In 1980, when the Atlanta Life Insurance company opened its new headquarters on Auburn Avenue, Henrietta Antonin was given one assignment – decorate it.
Jesse Hill, the company’s longtime president, came up with the idea of holding an art competition. Invite local and renowned artists to submit their work, critically judge it and buy the winning entries. He tapped Antonin to run it.
Between 1980 and 1991, Antonin collected pieces from artists like Jacob Lawrence, Hale Woodruff, Elizabeth Catlett and Romare Bearden as part of the annual contests. For the 32 years Atlanta Life occupied the building those works – now valued at more than $1.3 million — were displayed along the walls, converting the insurance building into a mini art museum.
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Jan Meadows, an interior designer and former member of the Atlanta Life Art Advisory committee, called it the “most comprehensive representation of modern-day, 20th-century African-American art assembled in one collection.”
Atlanta-based painter and mixed media artist Radcliffe Bailey was a student at the Atlanta College of Art in the late 1980s when he submitted his first piece in the contest.
“It was a big deal,” Bailey said. “I was shown among people that I heard and read about. It meant a lot to me as an African-American artist and to be shown with those I admired, as well as my contemporaries.”
Now, five years after the art was removed when Atlanta Life sold the building to Georgia State University, few people — including artists like Bailey — have seen it. Antonin, who retired from the company in 2008, has no idea where any of the pieces are.
“Wherever I go, people ask me what happened to the Atlanta Life art,” Antonin said. “We don’t know where it is.”
Geoffrey Nnadi, president of the Atlanta Life Financial Group, is baffled by that suggestion. He knows exactly where the art is.
On a conference table in his office rests “Pensive,” a $165,000 bronze by Catlett, a renowned sculptor. The piece, created in 1946, looks directly at “The Book of Genesis,” a series of eight prints Jacob Lawrence entered in 1989 and now valued at $85,000.
Every office, hallway and boardroom inside Atlanta Life is decorated with art collected by Antonin. What is not on the walls is in storage at an art warehouse in Midtown.
“I have no idea why she would be concerned,” Nnadi said. “She handed over the custody of the collection when she retired and she knows where it is.”
Their dispute notwithstanding, one thing is not up for debate: If the art is not missing, it is still essentially lost.
Gone from its own sprawling building, Atlanta Life’s headquarters is now on the 25th floor of a posh downtown office building. People can’t walk in off the street and see the collection anymore, a stark contrast to the original point of securing the pieces. (Nnadi says Antonin is exaggerating how accessible the art was in the old building; even there, he says, public access was limited to a small space.)
The company says it has no obligation to let the public see the collection, nor does it have to account for the art to people such as Antonin.
“We are an insurance firm,” said board member Roosevelt Giles. “We can’t have people walking around our offices looking at art. There is nothing that says we have to do display it, so we don’t make the art available.”
Antonin says that nobody from Atlanta Life has ever invited her to come and look at the art since it was removed from the old building, adding that since she curated the exhibit, “somebody like me shouldn’t have to beg to see it.”
“When we decided to open the building, we knew that if we were going to have any art, it was going to be black art, because African-American artists were not getting exposure. We wanted to change that,” Antonin said. “So what is their commitment now? Is it just going to be for them to see and to stay in storage forever? What is the plan?”
Nnadi said Antonin has, in fact, been invited to view the art in storage.
She continued, “I have no gripes with Atlanta Life. I love that company. I had to to be there for 46 years. But I am disgusted with the Atlanta Life leadership. I am depressed with what is happening with this company that instilled so much pride. Am I supposed to sit here and be quiet about it? It ain’t in my blood.”
‘It was filling a big role’
Ed Spriggs, a longtime supporter of the collection and the founding director of the Hammonds House, said aside from showcasing known artists, the collection was a venue for local and lesser-known artists to shine.
“It was filling a big role. But the people who have been in charge of Atlanta Life did not have any concern about the legacy of the arts. The artists provided their work because it was going to a black collection and national entity. That was part of the appeal. It’s a shame that the implied promise of all the artists who allowed their work to be collected have no notion of where that work is now.”
Bailey, the Atlanta painter who submitted to the competition as a student, has since grown into an internationally acclaimed artist whose work has been shown all over the world, as well as the High Museum of Art and the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York. He has mixed feelings about where the art is. In 2005, he was commissioned by Atlanta Life to do a major installation marking the centennial of the company.
He hasn’t seen the $52,000 piece since, although it now sits in the firm’s lobby between bronze busts of Alonzo and Norris Herndon.
“It is not necessarily a problem for me. The problem comes about when the work is being sold and auctioned and you don’t know who owns it,” Bailey said. “But I know people in different parts of the country who have their work in the collection and they proudly display that in their biographies. So it is important to let people know where the work is.”
Nnadi said none of the works has ever been sold.
Amalia Amaki, a retired art history professor at Spelman College who appraised the work in 2005, has wondered for years where the collection is.
“The concern is that there doesn’t seem to be any community understanding of where it is. There are still people around who have work represented in the collection, or who have favorite pieces, who would appreciate seeing it from time to time,” said Amaki, adding that Atlanta Life has never made a formal book or catalog of the art available to the public. “Important collections do that. And for none of that to exist raises concerns. We feel the void.”