THORNTON DIAL (1965-1998), “Lost Cows”, 2000-2001

 

SOON, THE GALLERIES at the de Young Museum in San Francisco will echo the American South. Works by African American contemporary artists from Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, and Florida will be presented in six spaces at the museum where the institution’s permanent collection is usually on view.

An abstract sculpture by Thornton Dial composed of the painted skeleton bones of cows, references the cycles of life and death, rural farm life, and white supremacy. “Talking to the System,” a bright yellow painting by Purvis Young depicts tension between generations as youth confront systemic and institutional racism. Conjuring the history of slavery and Jim Crow, “Camel at the Water Hole” by Joe Minter is constructed with pick axes and shovels.

“Revelations: Art from the African American South,” will present works spanning paintings, sculptures, drawings, and quilts, by Dial, Young, Minter, Bessie Harvey, Lonnie Holley, Ronald Lockett, Jessie T. Pettway, Mose Tolliver, and Annie Mae Young, among others. The exhibition opens June 3.

The exhibition announcement coincided with a groundbreaking acquisition. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco is bringing into its collection 62 works by 22 African American artists from the South. The acquisition was achieved through a combination purchase by the museums and gift from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in Atlanta.

“We feel a special responsibility to take the lead in expanding the representation of artists who reflect the historical diversity of American culture. This groundbreaking acquisition of contemporary art adds an integral—and exceptional—chapter to our signature collection of American art,” said Max Hollein, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

“We feel a special responsibility to take the lead in expanding the representation of artists who reflect the historical diversity of American culture.”
— Max Hollein, Director & CEO, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The largest public arts institution in San Francisco, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco oversees the de Young Museum, located in Golden Gate Park, and the Legion of Honor Museum in Lincoln Park. The museums partnered with Souls Grown Deep previously when the Quilts of Gee’s Bend traveling exhibition was presented at the de Young in 2006.

“As an advocate for these artists and their enduring legacies, our partnerships with major American museums are critical to ensuring that their contributions are woven into the greater narrative of art in America,” said Maxwell L. Anderson, who was named president of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in June 2016.

The San Francisco museums acquisition marks the beginning of an ambitious strategy by Souls Grown Deep to place works from its collection in leading American and international art museums with the goal of transforming the representation of African American artists from the South in the art historical canon.

The San Francisco museums acquisition marks the beginning of an ambitious strategy by Souls Grown Deep to place works from its collection in leading American and international art museums with the goal of transforming the representation of African American artists from the South in the art historical canon.


MOSE TOLLIVER (1919-2006), “Rainy Sunshine, Cats and Dog, Drum Beater,” 1967 (housepaint on wood). | Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, museum purchase, American Art Trust Fund, and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection. Artwork: © Estate of Mose Tolliver. Photo by Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio, Rockford, IL / Art Resource, NY. Courtesy of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

 

ESTABLISHED BY WILLIAM S. ARNETT in 2010, Souls Grown Deep describes itself as “the only nonprofit organization dedicated to documenting, preserving, exhibiting and promoting the work of contemporary African American artists from the American South.” The foundation says there are more than 1,200 works by 160 artists in its collection.

Arnett began focusing on art by blacks in the South in the mid-1980s. He traversed the region, seeking out, befriending, and serving as a patron to a variety of artists who had no formal training but expressed their views and conveyed their experiences in complex works that deserved a wider audience.

In the years immediately preceding his interest, exhibitions presented work by black artists described as folk artists or artists without formal art educations. In Washington, D.C., “More Than Land Or Sky: Art from Appalachia,” a 1981 exhibition at what is now the Smithsonian American Art Museum, featured Alabama-born Holley. Also in Washington, “Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980” opened in 1982 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art presented more than 300 works by artists including David Butler, Ulysses Davis, William Edmundson, Walter Flax, Sam Doyle, Sister Gertrude Morgan, Nellie Mae Rowe, James “Son” Thomas, Mose Tolliver, Bill Traylor, and Joseph Yoakum.

Arnett eventually amassed a vast collection of works by Southern African American artists, including Dial, Holley, Butler, Doyle, Rowe, Thomas and Tolliver, and become an unrivaled expert and champion in their unique category of creative production. He was particularly close with Alabama-born Dial, arguably the most critically recognized among the artists. (Holley introduced the Dial to Arnett.)

In a sustained manner, the collector set about bringing their work to the attention of the wider art world. Arnett, who is white, has been lauded for “discovering” the impressive group of African American artists born in the early 20th century and also accused of opportunism.

 


PURVIS YOUNG (1943-2010), “Talking to the System,” ca. 1975 (paint on board). | Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, museum purchase, American Art Trust Fund, and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection. Artwork: © Estate of Purvis Young. Photo by Gamma One Conversions. Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

 

A 1993 60 Minutes feature in falls into the latter category. Prompted by the acquisitions at the San Francisco museums, an in-depth profile of Arnett recently published in The Washington Post revisits the collector’s experience with the investigative newsmagazine. With Holley in the driver’s seat, Post reporter Geoff Edgers follows Arnett on visits with Alabama artists. Such trips are a rarity now given the collector’s health issues and advanced age. He is 77.

In “Bill Arnett won’t shut up. His stunning African American art collection is why” Edgers talks to Arnett’s critics and supporters. Tom Patterson could be categorized as both.

Patterson, a North Carolina-based writer and art historian, told Edgers: “Bill is the most undiplomatic human being that possibly the South has ever produced. When it comes to art, I agree with Bill completely. Everything he’s done is absolutely first-rate, important work. My problems with Bill have been almost all personality related. It’s like he’s constantly talking at you with Caps Lock.”

