others were self-generated, it is clear that there was (and still is) significant prejudice against and resistance to accepting work by artists of color into mainstream art institutions, especially work by Black artists and artists from the Deep South. The optics of Arnett, a white Southerner, loudly advocating for, (which some interpreted as speaking for) Black artists from a lower socioeconomic class, rubbed many people the wrong way. There were critics of his approach — is it ethical to pay these artists stipends? Is it right for Arnett to always have right of first refusal? Is he exploiting the artists in some way? In many cases, critiques of Arnett’s practice carried within them a central assumption: that the artists who worked with Arnett had no agency. This, in itself, is a racist and condescending supposition.

Arguably, Arnett became a scapegoat for the white-dominated mainstream art world’s anxieties about race and inclusion. Outside of a handful of Southern institutions, the art world paid limited attention to Black artists from the region, and when it did, it often continued to marginalize these artists as “outsiders.” Pam Paulson, founder of Paulson Fontaine Press, a fine art printing press that works with many artists represented in Arnett’s collection, recalls an event in which Arnett was invited to speak to an elite group of patrons in celebration of the landmark Gee’s Bend exhibition. “In no uncertain terms, he assailed the ‘old boys club’ and exposed the mechanisms employed to control the content of what was being collected and recognized as great art.” He used his platform to call out hypocrisy and bias, challenging “several notable white artists for co-opting ideas that had had their genesis in Black works of art and culture,” says Paulson. Paulson elaborates, “In today’s speak, what I witnessed was an exercise of unapologetic anti-racism” Arnett could often be the loudest voice in any room. Initially, Arnett thought it would take, at most, five to 10 years for the art world to fully embrace these artists, based on the sheer quality of their work and their collective historical significance. When he learned otherwise, Arnett became increasingly fervent, almost evangelical in his advocacy.

In addition to impacting the careers of artists, Arnett also made a notable impact on the careers of a younger generation of scholars and curators, many of whom are women. “I think many people have had the experience of meeting Bill while they were in graduate school and just having him crack a whole world open for them — I know I certainly did,” offers Katherine Jentleson, Merrie and Dan Boone Curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art at the High Museum of Art. Valerie Rousseau, Senior Curator at the American Folk Art Museum & Curator of Self-Taught Art and Art Brut, said Arnett “was all about sharing what captivated him the most, challenging your perceptions … putting you on the spot, planting the seed for another project.” Laura Bickford, who worked directly with Arnett for five years and is now Associate Curator at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, reflects on the complex nature of working with him: “It was one of the deepest and most complicated relationships I have ever had, and likely will ever have. I would often laugh so hard I cried, then cry out of frustration, then turn my frustration into an inspired rash of productivity and earth-shattering revelations — often over the course of 20 minutes and all through conversations with him,” recalls Bickford. As difficult as Arnett could be, his dogged commitment to changing the world compelled collaborators to continue pressing forward. He had, according to Bickford, “a clearly articulated plan to bend the arc of art history closer to the truth.”

I met Arnett — Bill, as I will refer to him from this point forward — in August 2016, during my first trip to Atlanta to conduct dissertation research. Initially intending to spend just a few hours with Bill, I ended up spending three days with him, his sons Paul and Matt, and the artist Lonnie Holley. A visit to Bill’s warehouse convinced me that Thornton Dial was one of the greatest American artists ever to have lived. Without prompting, Bill, Lonnie, and Paul offered to drive me the roughly 2.5 hours from Atlanta to Birmingham, so I could see works of art in situ and personally meet other artists and Dial’s family. Although I know Bill had taken dozens of others on the very same journey (Valerie Rousseau recounted an almost identical trip) it was an incredibly special experience for me. Then in his late 70s and in waning health, Bill’s zeal and generosity was inspiring. I went back to California and changed my dissertation topic to reflect what I had learned in Atlanta and Birmingham. A year later, I was a Jane and Morgan Whitney fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, assisting with the exhibition drawn from his collection History Refused to Die: Highlights from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation Gift. Bill had long thought that Southern Black art belonged in the Met’s collection. At the opening, Bill expressed that as happy as he was his fervent wish finally came to pass, he was grumpy it took as long as it did. I couldn’t blame him. He had been working on this material since before I was born.

Bill Arnett and Lonnie Holley in Thornton Dial’s old studio in Bessemer, AL (2016) (Photo by the author)

Though scholars are taught to maintain some degree of objective distance from our research sources, I couldn’t help but develop a deep affection for Bill. The art world, plagued by classist and prejudicial gatekeeping, ruled by tacit understandings about “quality” and “value,” often intimidated me, a first-generation college graduate and the child of a Thai immigrant. Bill never questioned my worth, interest, or intellect. He and his family opened up a world to me, and for that, I am forever grateful. Undoubtedly, as he did for many others, Bill changed the course of my life. More importantly, Bill changed the course of American art.

But the work is far from done. As Lonnie Holley urges, “[Bill] left the foundation. But the rest of the building is up to us.”

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article contained certain factual errors concerning the Gee’s Bend exhibition and a 1996 survey exhibition of the Souls Grown Deep collection organized by Arnett. These errors have now been corrected.

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