Souls Grown Deep and the Cultural Politics of the Atlanta Olympics - Radical History Review

Spring, 2007
Sally Anne Duncan

Artifacts are inherently more powerful than words. To see an aesthetic or a social vision realized in the material world is to be captured by it, to lose one’s grip on alternative possibilities.

 

—Dell Upton, The Power of Things: Recent Studies in American Vernacular Architecture

Contemporary African American self-taught or vernacular art—the product of artists working outside the traditional systems of fine arts making—constitutes a world of its own. At best, it is described as a parallel universe to the high art galaxy; at worst, it is patronized or ignored.(1)  With a few notable exceptions, these artists have yet to cross over into the high stakes world of contemporary art with its many brokers—collectors, dealers, critics, historians, and museum curators. Discerning individuals from the high art world who have some regard for vernacular makers will on occasion acknowledge the presence of potential genius.(2)  Art museums rarely acquire and display these artists, and even when the self-taught are allowed into the “big house,” as one collector observes, “it is usually on questionable terms.”(3)  There are certain vested interests in keeping these artists as outsiders.

Indeed, the power politics behind this aesthetic divide are illustrated in an account of two art exhibitions that took place in Atlanta, Georgia, during the 1996 Olympic Games. Rings: Five Passions in World Art, an exhibition complete with catalog, audio tour, and CD-ROM opened at the High Museum of Art, the city’s leading art institution. It featured well-known and costly works of art from Europe, China, Africa, India, and the Americas arranged in a celebratory narrative of modernist global art history.(4) With its themes of courage, love, and sacrifice, Rings was planned as a cultural metaphor for the Olympics themselves.(5)  The Olympic public relations office announced it on banners and posters everywhere. Despite some criticism that it pandered to popular tastes, Rings brought record crowds to the museum.

Concurrent with Rings, the exhibition Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South opened for Olympic audiences in City Hall East, an alternative space outside the city’s cultural center. Souls Grown Deep presented more than five hundred works by self-taught artists. These artists came from urban and rural communities in the Deep South that were largely working class and black. Their art marked the historic emergence of a vigorous but virtually invisible aesthetic tradition in post – civil rights America. It was the first time that contemporary African American vernacular artists had been shown together in a comprehensive exhibition. Yet for reasons I will discuss, Olympic audiences did not get to see this exhibit even as discerning critics were giving it highest praise and urging visitors to attend.

Unprecedented as it was, Souls Grown Deep was forced to the periphery of the Olympic stage. A vital opportunity was missed to give international visibility to the South’s unique community of African American self-taught artists. This essay examines the social and cultural processes that exalted a banal global art show while suppressing a landmark African American visual performance. This is a case study of the cultural politics of Atlanta, the vested interests of the fine art and folk art worlds, and, most of all, of the performative power of art exhibitions themselves. In Atlanta, the experiential knowledge embedded in the African American artists’ modes of creation and communication in Souls Grown Deep provided a potent social counterpoint to a falsely transcendent Olympic vision embodied in Rings. 

Art exhibitions are about power, the power to define and shape “truths.” Exhibitions are often promoted, however, as neutral modes of communication in which material objects as “works of art” are presumed to speak freely for themselves.(6)  That this is rarely the case can be best illustrated in exhibitions where authority over narratives of meaning becomes a battleground.(7)  In the instance of Rings and Souls Grown Deep, the contested issues at stake included the social ambition of Atlanta’s cultural elites; the lived experience African Americans expressed through their art; the boundaries of the contemporary art world; and the intransigence of the folk art community entrenched in its own markets and museums. Let us first examine how two such polar exhibitions came into being and the interests that created them.

Making the Olympics, Making Art Exhibitions

Much as world’s fairs and expositions were the mega-events of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Olympic Games have become their successors in the late twentieth and the twenty-first.(8) Like the mega-events that preceded them, the Olympics are intended to reflect—and even help shape—a national culture. They include spectacular mass pageants and parades, official ceremonies, and, like the earlier fairs, hold out the promise of economic and cultural revitalization for the cities and regions that host them.(9)

The 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games were a signature event for a city celebrated in recent decades for its economic and racial progress. It was an opportunity for Atlanta to draw audiences from around the world, advance its economic growth, and renounce its historical role as the heart of a racially divided America. Inclusion was the watchword in its Olympic master plan—inclusion of both the local community (read African American) and other nations and cultures. The 1996 Olympics marked the hundredth anniversary of the modern Games and participation reached an all-time high: 197 countries and 10,000 athletes taking part in 26 sports comprising 271 events over 16 days.(10)

Side by side with the athletics, the Cultural Olympiad, a long-standing tradition at the Olympic Games, provided Atlanta’s arts organizations with a rare opportunity for international visibility. Each host city uses the festival to promote its own regional cultural identity. Some cities went so far as to present only local artists, as at Montreal and Moscow in 1976 and 1980, respectively.(11) Atlanta, instead, promised a wide array of musicians, performers, and artists from around the globe, while at the same time giving high visibility to the artistic life of the American South.(12)

Two festivals were strategically staged prior to the Olympic Games to attract international audiences and counter the stereotypes of the Deep South and Atlanta as inhospitable destinations for people of color. The first festival held in the fall of 1993, !Mexico! A Cultural Tapestry, targeted audiences from Mexico, Latin America, and the Hispanic Americas. The second, Celebrate Africa! held in the summer of 1994, reached out to the African and African American communities. For the latter, Olympic organizers teamed up with the National Black Arts Festival held biennially in Atlanta, to market the city’s image of itself as a place of interracial connectedness and cultural diversity.

