William Arnett's Formative Role as Patron and Collector of African American Art

1995
Robert Hobbs

In 1993, The Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University contracted with Dr. Robert Hobbs, holder of The Rhoda Thalheimer Endowed Chair in American Art at Virginia Commonwealth University, to serve as curator of the exhibition “Souls Grown Deep” and editor of the accompanying book, which the museum planned to sponsor for the Cultural Olympiad of the Centennial Olympic in Atlanta in 1996. Dr. Maxwell Anderson, the museum’s director, commissioned Prof. Hobbs to undertake and in-depth study of the field of southern African American vernacular art in preparation for the production of the book and exhibition.

Over the ensuing year, Prof. Hobbs researched the field and the emergence of its contemporary popularity; conducted dozens of interviews with artists, curators, collectors, dealers, journalists, and museum professionals; and investigated the controversies about the field as depicted in the media and within the American art world.

The following is excerpted from Prof. Hobbs’s multipart article, written in 1995.

Since the majority of work shown in "Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South" comes from the Arnett Collection and since William Arnett’s role as patron has been crucial to the field’s present development, an understanding of his past experience as a collector and curator will provide a basis for appreciating his role as benefactor.

Arnett’s sponsorship has supplied many opportunities for African American artists at the grassroots level. One of his main contributions was to provide, for a number of years, major financial support for Hawkins Bolden, Thornton Dial Sr., Thornton Dial Jr., Joe Light, Lonnie Holley, Ronald Lockett, Charlie Lucas, Mose Tolliver, Archie Byron, and a number of other artists. Moreover, he has supported most of the artists whose work is in his collection through extensive purchases and ongoing encouragement, emphasizing his belief in their work. Without Arnett’s involvement, it is highly doubtful that African American vernacular art could have reached its present level of accomplishment and recognition. Because art is always a form of communication that requires a sender, a sign, and a receiver, Bill Arnett and a few like-minded collectors have served to provide African American artists in the South with the kind of financial and moral support that is esteemed in the mainstream art world.

A native of Georgia, Bill Arnett graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in English. He moved to Europe in the mid-1960s, traveled extensively, and became intimately familiar with many of the world’s great art collections. In 1966 he began collecting art as a way of furthering his knowledge, and he became a private art dealer in order to devote himself full-time to involvement with art objects. Over the years he formed a number of collections. The first phase of his collecting focused on ancient art from the Mediterranean, including Greek, Roman, and biblical period antiquities. In his second phase, he concentrated on the Far East and the Indian subcontinent. He was particularly intrigued with Chinese jade and ceramics. By the late 1960s and early 1970s he was collecting Pre-Columbian, Oceanic, and African art. The latter became his primary focus for the next fifteen years.

Although collecting for Bill Arnett involved extensive travel around the world, he also managed to curate many exhibitions for museums in his native South, where he lives with his wife, Judy, and their four sons. During the 1970s he put together numerous major exhibitions of his collections of antiquities, Chinese art, African art, Southeast Asian art, and multicultural comparisons, for many southern museums and institutions, including seven exhibitions at the High Museum in Atlanta. Works from Arnett’s collections have been shown in over one hundred American museums, galleries, universities, and other cultural institutions.

While some collectors like to impose their tastes on the creation of new works, Bill Arnett’s interest has always been in art that manifests the philosophy, vision, and highest aesthetic accomplishments of the cultures and individuals who created them. To that end, in dealing with living artists, he has tried to remove himself as much as possible from the artists’ creative processes, and has said, “Art made to satisfy another person’s standards or tastes will never reach its fullest potential.” Arnett has enormous confidence in his own knowledge and taste and feels no hesitancy about making judgments in areas in which standards of excellence have not yet been firmly established.

Bill Arnett first became interested in African American art in the winter of 1972-73 when he was in Gainesville, Florida, working with Professor Roy Craven, who was curating an exhibition from Arnett’s collection entitled "Beyond India: Buddhist and Hindu Art of Southeast Asia," for the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. During this visit, Craven took Arnett to Jesse Aaron’s house, and immediately Bill became fascinated with Aaron’s sculpture and its connections with his Native American, African American, and Euro-American ancestry. The next year Arnett tried to convince the High Museum to sponsor an exhibition and book of Aaron’s sculpture that would feature essays by specialists from the three traditions represented by the art. Unfortunately the project did not materialize. At the time, Arnett was acquainted with David Butler’s art, which he had seen in 1970 at the New Orleans Museum of Art, and later he began acquiring a few pieces of Sam Doyle’s work, but he was still unaware of the importance of the groundswell of black artists working throughout the South.

Arnett began to focus on putting together a representative collection of this material in the mid-1980s, when he met a number of outstanding southern African American vernacular artists and realized that there was a great amount of exciting work that had not been represented in the Corcoran exhibition "Black Folk Art in America 1930-1980." While the recognized southern black artistic creations that had entered public consciousness at that time were private works with localized followings, a new self-consciousness and spontaneous outpouring of creative energy was occurring throughout the South in the form of paintings, sculptures, and richly textured assemblages. These art forms continued to rely on the common language of yard shows, traditional motifs, and religious themes, and thus maintained a sense of community, even though they dealt with a range of issues rarely found in earlier work.

