In 2010, Atlanta-based art historian and longtime vernacular art collector William “Bill” Arnett founded the Souls Grown Deep Foundation to preserve and promote work by Black artists from the American South, stewarding his collection of upwards of 1,000 works by more than 160 artists. Largely through gift-purchase agreements, Souls Grown Deep has since placed over 500 collection artworks in more than 30 museums across the US, fostering a spate of related scholarship and exhibitions.
While it’s often major institutional recipients like the Met or the National Gallery of Art that make headlines, Souls Grown Deep has transferred a number of works to smaller regional museums and university collections, as well. In its latest announcement, the organization revealed that this year more than 30 artworks — spanning textiles, books, paintings, and sculptures — have entered five university collections: the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin; the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire; the Princeton University Art Museum in New Jersey; the RISD Museum at the Rhode Island School of Design; and the Hampton University Museum in Virginia, which is the oldest African American art museum in the United States.
Maxwell L. Anderson, president of Souls Grown Deep Foundation & Community Partnership, spoke with Hyperallergic about the myriad benefits of facilitating acquisitions at teaching museums. “By placing these works at institutions that hold teaching and research at the heart of their mission, Souls Grown Deep continues its advocacy for equity and recognition for Black artists from the South,” Anderson said. “These acquisitions will expand opportunities for students and academics around the country to learn from and produce long-overdue scholarship on this remarkable group of artists, raising the profile of their contributions in the canon of American art history through exhibitions, publications, and programming.”
The Blanton and the RISD Museum each acquired two quilts by makers associated with Gee’s Bend, a multigenerational community of Black women in rural Alabama who since the 19th century have transformed scraps of found fabric into bold, improvisational abstractions. A major traveling exhibition of Gee’s Bend quilts that premiered at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in the fall of 2002 helped catalyze widespread interest in the virtuosic textiles with their unique vernacular. For the RISD Museum, which is renowned for its textile holdings, the newly acquired quilts by Ruth Pettway Mosley and Sally Bennett Jones are the first documented example of quilts by Black American artists to enter its collection. Both the RISD Museum and the Blanton, which welcomed to its collection quilts by Arie Pettway and Sally Mae Pettway Mixon, have plans to exhibit the new acquisitions shortly.
In addition to acquiring a quilt by Louisiana Bendolph, the Hood Museum added three sculptures and six two-dimensional works to its holdings. Two paintings and a sculpture by Thornton Dial included in the gift-purchase are currently on display in the exhibition Thornton Dial: The Tiger Cat, which opened at the Hood in September. Dial, who died in 2016, was an Alabama artist celebrated for his freestanding assemblages and monumental wall-mounted works incorporating found objects. Spanning over nine feet long, the highly textured painting “Heaven and Hell on Earth” (1995) contains materials as varied as corn cobs, a Christmas tree ornament, and bedding. The work puts urban and rural elements, or heaven and hell, side by side. “They’re always together,” Dial has said of heaven and hell. “We’re living in both all the time.” For those who can’t make it to the Hood in person, the work can be viewed in detail through an interactive digital resource.
Anderson underscored to Hyperallergic that living artists whose works are included in the acquisitions, such as Mary Lee Bendolph, Lonnie Holley, and Sally Mae Pettway Mixon, will benefit from the sales, receiving “direct financial compensation via our Resale Royalty Award Program, the most comprehensive program of its kind in the country.” The US lacks sweeping legislative protection for artists that would compensate them when their work is sold on the secondary market. While this lack of protection financially shortchanges all artists, it is particularly harmful to artists who don’t gain recognition until late in life, many examples of whom can be found in the Souls Grown Deep collection. Last year, Souls Grown Deep announced that it would offer living artists 5% of the proceeds — up to $85,000 annually per artist — when their work is resold.
In addition to acquiring works, the Hood, Hampton, Princeton, and RISD Museums are offering paid internships to students of color in partnership with the Souls Grown Deep Foundation’s Internship Grant Program. Founded in 2019, the program teams up with museums acquiring works from Souls Grown Deep to form internships in various departments. Past program participants have worked on exhibitions that feature the acquisitions, and in the case of former interns Starasea Camara and Akili Davis, have gone on to join Souls Grown Deep as curatorial associates, developing signage to honor the Gee’s Bend quilters and foster cultural tourism in the area.