Atlanta’s Olympics were also the most commercial and media-driven in Olympic history to date. The organizing committee sold more than $1 billion in corporate sponsorships, a practice begun in 1985 when the rights to use the Olympic logo were traded. Downtown Atlanta’s Olympic circle resembled a trade show festooned with sixty-five-foot Coca-Cola bottles and myriad corporate logos.(13) On July 27, a pipe bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park, closing it down. After only three days, crowds had returned by the tens of thousands, ignoring rumors of terrorism.(14)

With its manicured lawns, commemorative plaques, and sculptures, the park is one of the very few legacies of the Olympics remaining in the city.(15) In the midst of this commercial blitz, the Olympic Arts Festival (OAF) promoted more than two hundred ticketed performances and twenty-one sponsored exhibitions (Rings and Souls Grown Deep included), as well as numerous non-sponsored exhibits and performances.

Atlanta’s High Museum of Art exemplified the city’s cultural ambitions: an art institution that after the summer of 1996 aimed to shed its provincial image. The High is Atlanta’s metropolitan art museum, part of the Woodruff Foundation, the city’s wealthiest philanthropy.(16)  In 1983 the museum’s pristine white building, designed by the architect Richard Meier, opened to great fanfare.(17)  What better location for a major exhibit of international masterpieces, especially since the High’s permanent collection was widely considered mediocre at best?(18)  Taking over the entire museum, Rings: Five Passions in World Art contained works from every continent represented in the interlocking symbolism of the five Olympic rings. The art was to be arranged thematically to denote five different “universal” human emotions: love, anguish, awe, triumph, and joy, a concept intended to connect the art to the sports performances.(19)

Using Rings as a springboard, the High was poised to make the leap from a respectable regional museum to one with international status and to build both social capital and cash for acquisitions and more ambitious programming.(20) Long before Rings opened, the museum announced two “blockbuster” exhibitions of twentieth- century masters to follow it: Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. These large-scale endeavors, firsts for the Southeast, were drawn from the holdings of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.(21) The High Museum director Ned Rifkin proclaimed that these exhibits and Rings “herald[ed] a new day for the High . . . that would change the museum forever.”(22)

Rifkin enlisted none other than John Carter Brown, the newly retired director of the National Gallery in Washington, to come up with an Olympic exhibition concept and organize the show. A member of the museum world’s elite, Brown took advantage of thirty-two years of art world contacts to secure loans, aided as well by U.S. embassies and the enthusiasm that the Olympics had generated in other countries.(23) Many of the 125 objects that arrived at the High were sent at considerable risk, and some, like Rodin’s sculpture The Kiss and Matisse’s equally revered paint- ing from Russia, The Dance, had rarely if ever traveled. Museums in Asia and South Korea sent national treasures, and the Prado in Madrid sent a prized El Greco.

Rings had a $3 million budget — $2 million from the Atlanta Olympic Committee, the rest in corporate sponsorship from Atlanta-based Equifax. It bore the much sought-after Olympic logo. Several months before the exhibit opened, the catalog was chosen as a Book of the Month Club selection offered to the club’s one million members. This enhanced the exhibit’s national marketing and gave it a kind of Good Housekeeping seal of approval.(24) The one thousand advance ticket sales, new museum memberships, and the thirty thousand copies of the catalog sold buoyed the High’s ambitions.

Souls Grown Deep, on the other hand, was the inspiration of William S. Arnett, a local Atlanta collector. Several years before the Olympics, Arnett had conceived of the theme for a comprehensive exhibition drawn from his collection of contemporary African American vernacular art, and he had proposed it to several art museums around the country. Three museums had tentatively agreed to host it: the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the National Museum of American Art in Washington, and Atlanta’s own High Museum. When the Olympic opportunity presented itself, it made sense to have the exhibition begin at the High, so the schedule was changed. Soon after, to Arnett’s dismay, the museum reneged on its agreement to host his collection; Rifkin had already made the deal with Brown for an exhibition of global art.(25)

There was no love lost between the High Museum’s leadership and William Arnett due to a scandal in the 1970s over Chinese porcelain in which Arnett (also a connoisseur and collector of Asian art) exposed items in a museum fund-raiser as fakes. After discovering the work of southern, self-taught black artists in the late 1980s, Arnett proclaimed that these artists had been long overlooked and were indeed the finest exponents of the American South. He did not suffer fools gladly. His generous support of living artists and his outspoken advocacy made him a lightening rod for criticism and controversy.(26) It was widely acknowledged that Arnett and Rifkin did not see eye to eye. Arnett had been pushing the museum to bring self-taught art into its twentieth-century galleries and have it judged side by side with contemporary art.27 “Zealous, articulate, and aggressively acquisitive,” folk art curator Lynda Roscoe Hartigan observed, “Arnett has upped the ante intellectually and commercially, pushing hard for a crossover into contemporary art.”(28)

The High’s withdrawal of support as the host institution could have spelled the end of Souls Grown Deep as an Olympic event had Maxwell Anderson, the director at the William C. Carlos Museum at Emory University, not stepped in and offered to sponsor the exhibition. The Carlos was mainly known as a museum of antiquities, while ironically the High had recently announced a new curatorial position in folk art and an expanded commitment to exhibiting the work of self-taught southern artists.(29) Anderson recognized Arnett’s prowess as a collector and prized his gifts of African art and antiquities to the Carlos Museum. Unlike Rifkin, he valued Arnett’s zealous devotion to African American vernacular artists who were far outside of the mainstream. Through Arnett and his sons Paul and Matthew, Anderson, too, had come to admire the power, quality, and authenticity of such artists as Thornton Dial, Lonnie Holley, and Mose Tolliver. The new arrangement spoke directly to Anderson’s enthusiasm and the High director’s apparent vendetta against Arnett and his collection.

