Bill Arnett, 1939 – 2020

By August 13, 2020
Bill Arnett, 1991. Photo by Bard Wrisely.

Bill Arnett—the Georgia-born art collector, curator, writer, and editor best known for championing the work of self-taught Black artists from the American South and founding the Souls Grown Deep Foundation—has died in Atlanta, aged 81. His family shared the following obituary with Burnaway through a representative.

“Metaphorically speaking, I am betting on art.”

William Sidney Arnett, pioneering art collector, patron, and philanthropist, was always a few decades ahead of his time. He devoted most of his adult life to championing previously underappreciated art forms and artists, from Sub-Saharan Africa to the Black American South. He died peacefully, at his time, age 81, on August 12, in Atlanta.

Georgia Museum of Art: Neo-Abstraction on view through December 5

Born May 10, 1939, in Columbus, Georgia, to Hilliard B. Arenowitch and Minna Moses Arenowitch, Bill was a collector (marbles, comic books, baseball cards, butterflies) and standout athlete (especially baseball) from an early age. After attending Georgia Tech and the University of Pennsylvania, he graduated from the University of Georgia. He moved to London and quickly became a lifelong devotee of the visual arts, eventually traveling to more than sixty countries to study and collect art.

In 1964, he married his high-school sweetheart, Judy Ann Mitchell, and together they settled in Atlanta and had four sons. With his brother, Robert Arnett, he became an art dealer and collector specializing in non-Western civilizations, including those of the Middle East, China, Southeast Asia, Oceania, Africa, and the Americas. He and Judy opened their art-filled home to visitors, art lovers, and acquaintances from all over the world. 

Beginning in the 1980s, Arnett committed the remainder of his life to promoting and documenting self-taught Black artists from the American South, whose creations he considered an extension of the quest for civil and human rights into the arenas of cultural possibility and human imagination. Over the past four decades, his collections of Southern Black art forms, along with his book-publishing, exhibitions, and philanthropy, have immeasurably enriched the understanding of Black contributions to American civilization. He donated art to dozens of museums, and started and endowed the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. He is noted for bringing public attention to the work of numerous artists, such as Thornton Dial, Lonnie Holley, and the Gee’s Bend quiltmakers.

As a devoted husband and father, Arnett also threw himself into his young sons’ interests and became a soccer coach and fan. Seeking to enhance the level of play in the Atlanta area, in the early 1980s he co-founded the Concorde Soccer Club (now Concorde Fire), which grew into one of the foremost youth soccer organizations in the U.S. A lover of music (opera, early rock ’n’ roll, reggae, etc.), travel, cinema, team sports, and cats, William Arnett lived his passions and, with his unflagging belief in them, made them everyone’s. 

Swan Coach House Gallery: private nature through November 4

Bill was preceded in death by his beloved wife, Judy, and his parents, Hilliard and Minna. He is survived by his four sons, Paul Hilliard Arnett (Erin Brauer), William Matthew Arnett (Virginia Prescott), Richard Harrison Arnett (and wife, Kim), and Thomas Robert Arnett (and wife, Erin); his eight grandchildren, Elizabeth Bailey Arnett, Samuel Hilliard Arnett, Malcolm Carver Vadim, Viva Vadim, Cynthia Judy Arnett, Kerris Sidney Arnett, Jack Thomas Arnett, and Vivienne Mitchell Arnett; and his brother, Robert Arnett.

In lieu of donations, the family asks that people listen to some Verdi and Aretha, eat a slice of Mexican-style flan, show kindness to the next cat they encounter, and pursue every curiosity about new art forms. 

A memorial celebration will be held at a later date in a safer time.

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