About Souls Grown Deep Foundation


Souls Grown Deep Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to documenting, preserving, and promoting the work of leading contemporary African American artists from the Southeastern United States. Our mission is to include their contributions in the canon of American art history through acquisitions from our collection by major museums, as well as through exhibitions, programs, and publications.

The Foundation derives 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." 


A vital resource for this genre, the Foundation’s holdings are extensive, with over 1,200 works by more than 160 artists, two-thirds of whom are women. Among the artists represented are Thornton Dial, Lonnie Holley, Mary T. Smith, Joe Minter, Nellie Mae Rowe, Purvis Young, Emmer Sewell, Ronald Lockett, Joe Light, and the quiltmakers 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 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 address a wide range of revelatory social and political subjects.

In 2012, the Foundation donated its archive of over 20,000 documentary photographs, videos, audio recordings, oral histories, and other material related to the artists in the collection to the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.


The Souls Grown Deep Foundation is dedicated to the meticulous observation of artists' rights, from legal title to intellectual property rights in partnership with the Artists Rights Society, and advancing the interests of the artists and their heirs and assigns represented in the Foundation's collection. We make no representations about the title or authenticity of artworks not included the Foundation's collection.

For information on image licensing works in the collection, please contact Janet Hicks at Artists Rights Society.


Souls Grown Deep Foundation was founded in 2010, but traces its roots to the mid-1980s, when William S. Arnett, an art historian and collector, began to collect the artworks of largely undiscovered African American artists across nine southeastern states. 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 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 culminated in an ambitious survey exhibition of this tradition titled Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South, presented in conjunction with the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta and in partnership with the City of Atlanta and the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University. The accompanying two-volume publication remains the most in-depth examination of the movement.

Several 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 four other museums; Thornton Dial in the 21st Century at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 2006; Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial, organized by the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 2011, which traveled to the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Mint Museum, and the High Museum of Art; and Fever Within: The Art of Ronald Lockett, organized by the Ackland Museum of Art in 2016, which traveled to the American Folk Art 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. To date, this program has led to the acquisition of over 200 works by 75 artists from the Foundation’s collection by museums including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the High Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Ackland Museum of Art, as well as multiple major exhibitions and publications. The Foundation anticipates facilitating acquisitions of hundreds more artworks by dozens of museums over the next several years.