Thus the Carlos Museum became the sponsor for the Souls Grown Deep exhibition together with an accompanying show of the recent work of Thornton Dial. Anderson arranged for a space in City Hall East to house the encyclopedic Souls Grown Deep exhibition. While large enough to mount such an immense installation, this former Sears building was, nevertheless, in a depressed area on the outskirts of the Olympic circle. A press release announcing Souls Grown Deep rationalized its out-of-the-way placement as an opportunity to make fine arts accessible to city employees (in City Hall East), neighborhood residents (an African American neighborhood), and Olympic visitors.(30)

The fate of Souls Grown Deep hung in the balance once again when, for personal reasons, Anderson was forced to resign in the fall of 1995. In his place, a committee from the Carlos Museum was created to oversee the exhibition. The months leading up to the opening were filled with intrigue on the part of Carlos Museum people, and at one point the exhibition was actually cancelled—something that the Arnetts only discovered when a city hall contractor informed them that his work assignment for renovating the City Hall East space for the exhibition had been voided. They also learned that their contract contained a clause that would allow Emory University to terminate the show at will and make the Arnetts liable for any costs that the museum had incurred up to that point.(31)

Mounting the exhibit turned into an operational nightmare despite the Carlos’s more than adequate financing of $200,000 from the Cultural Olympiad and corporate sponsors. After Anderson’s departure, the Carlos Museum organizers balked at every expense, from making and mounting photo-murals to creating exhibition posters and promotion. The Arnetts ended up doing the lion’s share of the work. Matthew Arnett oversaw the creation of the exhibition entrance — an installation piece by artist Lonnie Holley—with the help of the artist and a supportive Carlos Museum worker who had been ordered not to assist them.(32)

The entrance to the exhibition constituted a profoundly liminal moment: it reconstructed Lonnie Holley’s backyard in Birmingham, Alabama, an artistic environment, as it turns out, that would soon fall victim to bulldozers and urban renewal.(33) Visitors entered the exhibit through this recreated outdoor environment filled with dirt, outbuildings, chain-link fence, and numerous assemblages of found objects Holley had constructed. This resonant entryway set the stage for the lab- yrinth of galleries that followed. It gave visitors a sense of the visual and spatial environments from which many of these artists draw their inspiration, as well as of the urban and rural spaces that are their “canvases.” The mandarins at the Carlos Museum viewed the installation as an embarrassment, nothing more than “rusty tin and rotten wood.”(34)

The museum hired Robert Hobbs, a scholar from Virginia Commonwealth University, to serve as the curator of the exhibition, but it was William Arnett who planned its design. Arnett envisioned a series of small connected spaces in which the visitor would encounter the thirty-seven artists individually. Rather than show only one or two works each, he allowed them to be represented generously. Thus the audience could come to appreciate their prolific invention and variety. There were some interesting juxtapositions as visitors moved through the maze-like series of intimate galleries along a prescribed path. For many who found their way to City Hall East, the visit proved a transformative experience.

Holley’s work covered every inch of the entrance in the reconstruction of a corner of his yard. Hundreds of carvings, paintings, and sculptures made from objects salvaged from garbage dumps and landfills were tucked into the dirt spread on the floor, all amid native greenery, chain-link fence, a rusted spring mattress, and a ramshackle tin shed. This environment served as a contextual counterpoint to Holley’s single works elegantly displayed in the first galleries of the exhibition as discrete works of art. Other artists worked in equally varied media. Ralph Griffin and Bessie Harvey transformed roots and branches into animated figures . Mose Tolliver and Jimmie Lee Sudduth painted expressionist faces and figures on wood and tin surfaces. Georgia and Henry Speller executed erotic and colorful ink drawings. Purvis Young made powerful and beautiful near-abstract paintings that commented on political and personal issues related to the African American experience. Thornton Dial and his family members, Thornton Jr., Richard Dial, Arthur Dial, and Ronald Lockett created sculptures and painted reliefs that dominated much of the remaining exhibition space. Lonnie Holley adapted found materials into his own complex symbolic and conceptual language. Thornton Dial constructed wall hangings out of rusted metal, found objects, and impasto whose rich textural qualities held complex social meanings. Dial’s monumental pieces concluded the exhibition .(35)

The out-of-the-way location of Souls Grown Deep emphasized its symbolic distance from Atlanta’s Olympic propaganda. Most of the works of art in City Hall East harked back to the experience of African Americans who came of age in the South during and after the civil rights era. There was little that celebrated the “New South.”(36) These artists used found materials deeply rooted in a black working-class experience. Themes ranged from coded personal narratives to global issues of racism, homelessness, ecology, and civil rights. Thornton Dial and Holley stood out as skilled masters of complex social commentary who addressed the realities of a racially and economically divided South. 

It became clear that the city’s power brokers did not wish to include these African American perspectives in Atlanta’s new image as a cultural mecca. While Rings, with its mawkish international theme, was endlessly touted through Olympic advertising and promotion, shamefully little was done to make Souls Grown Deep known to the public. The Carlos Museum committee resisted attempts to promote the exhibition, even refusing to display posters advertising it that had been provided to them. Although the show was a ticketed event, the exhibition’s location did not appear on the official visitor map, an oversight that seriously limited the attendance of Olympic visitors.(37) In addition, there were logistical problems before and during the Olympics around ticketing. Corporations bought blocks of concert tickets that then went unused, and many visitors were turned away from musical groups that played to empty seats. The hotline informed callers to be at the Souls Grown Deep exhibit at 10 a.m. or they would not get in, suggesting hordes of viewers that did not materialize. For those who did venture forth, the address given for City Hall East by the Olympic hotline turned out to be an empty lot.