The major catalyst that cemented Bill Arnett’s commitment to this material was his first meeting with Lonnie Holley in Birmingham in late 1986. Arnett had suspected the existence of a dynamic African American visual art tradition that had not surfaced. Similar traditions—music, for example—had already come to light. Arnett wondered why a parallel development in the visual arts had not been documented. Holley’s extensive environment, which incorporates literally hundreds of assemblages and sandstone sculptures, was the galvanizing evidence for Arnett. He told Holley, “I have been all over the world and have seen most of the art that the world considers great, but I have never been anywhere more important than here. Something is going on in the South that people do not appreciate fully, and it needs to be part of the history of art.” He added, “The two of us can work for that understanding to take place.” Arnett’s contact with Holley proved to be crucial to his perspective on southern black vernacular art.

After his meeting with Holley, Arnett began to collect in earnest the work of African American vernacular artists. He soon became aware that these individuals were not being fairly treated, and that the conditions under which they lived and worked were not conducive to sustained creativity. “There was too much poverty and exploitation by collectors and others,” he recalled. “And there was far too little encouragement from either the artists’ own communities or the outside world.” 

Strongly disbelieving in the Romantic myth that poverty, pain, and psychological torment aid creativity, Arnett made a concerted effort to develop a system that would allow artists to fulfill their potential. He became friends with a number of them and found out what they wanted for themselves, their families, and their work. He tried to explain to the artists the historic significance of their work, and the ways it could assist in the implementation of social change. He paid each of them substantially more money than they had been receiving, and explained to them that others would also be willing to pay such prices if the artists would establish a firm price structure.

Arnett stressed the need for the artists to do their best work and to follow their own convictions rather than fulfilling orders from “tourists.” The art world needed to be overwhelmed, he maintained, because it was not going to accept the idea that important art was coming from the black uneducated South unless the evidence was irrefutable. If the artists would concentrate on creating at their peak levels, Arnett promised that he would make the world aware of their contributions.

Many African American artists were reluctant to express themselves openly in their art because family and friends would accuse them of practicing “Hoodoo.” Some were also fearful of possible recriminations from whites if the art reflected criticism of social wrongs. Arnett talked with them at length about these real and justifiable anxieties and stressed the necessity that the artists respect their insights. In this way they would realize their creative potential, and the world would come to appreciate the relevance and significance of this art. Because a number of the artists were afraid they could not make a living from their work if they stopped producing what their customers were ordering, Arnett decided to pay them weekly stipends (usually five hundred dollars per week or more), with the proviso that he would have the right of first refusal and the money paid would be applied to a purchase price. His primary goals were to remove the economic and social stresses from the artists’ lives so that they could reach their full potential, to acquire a critical mass of work from each individual in order to help establish each one’s merit, and to support the claim that this work constitutes an extremely important twentieth-century artistic development. He encouraged the artists with whom he was working to substantially raise the prices for their work, and he agreed to pay these increased prices, provided the same amount was exacted from all other collectors. 

When word got around that Arnett had made such arrangements with a few individuals, many other African American vernacular artists in the South requested that he give them similar forms of support. Arnett says, “I tried to be all things to all people. I was ridiculously idealistic, probably way too naive, and was creating a totally unworkable system. It worked to everyone’s benefit for a while, but when the outside world figured out what was going on, and didn’t want it to happen, it was over. The artists were then turned back into pawns, thrown back into a corrupt system of exploitation that was about to come to an end, but didn’t.” For the past four or five years, Arnett has had no contractual agreements with artists, although he maintains close friendships with many of them.

In November 1993 the television program 60 Minutes featured an “expose” of injustices to African American vernacular artists, and focused on Bill Arnett as the major purported villain. This segment used Morley Safer’s interviews with Bessie Harvey and Charlie Lucas in its attempt to indict Arnett, and it contained edited footage with Thornton Dial that made him look as if he had been tricked into believing that he, rather than Arnett, owned the house in which he lived. Despite this careful editing, the program contained a number of inconsistencies, including the following statement by Arnett, which disproves Safer’s accusation that Arnett was not informing Dial about who controlled title to his home: “In the case of Dial, he gives scarcely a thought to the taunts, and believe me, he gets them, that ‘hey, whitey has your house’ or ‘whitey’s taking control of you.’ This comes from within his community as well as from outside.”

As is often the case, the truth is more interesting than the television version. In the late eighties Dial’s neighborhood was developing into a dangerous place to live, with drive-by shootings and robberies becoming commonplace. Dial’s sudden increase in wealth was general knowledge. Consequently, he was constantly being pressured (and threatened) for money. In addition, Dial was under siege from a barrage of collectors and dealers who quite literally camped out on his porch.

According to Clara Mae Dial, Thornton’s wife, one prominent collecting couple made “about a dozen visits to us to try to talk my husband into breaking his agreement with Bill,” often invading Dial’s house unannounced at midnight or early morning. The Dials had no more privacy or security, and Clara Mae Dial asked Arnett to help them move out of the neighborhood.

