Rand Suffolk, Nancy & Holcombe T. Green, Jr. director of the High Museum of Art, announced this morning that the museum has received 54 works from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, one of the most significant acquisitions by the High’s folk and self-taught art department since its establishment in 1994.
The acquisition of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation greatly deepens the High’s holdings of contemporary art from the South. Today, the foundation, which was founded by William S. Arnett, holds the largest and foremost collection of works of contemporary African-American artists from the southern United States, encompassing over 1,200 works by more than 160 artists as well as a collection of archival photographs, videos and documents relating to artists in the collection. To showcase these new acquisitions, the High will increase the physical footprint of the folk and self-taught art galleries by 30 percent as part of a permanent collection reinstallation planned for 2018.
“Ever since my father and our family began collecting, documenting and preserving this art form four decades ago, we have been committed to giving it enduring institutional presence in the region of its origin, as well as in our hometown, to complement its international impact,” said Paul Arnett, William S. Arnett’s son. “This acquisition is an important milestone for the South.”
“When we unveil works from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in our expanded galleries it will be a defining moment that makes undeniable the magnitude of achievement that has been realized by artists here in the South, regardless of their level of training,” said Katherine Jentleson, Ph.D., who joined the High in 2015 as the inaugural Merrie and Dan Boone Curator of Folk and Self-taught Art. “This is art that breaks boundaries and defies expectations, challenging long-held assumptions about where great art comes from and whom we acknowledge as the leading artists of our time.”
This acquisition is the latest in a series of major milestones for the High’s folk and self-taught art department. In 2014 the High received a $2.5 million gift from Atlanta-based patrons Dan Boone and his late wife Merrie Boone to support and expand the High’s folk and self-taught art initiatives, including the endowment of a permanent, full-time curatorial position. Since Jentleson’s arrival in 2015, the museum has added 177 artworks to the folk and self-taught art collection and continues to build its robust special exhibition program, which has included Green Pastures: In Memory of Thornton Dial, Sr., A Cut Above: Wood Sculpture from the Gordon W. Bailey Collection and the solo retrospective Fever Within: The Art of Ronald Lockett.
The combined gift and purchase from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation features paintings, sculptures and works on paper by 33 contemporary African-American artists from the southern United States, including 13 works by Thornton Dial (1928–2016) that span four decades of the artist’s astounding career. For many years, the High has held the largest public collection of Dial’s work and has recognized his artistic genius through exhibition projects. With the addition of these paintings and sculptures, the museum nearly doubles its holdings to include paintings and assemblages spanning Dial’s entire 30-year career, giving the critically acclaimed Alabama artist a lasting legacy within the High’s world-class collection.
The acquisition also features 11 quilts created by the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, tripling the museum’s examples of this unparalleled tradition in American art. Quilts by Louisiana Bendolph, Mary Lee Bendolph and Annie Mae Young complement existing holdings by these artists, while work by Lucy T. Pettway, Arlonzia Pettway, Arcola Pettway, China Pettway, Jennie Pettway, Agatha Bennett, Polly Bennett and Flora Moore enters the collection for the first time. The works demonstrate the incredible legacy of these women’s artistic production, which parallels many of the experiments with color, flatness and abstraction associated with postwar American painting.
Also included are works by Lonnie Holley and Ronald Lockett, artists whose work the High has been collecting since the 1990s, joined by sculpture from their Alabama contemporaries Joe Minter and Richard Dial. “I am honored to have my art be included in this gift. But I am also sad that so many other artists, many of them were my friends, have passed on without being able to see days like this,” said Holley. “I am grateful to Bill Arnett for his forward vision, for his courage and his dedication to saving the art of my people from the bulldozers of history, and for his refusal to let our culture’s greatness go unrecognized. He told me the first day I met him that my art deserved to be included in the most important museums in the world and that he wouldn’t rest until that happened.”
In addition to Minter and Richard Dial, artists entering the High’s collection for the first time include Eldren Bailey, one of four Georgia artists represented in the acquisition, Charles Williams, Vernon Burwell and Georgia Speller. A significant group of paintings and sculpture by Joe Light, as well as individual works by artists such as Archie Byron, Mary T. Smith, Royal Robertson and Purvis Young, complement existing holdings by those artists.
The High’s acquisition is part of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation’s strategic gift/purchase program designed to strengthen the representation of African-American artists from the southern United States in the collections of leading museums across the country, including the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“This gift dovetails remarkably well with our existing collection—essentially adding strength on strength to one of the most distinctive and important collections of its kind,” said Suffolk. “We’re grateful to the Souls Grown Deep Foundation for the opportunity to deepen our commitment to these artists and recognize their impact on contemporary art.”
“This landmark acquisition is a capstone of years of collaboration with the High Museum of Art, the anchoring institution in the Foundation’s hometown of Atlanta. We are very pleased to add dozens of significant works to the High’s collection of contemporary art and look forward to years of future collaboration through insightful programming, displays and publications,” said Maxwell L. Anderson, president of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.
The High began collecting the work of contemporary self-taught artists in 1975 and became the first museum outside of Alabama to make a major purchase of work by Bill Traylor in 1982. The following decade included a significant acquisition of work by Howard Finster and the foundational gift of more than 150 works of art from T. Marshall Hahn, which established the High as a leader in work by Southern self-taught artists. Subsequent gifts in the 2000s, including more than 130 works by Nellie Mae Rowe from the Judith Alexander Foundation and more than 80 works by various artists from the collection of Gordon W. Bailey, reinforced this strength.
Since establishing the department in 1994, the High has presented other notable exhibitions, including Howard Finster: Visions from Paradise Garden (1996), The Quilts of Gee’s Bend (2006), Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial (2012–2013) and Bill Traylor: Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum of Art and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts (2012–2013).