The most damaging incident, indeed, was the cancellation of the Souls Grown Deep catalog. Exhibition catalogs are the permanent legacy of all art exhibitions, and the Olympic exhibits were no exception. The exhibition catalog for Souls Grown Deep, already years in the works, was sabotaged late in 1995 only months before its publication. Earlier publicity from the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games had highlighted the production of “a lavishly illustrated and well documented book serving as the exhibition catalogue” for Souls Grown Deep. It was to be one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken by the art publisher, Harry N. Abrams, with over 410 color illustrations and contributions from more than twenty recognized specialists in a variety of fields.(38) The book, clearly a selling point for the exhibition, would also have become a vital piece of documentation for the artworks’ future.(39) 

Paul Gottlieb, Abrams’s publisher and editor in chief, had expressed enthusiasm to the Arnetts about the book’s publication, but he cancelled the book contract at the eleventh hour. The Arnetts could only surmise that it was part of the larger effort to erase the exhibition’s history. It took five years for the Arnetts to succeed in publishing the two-volume work titled Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art, soon recognized as a scholarly benchmark in its field.(40)

The responses of those who found their way to the Souls Grown Deep exhibition during the Olympics and who wrote about it were passionate. For many critics it was a revelation. There had never before been an opportunity to see such a large concentration of works by contemporary African American vernacular artists. “The show is mind-boggling in its diversity and depth,” marveled one critic.(41) Another declared that “if the leaders of the High had real vision, they would have sponsored ‘Souls’ instead of Brown’s three-ring circus . . . a rare opportunity to see an incredible collection . . . talk about awe! . . . an embarrassment of riches.”(42) With rare fervor, Catherine Fox of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution described the art in Souls Grown Deep as “complex, intelligent, skeptical, ambivalent, erotic, [and] inventive.” She noted the show’s emotional power and formal invention, as well as the artists’ use of salvaged materials, to comment on the way poor and marginalized people in America feel about how society is treating them.(43) Moreover, she saw the exhibition as potentially breaking down the barriers that have segregated these artists from the rest of the art world. This, of course, was the Arnetts’ long-term goal.

Souls Grown Deep was destined to close several months after the Olympics ended. The Arnetts asked to take over the exhibition from the Carlos Museum and continue its run until the following spring. Instead, the Carlos Museum closed the exhibit, destroyed the signage, and put the photo-murals in storage (subsequently destroying them), making it as difficult as possible for the Arnetts to reopen the exhibit at City Hall East or in any other location.(44) With the approval of the Atlanta city council, however, the show did reopen in April of 1997, with even greater emphasis on the surroundings from which the art was created. “There has never been a show like this one,” one critic observed at its reopening, and another called it “a cornucopia of southern outsider art, unprecedented in scale [that] mirrored both the intensity of the work and the passion of Bill Arnett.”(45)

In May, five thousand museum professionals descended on Atlanta for the annual meeting of the American Association of Museums (AAM). Many of them found their way to the exhibition and recorded their enthusiasm and wonder in the exhibition’s comment books. Despite the high praise from myriad art museum professionals, not one stepped up to sponsor the exhibition at his or her institution.(46)

As the Arnetts would later demonstrate with the Gee’s Bend quilts and most recently with the work of Thornton Dial, art museum venues have the power to secure the place of vernacular art and artists in the contemporary art arena as no other institutions do.47 Souls Grown Deep was the rightful successor to a landmark exhibition at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art, Black Folk Art in America,1930 – 1980, that fourteen years earlier had introduced African American vernacular artists to American art museum audiences.(48)

Why Souls Grown Deep “Failed”

The social forces that prevented Souls Grown Deep from becoming a definitive exhibition reveal much about the cultural politics of Atlanta and the ethics of America’s museum cultures, both fine and folk. The following range among the key issues at stake: 1) Atlanta’s cultural elite had a vested interest in supporting the High and a collection of “one of its own” at the expense of William Arnett and his exhibition; 2) the lived experience expressed through the art in Souls Grown Deep, let alone the social conditions under which the art was produced, were radically at odds with Atlanta’s Olympic agenda of celebrating a new and progressive South; 3) the exhibition made clear that the contemporary art world had not yet made a place for African American vernacular artists, nor appeared intending to make one; 4) the folk art community, entrenched in its own markets and museums, was equally resistant to treating vernacular artists as truly contemporary or paying them market value for their works; 5) and finally, the celebration of Rings and the struggles of Souls Grown Deep highlight the ongoing hold that modernist art history narratives have over the arrangements of mainstream U.S. art museums.

First and foremost, the exhibition ran up against the cultural agendas of Atlanta’s elite—the bankers, lawyers, and businesspeople who were part of the Olympic organizing committees, executives of the corporate sponsors, and who served on the boards of Emory University, the Woodruff Foundation, and the High Museum. Some were collectors and enthusiastically endorsed the High Museum’s aspirations to become a world-class contender. What better way for these corporate entrepreneurs to enhance their names and reputations and build cultural capital than by having their names associated with or their collections prominently displayed in the city’s thriving art institution?(49)

T. Marshall Hahn, a wealthy lawyer, the retired chairman and chief executive officer of the Georgia-Pacific Corporation, and a central figure in Atlanta’s cultural matrix offers a case in point. Hahn became an avid art collector of memory paintings in the 1960s, and when he came to Atlanta in 1982, his interests grew to include Southeastern self-taught art.(50) As his collection of southern self-taught art grew, so did his ambitions for it. From the early 1990s on, he was in conversation with the High Museum about donating his collection in its entirety to the museum.(51) A major exhibition was already in the works to celebrate his gift, and it defined for the High the parameters of its folk art collection.

Hahn’s collection reflected the much more conservative values of the established folk art world and was by no means exclusively focused on the work of African Americans. It included some of the most well-known names in the folk art pantheon such as Bill Traylor, Henry Darger, Howard Finster, and Martin Ramirez, and it celebrated the work of Mattie Lou O’Kelly, a local memory painter whose work bore a strong resemblance to the work of Grandma Moses. Hahn also collected the work of contemporary vernacular African American artists. He had acquired a fair representation of the works of Thornton Dial, as well as some works by Holley, Lockett, Tolliver, Mary T. Smith, Sam Doyle, and Leroy Almon—all artists featured in Souls Grown Deep. Hahn had in fact bought most of these works from William Arnett himself.