Arnett found a beautiful secluded house only ten minutes away from the Dials’ neighborhood. It was in an upper-middle-class white neighborhood, and Arnett was warned against trying to help a black family move into it. He put a deposit on the house in his own name, and tried in vain for months to obtain a mortgage for the Dials. Ultimately Arnett had to refinance his house to obtain $350,000, which he turned around and paid for the Alabama house that provided Dial with a place to live and work. Dial and his family were completely aware of the entire nature of the transaction, and it was general knowledge that Arnett owned the house.

According to Arnett, 60 Minutes first approached him to arrange an interview with Dial in order to celebrate him as an American hero. “When I seemed skeptical,” Arnett states, “the producer, Jeffrey Fager, said, ‘Look, we would never want to embarrass Dial. This is going to be a very positive piece. Morley likes to occasionally celebrate the accomplishments of great people like Dial who are unknown to the public at large.”

After viewing the program, Dial’s brief response to the house episode was poignant. “They acted like I was supposed to be surprised, but I knew about the house. Bill don’t own me.”

In the course of researching many artists included in Souls Grown Deep, this writer has had the opportunity to discuss the 60 Minutes episode with Hawkins Bolden and his sister Elizabeth Williams, Thornton Dial, Jr. and Sr., Lonnie Holley, Joe Light, Charlie Lucas, Jimmy Sudduth, Mose Tolliver, Ronald Lockett, and Henry Speller. Although Lucas refused to discuss his dealings with Arnett and would not allow himself to be videotaped, all the other artists, with the exception of Speller, who was very ill and who could only express his pleasure in hearing the name of his friend Bill, talked openly on tape about their relationships with Arnett. They all agreed on the importance of his support, the honesty with which he dealt with them, his ready appreciation of their most challenging art, his important role as a buffer between them and potential clients, and his continued friendship and support even after he and they had ceased to have business dealings. The only regrets voiced were that several were no longer able to support themselves in the same fashion as when they worked with Bill Arnett. These unedited videotapes not only testify to the significance of these relationships, they also indicate the artists’ tremendous need for their work to be acknowledged, understood, and esteemed.

Even though Bessie Harvey later publicly apologized to Arnett at a gathering of folk art curators, scholars, collectors, and artists in New Jersey, and her apologies (“I’m sorry I let those people use me to hurt you”) were witnessed by a number of them, and even though Dial has fiercely contested the veracity of the story, the program has not been seriously challenged in the way that Safer’s companion feature on the alleged hype in the contemporary art world has been. The problem with this program is that it has made suspect the work of Thornton Dial in particular and the tradition of African American southern vernacular art in general, even though the producer of 60 Minutes told me that his aim was not to hurt Dial but to “get Arnett.”

One of Safer’s ploys was the inherently racist and paternalistic device of characterizing African American artists as poor benighted dupes so that he could assume the role of the white liberator. According to critic Butler Hancock, approaches such as this exemplify the pernicious heritage of colonialism and racism that still plagues today’s world:

To dictate that the self-taught artist must first be discussed as victim or potential victim before he or she can even be considered as an artist can become as benignly colonial as the attitude it seeks to remedy. As with cases of exploitation, individual artistic talent and vision become secondary to a generic label and the sensibilities of the “protector.”

In other words, this type of narrative permits Safer to aggrandize himself as a spokesperson for African Americans even though he has to reduce them to victims in order to do so. Hancock’s analogy can be applied to the preposterousness of Safer’s accusations by showing how they would play with mainstream artists:

Imagine if every scholarly discussion of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work focused on his heroin addiction and whether or not he was ripped off by drug-providing collectors, or whether Vrej Baghoomian or Robert Miller was the most sensitive representative of his estate. Consider if every lecture on the Renaissance masters was interrupted to determine if the Medicis commissioned any of the work, exercising undue influence on its style and content.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has commented on the deleterious effects of this phenomenon as practiced by African American writers and scholars on their own traditions in the afterword to a recent edition of Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men:

"Part of Hurston’s received heritage . . . was the idea that racism had reduced black people to mere ciphers, to beings who only react to an omnipresent racial oppression, whose culture is 'deprived' where different, and whose psyches are in the main 'pathological.'. . . Hurston thought this idea degrading, its propagation a trap, and railed against it. It was, she said, upheld by “the sobbing dirty deal.” 

Reconfigured almost six decades later in the form of a white “liberal” newscaster ready to defend artists he has worked hard to picture as helpless, this approach is still patronizing and demeaning to blacks.

In spite of these distractions, the collaboration between Bill Arnett and the artists he has supported has been enormously successful. It has been a two-way learning process and a time of increased self-awareness among all participants who have been committed to carrying the message of this regional and ethnic development to the world. Using art as a special communique between particular regions and an international audience has become an ambition of many of the artists in this study, as Lonnie Holley explained in his application for the Cultural Olympiad Regional Designation Program:

"I would like this project [entitled The Goal of Creativity] to stand as a reminder to the people of my community and to the world that the goal of creativity in every place, for us as human beings, is the same—to face and solve the problems and fears that are the same for everyone, for every race and for every country."