Southern folk art collection goes north

Artist Thornton Dial sits in front of one of his works, "Crossing Waters," on display at the High Museum last year during the monumental exhibit "Hard Truths," devoted to Dial.

William S. Arnett, Atlanta's influential and sometimes controversial collector of African-American art, has, through his Souls Grown Deep Foundation, brought international attention to the art of Southerners.

That foundation has now given a significant body of work from black Southern artists to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

The gift includes 10 pieces by Thornton Dial, 20 quilts from the women of Gee's Bend, Alabama, dating from the 1930s to 2003, and also works by Lonnie Holley and Nellie Mae Rowe -- 57 pieces in all.

All were collected by Arnett.

“We are an institution dedicated to telling the story of art across all times and cultures, and this extraordinary gift is critical to that commitment,” said Thomas P. Campbell, director and CEO of the Metropolitan, in a statement. "It embodies the profoundly deep and textured expression of the African American experience during a complex time in this country’s history and a landmark moment in the evolution of the Met.”

The statement from the Met said that the museum will mount an exhibition devoted to the gift from the William S. Arnett Collection in the fall of 2016.

During the winter and spring of 2012-2013 the High Museum in Atlanta staged a show of 59 assemblages, sculptures and drawings by Dial that took up seven galleries and all t hree floors of the Anne Cox Chambers Wing.

The touring show was hailed as one the major art events of the year.

In the spring and summer of 2006 the High also devoted a show to the quilts from Gee's Bend.

The High has shown considerable attention to what is sometimes called "outsider art," creating a position for a curator of folk art long before many other institutions. (That position was recently endowed with part of a $2.5 million gift.)

So it may seem, with the gifted artwork going to a Manhattan museum,  as if the High has been passed over for a northern rival.

But folk art dealer and collector Margaret Browne said the gift should not be seen as a slight to the High.

Browne runs a folk-art gallery in Cashiers, N.C. called Chivaree.

Much of the art is fragile, she said; preserving it will be a monumental challenge, and the Met is equipped to meet that challenge.

"I really think that the Met is one of the few places, if not the only one, that has the (capability) to handle these Thornton Dials and these quilts."







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About the Author

Bo Emerson
Bo Emerson
Bo Emerson is an Atlanta native and a long-time AJC feature and news writer.