Hahn’s contributions to the High Museum were at their peak in the years before and after the Olympics. The High had already acquired a collection of thirty drawings by Traylor by 1993, when with a $100,000 pledge from Hahn, they purchased a collection of sixty-eight works by other African Americans. Hahn was a driving force behind the opening of the High’s branch museum devoted to folk art and photography in the Georgia-Pacific Center in downtown Atlanta. He also established a department and curatorial position for folk art, the first folk art department in a general art museum. His gift of 140 objects arrived at the museum in 1996, and 83 of them would be highlighted in the 2001 exhibition Let It Shine: Self-Taught Art from the T. Marshall Hahn Collection.(52) The museum clearly had a vested interest in cultivating such a powerful benefactor even if it meant distancing itself from William Arnett, whose collection far surpassed Hahn’s in its diversity, depth, and size. It only worked to Hahn’s advantage that Arnett’s reputation was under the cloud of a Sixty Minutes piece that aired in 1993 questioning Arnett’s financial dealings as a white collector with the African American artists he supported.(53) Souls Grown Deep, Arnett’s scrappy and challenging exhibition, could easily be perceived as standing in the way of Hahn’s ambitions to be celebrated as the premier collector of self-taught art in Atlanta. It constituted at the least an annoyance, and at most a threat.(54)

Next was the substance of the art in Souls Grown Deep and the contexts and conditions in which it was produced. In the earlier part of the twentieth century, the unspoken philosophy of all art museums was that the only good artist was a dead one. To judge an artist’s work, earlier museum professionals argued, a respectable amount of time had to elapse so that the work could be judged “on its own.” For the most part, this viewpoint has applied in the field of southern vernacular art as well, with the majority of the most celebrated artists having often come from earlier generations, thus standing at a safe remove from contemporary society.

Typical of formalist fine arts practice, the Rings exhibit stripped its objects of their social and ideological contexts, emphasizing instead their supposed timeless- ness and purported associations with the exhibition themes of the five emotions. Souls Grown Deep, on the other hand, opened the exhibition by immersing the viewer in the gritty backyard of a working-class African American artist in the heart of the New South. The world of contemporary self-taught art, as the sociologist Gary Fine points out, is an “embedded market” — one in which “value is inseparable from the moral appreciation of the objects and from the relationships in which they are embedded.”(55) One of the challenges this work poses is that it requires one to sustain the intimate and living connections between the social context and the aesthetic qualities of the object.

In Souls Grown Deep, many of the artists represented were enmeshed in the fabric of southern post – civil rights culture, one at odds with the myth of a progressive and economically booming New South. They are part of a darker story—one that illustrates how poor and working-class blacks and minorities continue to be racially segregated and economically downtrodden despite the region’s new affluence. Not only do artists like Dial and Holley comment on these conditions of the black southern working class but they also suggest a myriad of other voices not yet discovered and waiting to be heard. “It is not Thornton Dial people are afraid of,” observed Matthew Arnett, “but everyone who will come after him.”(56)

In Atlanta, the presence of these voices, their performance, location, and context, constituted the antithesis of what the social elite of the city and region were trying to project via the Olympic Games. As I write this article in the wake of Katrina, it is important to point out that one only has to look at the recent hurricane in the Gulf Coast to see how similar fault lines were exposed and how much denial and discomfort were raised in the national consciousness when the intersection of race and class was implicated in the failure to safeguard the residents of New Orleans. Many of those caught in the tragedy are men and women like those artists in Souls Grown Deep who have been pushed to the margins of society.(57)

Third, there was Arnett’s insistence that his artists not be marginalized by labels like outsider, folk, or self-taught. Instead he wanted them to be called “artists,” to join the mainstream of the contemporary art world and be part of major museum exhibitions. For the high art world, contemporary African American vernacular artists do not fit. They thrive far outside the traditional systems of graduate schools, urban dealers, and social networks that have become the cultural proving ground for the majority of celebrated contemporary artists. They have not been vetted in galleries of contemporary art nor bought by important collectors nor had mid-career exhibitions at regional museums — typical avenues of success for con- temporary artists.(58)

To acknowledge the artists from Souls Grown Deep as contemporary artists would require a rethinking of contemporary art history. This is something few scholars, critics, and museum people have thus far been willing to do. If, for example, one recognizes the myriad yard works of southern self-taught artists as art, it is difficult to assert, as the New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman recently did, that it is largely “thanks to Robert Rauschenberg that Americans . . . have come to think that art can be made out of anything, exist anywhere, last forever or just for a moment and serve any purpose or no purpose at all except to suggest the stuff of life and the stuff of art are ultimately one in the same.”(59) How can one fail to consider that as a southerner, Rauschenberg had seen and may indeed have appropriated African American vernacular forms to create his assemblages?

Moreover, the folk art world and its growing contemporary field have a vested interest in keeping these artists “folk.” This world has its own systems and hierarchies encompassing publications and galleries, as well as large festivals such as the Outsider Art Fair in New York City each January. It thrives in a particular niche in which works sell in the tens of thousands of dollars, not in the millions. The artworks typically circulate among private collections, temporary exhibits, and folk art museums. Unlike Arnett, folk art patrons think small and prefer to keep the lines clearly drawn between folk and fine art worlds. The contemporary art scene by and large does not serve them: they would be outside their intellectual safety zones; in financial territory beyond their means; and associating with a group of elite directors and curators with whom they have little in common.

Arnett and the artists in Souls Grown Deep also represented a departure from the norms of the folk art world relating to the relationship between artist and collector. The market in vernacular art that began in the 1980s has been compared to the California Gold Rush. The collectors, middlemen, and dealers for this art have traditionally served as patrons and protectors of the artists. In exchange, they receive special dispensations in the purchase of their works. The artists and their patrons come from different worlds, and the social controls present in the main- stream art market are often not in place.(60) Folk collectors and dealers, William Arnett observed, are “bottom feeders.”(61) They get their excitement and financial rewards by discovering unknown artists, paying them a pittance for their works, and championing them within the folk art network. Thus they make their reputations, and often their livings, by trading up from the very modest financial investments they make in these artists’ works.

