About Souls Grown Deep Foundation

Souls Grown Deep Foundation is the only non-profit organization dedicated to documenting, preserving, exhibiting and promoting the work of contemporary African American artists from the American South. A vital resource for this genre, the Foundation’s holdings are extensive, with works by more than 160 artists—among them Thornton Dial, Lonnie Holley, Joe Minter, Purvis Young, Ronald Lockett, Mary T. Smith, Joe Light, and the quilt makers of Gee’s Bend. The Foundation’s collection is an essential resource for students, scholars, and the public alike. Ranging from large-scale assemblages to works on paper, the Foundation is particularly strong in works dating from the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. to the end of the twentieth century. The Foundation draws its name from a 1921 poem by Langston Hughes (1902-67) titled "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," the last line of which is "My soul has grown deep like the rivers."

Developed outside of the structure of schools, galleries, and museums, these rich yet largely unknown African American visual art traditions present a distinct post–Civil Rights phenomenon that offers powerful insight and fresh perspectives into the most compelling political and social issues of our time. The Foundation promotes these artists, who addressed many of the same key issues of the mid-late 20th century as iconic contemporary artists, but through the lens of a distinct and intrinsically American experience. Through reinserting them into the narrative of artistic production in America, the Foundation aims to readjust the canon of contemporary American art history to better reflect the nuanced, polemic, and diverse experience of America.

Souls Grown Deep Foundation has worked in coordination with leading museums and scholars to produce groundbreaking exhibitions, publications, using its extensive holdings, which include over 1,200 artworks as well as a collection of archival photographs, videos, and documents related to the artists in the collection. Ranging from large-scale sculptural works to works on paper, the objects in the collection often shed light on key moments in American history such as the Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights movement, and the election of the country’s first African American president. The roots of these works can be traced to slave cemeteries and secluded woods. Following the Civil War, when the southern agrarian economy collapsed and rural African American sharecroppers and tenant farmers were forced to migrate for survival to major population centers—particularly in and around Birmingham, Alabama, where iron and steel production created jobs—a new and more public language of quilts, funerary, and yard arts arose. Beyond painting, sculpture, assemblage, drawing, and textile-making, this tradition also included music, dance, oral literature, informal theater, culinary arts, and more. Much like jazz musicians, the artists of this tradition reflect the rich, symbolic world of the black rural South through highly charged works that tackle a wide range of revelatory social and political subjects.

Souls Grown Deep Foundation was founded in 2010, but traces its roots to the mid-1980s, when William S. Arnett, an art historian, scholar and patron, began to collect the artworks of previously undiscovered self-taught African American artists across nine southeastern states. The majority of the works and ephemeral documents held by the Foundation were compiled by Arnett and his sons over three decades, with the goal of creating a collection that could serve as a record and legacy of this culture. By the mid-1990s Arnett’s efforts resulted in an ambitious project to survey the visual tradition of the African American South: an exhibition and two-volume book, titled Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South, which was ultimately presented at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta and remains the most in-depth scholarly examination of the movement.

Exhibitions in recent years have drawn works primarily from the collection today in the care of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, including The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2002, which traveled to the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Cleveland Museum of Art, Chrysler Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, High Museum of Art, and other museums; Thornton Dial in the 21st Century at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 2006; and Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial, organized by the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 2011, which traveled to New Orleans Museum of Art, the Mint Museum, and the High Museum of Art.

In 2014 the Souls Grown Deep Foundation began a multi-year program to transfer the majority of works in its care to the permanent collections of leading American and international art museums.

The desired outcomes of this dissemination of artworks are 1) new and authoritative scholarship by leading academics and curators about the importance and influence of hitherto underappreciated African-American artists; and 2) acknowledgment by the university and museum establishment of these artists’ fundamental contribution to the narrative of American art history, manifested in exhibitions, publications, and programming yielding increased public awareness and appreciation.