High above Peachtree Street, on the walls of the Atlanta Life Financial Group, hangs eight stunning prints by artist Jacob Lawrence.
“Eight Studies for The Book of Genesis,” as it is called, draws from Lawrence’ memories of attending Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church.
The series is part of a massive art collection compiled by Atlanta Life in the 1980s.
But as stunning as the series is, few lovers of art will likely ever see it or anything else in the collection.
Since moving from its long-time headquarters on Auburn Avenue, which offered easier access to the art, Atlanta Life has essentially shut out the public from the collection. While most of the collection is on walls, but behind closed doors at the insurance firm, the rest of it is locked in storage at a Midtown facility
“We are an insurance firm,” said Roosevelt Giles, a member of the Atlanta Life Board. “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.”
Most of the art, more than 200 pieces valued at more than $1.3 million, was collected between 1980 and 1991, when Atlanta Life Insurance ran a nationwide art contest to attract and promote black artists.
Along with Lawrence, the collection features the works of Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden and Atlanta’s Radcliffe Bailey, who entered the contest as a college student.
“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.”
Henrietta Antonin, Atlanta Life’s retired vice president of public affairs, has been a vocal critic on how the firm is handling the art.
She was the major curator of the collection.
“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?”
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