Arnett actually paid market value for the works of the artists he championed in Souls Grown Deep. Some saw a 500 percent increase in their incomes. Arnett put other artists on generous retainers, ensuring that they would have an economic cushion and thus the opportunity to work without concern for where the next meal was coming from. By paying the artists something that approximated fair market value, Arnett raised the going rates for self-taught art works generally, and it caused an uproar.(62)

Finally, there is little precedent in art history literature, let alone in the arrangements of major art museums, for southern black vernacular art to be given serious consideration as an art form. Thomas McEvilley, an art historian of national stature, wrote a major piece about the Souls Grown Deep exhibition and its artists in Art in America in 1997, and he has been one of the very few scholars in the field of contemporary art to do so. “The fact . . . that these artists have remained unknown outside of their communities,” he declared, “invites not only astonishment but also interpretation.”(63) Art museums are conservative not only due to the weight of art history but also due to strained budgets and the tastes of corporate contributors.(64) Moreover, in recent years museums have become single-mindedly driven by the market. Museum directors prefer to cater to mass audiences—as the High did with Rings, or the Guggenheim (and the High) did with Norman Rockwell in 2001—than to break new ground with little-known art from the Deep South.(65)

To date no museum has come forth to recreate Souls Grown Deep. The Arnetts have found a receptive audience for the quilts of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, however. They organized a highly successful traveling exhibition entitled The Quilts of Gee’s Bend in conjunction with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 2002, and the exhibition traveled to major art museums around the country.(66) A second exhibition is in planning. Art museums have begun to purchase the quilts to include in their permanent collections, and the artists have formed a successful collective.(67) Unlike the Gee’s Bend quilts that are the output of a small, isolated community, the works in Souls Grown Deep form part of a much vaster world of contemporary vernacular masters claiming their place in American art history and in the galleries of American art museums. To be inclusive of these artists would obviously require a major reconsideration of academic canons and museum exhibition practices.

Thus the difficulties surrounding Souls Grown Deep and the success of its counterpoint, Rings, at the 1996 Olympics represent power relationships and exclusions that continue to operate in the fine and folk art communities both in the city of Atlanta and nationally. Rings and its prestigious curator John Carter Brown reinforced the aspirations of the High Museum to join the global museum world. It fit into the rhetoric of global unity and universalism touted by the Olympic Organizing Committee and the Cultural Olympiad. It propagandized world art and purposefully ignored its many contexts and ambiguities. Souls Grown Deep, on the other hand, was local, challenging, and divisive. The African American vernacular artists represented in that exhibition put the lie to the idea of a prosperous and racially progressive New South. The exhibition illuminated southern communities of color, rich in creativity and tradition, that have been largely overlooked in the visual arts. The making of Souls Grown Deep also illustrates how the agenda of a powerful local elite could create almost insurmountable obstacles for an exhibition to be realized. Moreover, the collector William Arnett’s insistence that the artists in Souls Grown Deep be seen as contemporary artists, not folk artists, threatened both the fine art and the folk art worlds. The line between the two, far from being erased, was doubly reinforced by the desire of powerful interest groups in both communities to make the exhibition go away.

A recent reinstallation of the fourth floor of the High Museum reflects the “separate but equal” impasse within museum culture itself. One half of the floor is dedicated to American art of the twentieth century, the other to folk art. Thornton Dial, an artist of the scale and ambition of a Jackson Pollack, is ensconced in the folk art gallery, safely at a distance from contemporary artists who are virtually his peers. If indeed contemporary “[self-taught] artists think like [trained] artists,” as the High’s current curator of folk art declared, why the insurmountable curatorial divide?(68) Because the so-called blurring of the lines in fact raises serious dilemmas for both the folk and high art communities — as the silencing of Souls Grown Deep so strikingly brought home a decade ago.

 

Notes

1. The distinctions between terms such as outsider, folk, self-taught, and vernacular are much discussed among scholars. See Charles Russell, “Finding a Place for the Self-Taught in the Art World(s),” in Self-Taught Art: The Culture and Aesthetics of American Vernacular Art, ed. Russell (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001), 3 – 34; and Greg Gunkaker, “Becoming Art: Life Spans, Biographies, and the Shelp Collection,” in Testimony: Vernacular Art of The African-American South, ed. Elisa Urbanelli (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001), 42–53. Also see Gary Fine, Everyday Genius: Self-Taught Art and the Culture of Authenticity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 23–37. Vernacular art, according to Paul Arnett, best suits African American artists as it “denotes a language in use that differs from the official languages of power . . . it presupposes a history and a process of historical change connected to the led lives of African Americans” and “puts terms of selfhood squarely and self-consciously with the art’s creators.” Paul Arnett, “An Introduction to Other Rivers,” in Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South, ed. Arnett and William Arnett, 2 vols. (Atlanta: Tinwood Books, 2000–2001), 1:xv.

2. Bessie Harvey and Thornton Dial Sr. were included as contemporary artists in the Whitney Biennial, a rare occurrence. See Arthur Danto, “The End of the Outsider,” in Urbanelli, Testimony, 30–31. A New York Times review of the Gee’s Bend Quilt exhibition can serve as an example. See Michael Kimmelman, “Jazzy Geometry, Cool Quilters,” New York Times, November 29, 2002. Kimmelmann recently said of the quilts that they were “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has ever produced” (Michael Kimmelman, The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa [New York: Penguin, 2005], 134).

3. Fine, Everyday Genius, 42.

4. See Michael E. Shapiro, ed., Rings: Five Passions of World Art (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996).

5. The High Museum director, Ned Rifkin, invited John Carter Brown, the newly retired director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, to develop a theme for the exhibition that would ensure the sponsorship of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG).

6. The art historian Jules Prown coined the phrase “affective mode of comprehension” to describe the way objects engage with our senses, not only our minds. I prefer the idea of “communication.”

7. In 1991, an infamous battle of interests ensued at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art that attempted to reinterpret frontier images through the lens of political and social history. See Alan Wallach, “The Battle over the West as America,” in Exhibiting Contradiction: Essays on the Art Museum in the United States (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998), 105 – 17.

8. According to Maurice Roche, “mega-events are large scale cultural (including commercial and sporting) events which have a dramatic character, mass popular appeal and international significance. They are typically organized by variable combinations of national governmental and international non-governmental organizations and thus can be said to be important elements in ‘official’ versions of public culture.” See Maurice Roche, Mega-events and Modernity: Olympics and Expos in the Growth of Global Culture (London: Routledge, 2000), 1.

9. Ibid., 67–70. World’s fairs stimulated the growth of museums, art galleries, department stores, and theme parks. See Robert Rydell, All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876 – 1916 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 235 – 37.

10. John Rodda, “1896–1996: The Rise and Fall of the Olympic Games,” Guardian, July 12, 1996.

11. “History of the Cultural Olympiad,” Cultural Olympiad, Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, November 18, 1994, Kenan Research Library, Atlanta History Center, boxes 1025 and 1030.

12. Clearly stated, the Cultural Olympiad’s goals were to explore the rich and diverse cultural experiences of Atlanta, Georgia, and the South; to present to southern audiences a variety of distinguished international artists; to develop local, regional, and international relationships among artists and audiences; and to leave behind an expanded vision through which Atlanta may be recognized as an international center of innovative arts, culture, and entertainment. “Mission,” Cultural Olympiad, Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, November 18, 1994, Kenan Research Library, Atlanta History Center, boxes 1025 and 1030.

13. See Michael R. Real, “Is Television Corrupting the Olympics? Media and the (Post)Modern Games at Age One Hundred,” Television Quarterly, no. 3 (1996): 2–12. The Atlanta Olympic Games were criticized mediawise for their “feminized approach” to reporting based on the idea that personal interest vignettes on the athletes intended to attract female audiences and for their conflating of live and taped television broadcasts without making note of the latter. See Michael R. Real, “The Televised Olympics from Atlanta,” Television Quarterly, no. 3 (1996): 9 – 12.

14. “From Playing in the Park to Griping about Glitches,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 6, 1996.

15. The Atlanta History Museum opened a permanent display devoted to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics in 2006.

16. The Woodruff Foundation was built from the Coca-Cola Company’s fortune. It established the Woodruff Arts Center, comprised of the High Museum of Art, the Alliance Theatre, the Atlanta College of Art, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and the Fourteenth Street Playhouse.

17. Catherine Fox, “A Bridge from Meier to Piano,” ARTnews 105 (2006): 46.

18. Amy Jinkner-Lloyd, “Rings: Five Passions in World Art,” Art Papers 20 (1996): 44. Jinkner-Lloyd describes the High as having a “meager” permanent collection.

19. John Carter Brown had established a strong reputation for blockbuster exhibitions during his tenure at the National Gallery of Art. In 1991, he had overseen an exhibition of similar scope — a collection of six hundred works of world art produced around the time that Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas in 1492. While Circa 1492 was restricted to a narrow time band, Rings would cover eight millennia focusing on what art expressed rather than what it portrayed.

20. Patti Hartigan, “The Olympic Arts Festival Aims to Create a New Cultural Capital,” Boston Globe, July 7, 1996.

21. Michael Shapiro, the chief curator and soon to be director of the High, inquired about possible exhibitions just as MoMA was considering the renewal of its circulating exhibition program. The social network existing between Shapiro, Rifkin, and the MoMA director Glenn Lowry as fellow fine arts graduate students at Harvard cemented the deal. Catherine Fox, “Matisse, Picasso Exhibits to Herald ‘New Day for the High,’ ” Atlanta Journal- Constitution, February 22, 1996.

22. Ibid.

23. After his retirement as the director of the National Gallery, Brown remained the presidential appointed chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts, which oversaw the District of Columbia’s public art and architecture; the vice chairman of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation; and a trustee of the Kennedy Center. He also went into business for himself as the cofounder and chairman of Ovation, a fledgling cable television channel devoted solely to the arts.

24. “Olympic Weekly,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, February, 16, 1996.

25. William, Matthew, and Paul Arnett, interview by the author, Atlanta, June 27–30, 2005.

26. Jerry Cullum, “‘The Herod Paradigm’: A Conversation with William Arnett,” Art Papers 22 (1998): 26–31.

27. Howard Pousner, “Carlos, High Welcoming Folk Art,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, November 21, 1994.

28. Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, “From Sahara of the Bozart to the Shoe That Rode the Howling Tornado: Collecting Folk Art in the South,” in Lynne E. Spriggs et al., Let it Shine: Self-Taught Art from the T. Marshall Hahn Collection (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001), 57.

29. Ibid.

30. “Michael Carlos C. Museum Develops Two Exhibitions for 1996 Olympic Arts Festival,” press release, Centennial Olympic Games Collection, Kenan Research Library, Atlanta History Center, box 8.

31. William, Matthew, and Paul Arnett, interview. In late 1995, the Arnetts fought to keep the exhibition alive as a battle ensued over their contract with the museum. When the Arnetts refused to sign the document Emory produced, a lawyer was appointed by Emory’s president to work with them. The new contract included in it the plans for the exhibition space and the individual objects that the exhibition would contain.

32. Matthew Arnett, interview by the author, Atlanta, June 27 – 30, 2005.

33. Anne Rochell, “Waiting for Takeoff: Famed Atlanta Folk Artist Lonnie Holley Must Leave the Property Where He’s Lived and Worked for Eighteen Years Which Some Call a Work of Art . . . to Make Room for the Expansion of the Birmingham Airport,” Atlanta Journal- Constitution, October 24, 1997.

34. Matthew Arnett, interview. This quote became the title of the Arnetts’ publishing venture, Tinwood Media.

35. Marty Shuter, “Souls Grown Deep: Exhibit Boggles the Mind and Delights the Eye,” Savannah News Press, August 4, 1997.

36. The beginnings of the civil rights era in the 1950s led to a revival of the term New South to describe a South that would no longer be held back by Jim Crow and other aspects of compulsory legal segregation. From the days of Reconstruction, the term has come to refer to southern urbanization and economic growth. See Bernard Bailyn, The Great Republic: A History of the American People (Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath, 1992), 2:81–82.

37. “The Capital of the South,” Newsweek, July 29, 1996, 62.

38. “Michael Carlos C. Museum Develops Two Exhibitions.”

39. There was even talk of it becoming a Book of the Month Club selection. Matthew Arnett, interview with the author.

40. Arnett and Arnett, Souls Grown Deep.

41. Marty Shuter, “Souls Grown Deep.”

42. Patti Hartigan, “Arts Give Games Their Soul,” Boston Globe, August 2, 1996.

43. Catherine Fox, “Souls Grown Deep: African-American Vernacular Art of the South,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 28, 1996.

44. Matthew Arnett, interview; and Nancy Raabe, “Deep Roots: Despite Some Withering Indifference, Vigorous ‘Souls Grown Deep’ Blossoms a Second Time,” Birmingham News, April 27, 1997. According to Gary Fine, “the relationship between Arnett and the Michael Carlos Museum became so toxic that when I interviewed museum officials, they refused to refer to him by name but labeled him the ‘collector.’ When it became time to rehang the show under the auspices of the City of Atlanta the photographs and wall texts had been lost by the museum or so they claimed” (Fine, Everyday Genius, 306n67).

45. Raabe, “Deep Roots”; and Catherine Fox, “The Verdict: An Amazing Look at Southern Outsider Art; Alterations Give ‘Souls Grown Deep’ Even More Depth,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 30, 1997.

46. Matthew Arnett, interview. Many attendees of the AAM conference received Raabe’s review of the exhibition and a brochure.

47. The Quilts of Gee’s Bend has been traveling to major art museums around the country since 2002, and another exhibition of these quilts is in the planning. Thornton Dial was given a solo exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in the fall of 2005.

48. Jane Livingston, John Beardsley, and Regenia Perry, Black Folk Art in America, 1930–1980 (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1982).

49. William Arnett, despite his southern background, art expertise, collecting credentials, and philanthropic activities remained far outside this elite circle. His dispute over the Chinese porcelain with the High Museum contributed mightily to his estrangement from Atlanta’s cultural leadership.

50. Lynne E. Spriggs, “T. Marshall Hahn and the High Museum of Art,” in Spriggs et al., Let It Shine, 12 – 13.

51. The understanding was that the museum would keep what it wanted and sell the rest. It has accepted about a third into its permanent collection. Susan Mitchell Crawley, interview by the author, Atlanta, July 29, 2005.

52. See Spriggs et al. Let it Shine.

53. The piece aired three times from 1993 to 1995. For Arnett’s rebuttal, see Cullum, “ ‘The Herod Paradigm’”; and Nancy Raabe, “William Arnett Says He Supports, Not Exploits, African-American Vernacular Art,” Birmingham News, January 11, 1998. The evidence provided by the Arnetts during our interview convinced me that indeed Sixty Minutes had misrepresented them. William, Matthew, and Paul Arnett, interview.

54. One could trace the connections of those who worked as impediments to Souls Grown Deep back to Hahn directly or indirectly. The symbiotic relationships between power brokers in Atlanta had been vividly outlined in an article that came out during the Olympics and could not have proven timelier. From it, one could determine the web of connections between corporate boardrooms and the leadership of Atlanta’s cultural organizations where Hahn and others actively served. See Kelly Green and Michael Hinkelman, “Atlanta’s Boardroom Buddy System,” Atlanta Business Chronicle, July 18, 1996, 1, 25 – 27A.

55. Fine, Everyday Genius, 3.

56. Matthew Arnett, interview.

57. David Gonzalez, “From the Margins of Society to the Center of Tragedy,” New York Times, September 2, 2005; and John Lewis, “This Is a National Disgrace,” Newsweek, September 12, 2005, 4. Also see Michael Eric Dyson, Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster (New York: Perseus Books, 2006).

58. See Howard S. Becker’s classic study, Art Worlds (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982). Fine’s Everyday Genius applies Becker’s analysis to the folk art community.

59. Michael Kimmelman, “Art Out of Anything: Rauschenberg in Retrospect,” New York Times, December 23, 2005.

60. Fine, Everyday Genius, 283.

61. William Arnett, interview by the author, Atlanta, GA, June 27, 2005.

62. Ibid., 161 – 63. Also see Cullum, “ ‘The Herod Paradigm,’ ” 27 – 28.

63. Thomas McEvilley, “The Missing Tradition,” Art in America, May 1997, 84.

64. Fine, Everyday Genius, 43.

65. Alan Wallach, “Norman Rockwell at the Guggenheim,” in Art and Its Publics: Museum Studies at the Millennium, ed. Andrew McClellan (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003), 96–115.

66. The exhibition itinerary included the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (September 8 – November 10, 2002); the Whitney Museum of American Art (November 27, 2002 – March 9, 2003); the Mobile Museum of Art (June 16 – August 31, 2003); the Milwaukee Art Museum (September 27, 2003–January 4, 2004); the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (February 14–May 17, 2004); the Cleveland Museum of Art (June 27 – September 12, 2004); the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk (October 15, 2004 – January 2, 2005); the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art (February 13–May 9, 2005); the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (June 1–August 21, 2005); the Jules Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University (September 11–December 4, 2005); and the High Museum (February 11 – May 7, 2006).

67. Quilts have been acquired for the permanent collections of art museums in Boston, Atlanta, Seattle, Memphis, San Francisco, and Houston. In 2003, with the assistance of the Arnetts’ Tinwood Alliance, all the living quilters of Gee’s Bend — more than fifty women — founded the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective to serve as the exclusive means of selling and marketing quilts being produced by the women of Gee’s Bend. The collective is owned and operated by these women, and there is now a gallery in Gee’s Bend that represents their work.

68. Catherine Fox, “Thoroughly Modern: High Renovation Creates a Permanent Home for Twentieth-Century Work,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 12, 2005.