The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco—comprising both the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park and the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park—have announced their acquisition of sixty-two works of art by African American self-taught artists from the Atlanta-based Souls Grown Deep Foundation‘s William S. Arnett Collection. The acquisition consists of paintings, sculptures, drawings, and quilts by twenty-two artists including Thornton Dial, Lonnie Holley, Bessie Harvey, and Ronald Lockett. All sixty-two newly acquired works will presented in a special exhibition at the de Young Museum called “Revelations: Art from the African American South,” opening on June 3, 2017.
At the time of Dial’s death early last year, Arnett remembered him as one of America’s greatest artists. “I can’t think of any important artist who has started with less or accomplished more,” Arnett said. The two were first introduced in 1987 by Lonnie Holley, who was then living in Birmingham. Holley took Arnett, an Atlanta-based art historian and collector interested in Southern folk art, to meet Dial in Bessmer, Alabama, beginning a decades-long relationship and Dial’s rise to prominence. Arnett’s efforts to promote the work of Dial and other African American self-taught artists resulted in an exhibition and two-volume book titled Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South that was presented at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
The Souls Grown Deep Foundation was founded by Arnett in 2010 to preserve and document his extensive collection of African American vernacular art, which by then included work by Dial and Holley, as well as quilts by the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Arnett’s collection loaned many of these quilts to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco for the exhibition “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend,” which appeared at the de Young Museum in 2006 as part of thirteen museum tour that also included the Whitney Museum in New York and Atlanta’s High Museum of Art.
Max Hollein, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, spoke about the museums’ “special responsibility to take the lead in expanding the representation of artists who reflect the historical diversity of American culture.” Souls Grown Deep president Maxwell Anderson said, ““Our collaboration with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco on this historic acquisition is at the heart of our mission to make the work of these African American artists from the South accessible to the public and scholars alike.”
Atlanta audiences have had several recent opportunities to see work from the collection of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. The High Museum’s recently closed exhibition “Fever Within: The Art of Ronald Lockett” borrowed extensively from the organization, and pieces by Bessie Harvey were included in “Let It Howl” last year at Atlanta Contemporary. A solo exhibition by Lonnie Holley, comprising new and old work by the artist, is on view at Atlanta Contemporary through April 2.
Logan Lockner is Assistant Editor of BURNAWAY.