In the Post article, 67-year-old Holley said, “I first didn’t know him, so I didn’t trust him. …He is a white guy from out of nowhere, and he’s coming into your life. Then Bill started coming around. …He took the time to listen. The spirit god let me open up more and more. That’s where our relationship began to grow.”

Arnett told the Post: “Lonnie was so far ahead of the white artists in the world you can’t even believe it. …I said to him the day I met him, I walked up to his door, and I said, ‘Mr. Holley, I’ve been all over the world, and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“Lonnie was so far ahead of the white artists in the world you can’t even believe it. …I said to him the day I met him, I walked up to his door, and I said, ‘Mr. Holley, I’ve been all over the world, and I’ve never seen anything like this.” — William Arnett, Washington Post


JESSIE T. PETTWAY, “Bars and String-Pieced Columns,” 1950s (cotton). | Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, museum purchase, American Art Trust Fund, and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection. Artwork: © 2017 Jessie T. Pettway / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

 

AT THE SAME TIME the San Francisco museums acquisition was announced, the Souls Grown Deep Foundation revealed its intentions to work with museums on a series of gift/purchase acquisitions. The acquisitions are “designed to strengthen the representation of African American artists from the Southern United States in the collections of leading museums across the country and internationally.”

In 2015, the foundation donated 9,300 photographs to the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The images document the African American artists and their work.

The year prior, in November 2014, Souls Grown Deep made a donation to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York—57 works from the foundation’s collection by artists such as Dial, Holley, and Rowe, including 20 Gee’s Bend quilts dating from the 1930s to 2003. The gift to largest museum in the United States brought major works by Dial into the Met’s collection and gave the museum its first quilts from Gee’s Bend.

At the time of the landmark acquisition, The Met announced an exhibition and catalog featuring the works was forthcoming in two years, planned for fall 2016. There has yet to be a show or a publication.

The Met has faced financial challenges in the past few years, despite record attendance numbers. There have been buyouts and layoffs. While The Met took over the Whitney Museum of American Art’s nearby Madison Avenue building, calling it The Met Breuer, where Kerry James Marshall’s “Mastry” survey opened in October, its expansion plans for a $600 million wing for modern and contemporary art, have been postponed indefinitely.

Facing a nearly $40 million deficit, the New York Times reported in early February that Met curators were asked to scale back programming to help address the shortfall. The Met traditionally mounts about 60 exhibitions a year, many more than most museums, but now anticipates reducing its exhibitions to approximately 40 annually, according to the Times. Then Thomas P. Campbell, the director and CEO of The Met, stepped down at the end of February.

A couple of weeks before Campbell announced his resignation, I reached out to The Met to inquire about the status of the exhibition featuring the art from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. Alexandra Kozlakowski, a Met spokesperson, told me the museum made some adjustments to its schedule and planned to announce the exhibition this spring. She said it would be presented in 2018, likely at The Met Breuer.

The Met’s exhibition of Souls Grown Deep works is expected to be announced this spring. According to the museum, it will be presented in 2018, likely at The Met Breuer.


JOE MINTER (b. 1943), “Camel at the Watering Hole,” 1995 (welded found metal). | Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, museum purchase, American Art Trust Fund, and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection. Artwork: © 2017 Joe Minter / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

 

THE EXHIBITION AT THE DE YOUNG in San Francisco is set to open in June, featuring the entire acquisition from Souls Grown Deep. Accompanying presentations will provide context. An introductory gallery will show documentary news photos capturing events in the Civil Rights Movement. Works representing “a pan-African sensibility in contemporary art” by American artist Robert Colescott, Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, and British artist Cornelia Parker, among others, will be on view in the last gallery. Finally, a complementary show will feature prints from the archives of Paulson Bott Press, another recent acquisition. Prints by Holley and Gee’s Bend quilt artists will be on view.

“Our collaboration with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco on this historic acquisition is at the heart of our mission to make the work of these African American artists from the South accessible to the public and scholars alike,” said Anderson, Souls Grown Deep’s president. Meanwhile, the foundation has indicated more museum acquisitions are forthcoming.

In the Post article, Arnett said: “I came to realize that the work created by black culture across the board was as good as any work made by white people. And nobody was giving it any credit.” CT

 

“Revelations: Art from the African American South” opens on June 3, 2017, and runs throhg April 1, 2018 at the de Young in San Francisco.

 

Lonnie Holley has a solo exhibition currently on view at Atlanta Contemporary. “Lonnie Holley: I Snuck Off the Slave Ship,” closes April 2.

 

TOP IMAGE: THORNTON DIAL (1965-1998), “Lost Cows”, 2000-2001 (cow skeletons, steel, golf bag, golf ball, mirrors, enamel, and Splash Zone compound). | Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, museum purchase, American Art Trust Fund, and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection. Artwork © Estate of Thornton Dial / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo Stephen Pitkin, Pitkin Studio, Rockford, IL / Art Resource, NY. Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

 

BOOKSHELF
Souls Grown Deep has documented the work of African American artists from the South in two hefty tomes. The first volume “Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art” features 40 artists. Volume II offers a broader scope of the genre. “Something to Take My Place: The Art of Lonnie Holley” was recently published. Featuring 110 color illustrations “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend” accompanied the traveling exhibition. More recent books about the quilters are for children. “Stitchin’ and Pullin’: A Gee’s Bend Quilt” was published last year, and “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend” is forthcoming in June.

 


RONALD LOCKETT, “England’s Rose,” 1997. Tin and paint on wood, 48.25 x 48.25 in. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, museum purchase, American Art Trust Fund, and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection. Artwork: © Estate of Ronald Lockett / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio, Rockford, IL / Art Resource, NY. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco