The art cor­rec­tor

Bill Ar­nett is al­ways talk­ing about the South’s African Amer­i­can art. He’s also try­ing to give all of his to mu­se­ums.

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY GE­OFF EDGERS in brent, ala.

Just off Route 5, on the side of a nar­row road that meets ev­ery def­i­ni­tion of the mid­dle of nowhere, Bill Ar­nett walks into an aban­doned, over­grown yard. Last time he vis­ited, a man threat­ened to kill him.

“You can­not imag­ine what was here,” he says, sur­vey­ing the weeds that rise where a hun­dred hand­made pieces of art once glit­tered in the sun.

There are pic­tures. When he was younger, Ar­nett pho­tographed the glo­ri­ous uni­verse that the Rev. Ge­orge Paul Korne­gay cre­ated out of painted bot­tles, splin­tery wood and even a Darth Vader mask. In the mu­seum world, they call that an art en­vi­ron­ment. Korne­gay, a Methodist pas­tor who died in 2014 at the age of 100, called it a sa­cred place. He kept the grass mowed tight, all the bet­ter to show off his in­spi­ra­tion. Now, it’s gone. Where to? “Who the f--- knows?” Ar­nett says, wav­ing an arm dis­mis­sively as he walks back to the car.

One of Korne­gay’s sons threat­ened him that time a lit­tle over 10 years ago. Ron­nie? Don­nie? He can’t re­mem­ber which. The kid told him to stop both­er­ing the rev­erend. Both­er­ing? Ar­nett knew col­lec­tors were scour­ing the coun­try­side, wav­ing their check­books. So Ar­nett made Korne­gay a deal. He would pay the pas­tor

not to sell his art, to keep it in the field. That’s what the artist said he wanted. As usual, there was no pa­per­work, only a gen­tle­men’s agree­ment. Back in the car, Ar­nett stews. “I’m go­ing to tell you this story, and I wish this would be just his story,” he says. “But no, this is the story of how great art gets lost.”

It is a story Ar­nett tells al­most com­pul­sively. The vil­lains re­main con­stant: Col­lec­tors cram­ming vans full of folk art; mu­seum es­tab­lish­ment hacks dis­cred­it­ing Ar­nett; Mor­ley Safer, the “60 Min­utes” correspondent whose nasty 1993 re­port con­tin­ues to eat at him.

He’s in the back seat. Matt, one of his four grown sons, is at the wheel, and he’s get­ting frus­trated. He knows his dad is right. He just wishes he could stop dwelling on the past. So Matt says so. That’s when Ar­nett snaps and the shout­ing be­gins.

“I’ve never heard your name dragged through the mud like my name’s been dragged through the mud for 25 years, so just shut up,” he yells at his son.

Spend even an hour with Bill Ar­nett and it’s easy to for­get the most im­por­tant part of his story. That he is ac­tu­ally a huge suc­cess. For decades, he roamed the South search­ing for the poor, black artists who, in many cases, didn’t call them­selves artists. He paid them re­tain­ers and what­ever cash he could drum up. He even bought one artist a house. Raised in the seg­re­gated South, Ar­nett prefers to call him­self a cor­rec­tor, not a col­lec­tor.

And what he’s been try­ing to cor­rect is art his­tory. Ar­nett says he be­lieves that Thorn­ton Dial, Lon­nie Hol­ley and oth­ers aren’t just great artists; he ar­gues that in a col­or­blind world, they’d be held in the same es­teem as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschen­berg and Willem de Koon­ing. He’s been so ag­gres­sive mak­ing this ar­gu­ment that more than once he’s been kicked out of mu­se­ums. But there are those who ap­pre­ci­ate his un­yield­ing pas­sion.

Ac­tress Jane Fonda dis­cov­ered Ar­nett in the 1990s. Be­fore long, she found her­self in a van with him, vis­it­ing the artists. She even­tu­ally do­nated $1 mil­lion to doc­u­ment the col­lec­tion that be­came part of the non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion he founded, Souls Grown Deep.

“Bill is bril­liant, and he rep­re­sents an art that is very chal­leng­ing for the art es­tab­lish­ment, where there’s a need to main­tain the con­cept of what is real art and what isn’t,” says Fonda, who re­mains on the Souls Grown Deep board. “He’s been bruised, but it’s re­mark­able what he has been able to ac­com­plish.”

Ar­nett’s work with Dial, who died last year, led to the for­mer met­al­worker’s art land­ing in the Smith­so­nian and Mu­seum of

Mod­ern Art. Ar­nett also dis­cov­ered the quil­ters of Gee’s Bend, Ala., lead­ing to a block­buster ex­hi­bi­tion.

Now, the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art is plan­ning an ex­hi­bi­tion fea­tur­ing many of the 57 pieces the foun­da­tion re­cently do­nated, in­clud­ing works by Dial, Hol­ley and Joe Min­ter. The Fine Arts Mu­se­ums of San Fran­cisco, which re­cently ac­quired 62 pieces from the col­lec­tion, will dis­play those works at the de Young Mu­seum start­ing in June. And the Na­tional Gallery of Art is ready­ing an am­bi­tious show, fea­tur­ing a dozen pieces Ar­nett col­lected, which opens early next year and then trav­els to the High Mu­seum of Art in At­lanta and the Los An­ge­les County Mu­seum of Art. Ar­nett says it’s about time. “The art,” he says, “has al­ways been here.”

The bit­ter­ness, though, has been a steady work in progress. Ar­nett says he knows he should let it go, but then he starts talk­ing about his en­e­mies.

There is Gail An­drews, the long­time di­rec­tor of the Birm­ing­ham Mu­seum of Art, and Ned Rifkin, a for­mer di­rec­tor of the High Mu­seum of Art and un­der­sec­re­tary for art of the Smith­so­nian, who is now re­tired. There is Louisiana-based col­lec­tor Kurt Git­ter. Then there is Safer, the in­sti­ga­tor of the great­est in­jus­tice, the “60 Min­utes” re­port.

Ar­nett com­pares his plight to that of Holo­caust sur­vivors.

“I wasn’t killed,” he says. “But this was as bad on my life. I saw some­thing that I was to­tally con­vinced was the most im­por­tant visual arts phe­nom­e­non on the planet, and I’m watch­ing a hand­ful of no­bod­ies, lit­tle scum­bags, mo­ti­vated by noth­ing more than greed and their own short­com­ings, try­ing to de­stroy the most im­por­tant thing there was. It was about third-rate s--- peo­ple in a third-rate place de­stroy­ing the one great thing that Amer­ica has ever had to give to the his­tory of visual arts.”

“Bill,” says Tom Pat­ter­son, a North Carolina-based writer and art his­to­rian, “is the most undiplo­matic hu­man be­ing that pos­si­bly the South has ever pro­duced. When it comes to art, I agree with Bill com­pletely. Every­thing he’s done is ab­so­lutely first-rate, im­por­tant work. My prob­lems with Bill have been al­most all per­son­al­ity re­lated. It’s like he’s con­stantly talk­ing at you with Caps Lock.”

Git­ter, an oph­thal­mol­o­gist and col­lec­tor whom Ar­nett calls a “so­ciopath,” won’t dis­cuss him. Nei­ther will An­drews. Rifkin, di­rec­tor at the High from 1991 to 2000, got so frus­trated with Ar­nett that he swore at him and kicked him out of his of­fice. “There was the work and then there was Bill, who was a piece of work,” Rifkin says.

And yet Ar­nett’s ac­com­plish­ments are un­de­ni­able. He has pub­lished two art books that weigh 20 pounds and fea­ture 1,144-pages of color pho­to­graphs and es­says fea­tur­ing artists he trum­peted. Ar­nett’s col­lec­tion is even more stun­ning.

It can be found in an in­dus­trial ware­house in At­lanta, hun­dreds of his pieces on dis­play for the steady stream of cu­ra­tors and mu­seum direc­tors who visit.

“Your breath is taken away,” said Sheena Wagstaff, the Met’s chair­man of mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary art.

“Mind-blow­ing,” says Kather­ine Jentle­son, the High Mu­seum of Art’s cu­ra­tor of folk and self­taught art. “There are many great col­lec­tions of work by self-taught artists, but there is noth­ing like the Souls Grown Deep col­lec­tion.”

‘Never seen any­thing like this’

He is com­pli­cated. There are times he’ll laugh and poke fun at his prickly na­ture. That’s when you root for him and hope he can get over his anger. But then Ar­nett starts rant­ing. That’s when you un­der­stand why so many pro­fes­sional re­la­tion­ships dis­solved.

The re­al­ity, of course, is that the same per­son­al­ity traits that alien­ated so many also drove Ar­nett to cre­ate Souls Grown Deep.

They also have masked an im­por­tant truth.

In the 24 years since Safer’s re­port raised doubts about Ar­nett’s in­ten­tions, it’s worth not­ing that those doubts were un­founded. Just glance at Ar­nett’s fi­nan­cial records. He cer­tainly hasn’t got­ten rich off th­ese artists. Dial, poor and lit­tle known when he met Ar­nett, ended up own­ing a large home and sell­ing his art for six fig­ures.

Ar­nett once lived in a big house of his own. He sold it and spent that money on art, stipends and re­search. He’s bat­tled with the In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice and, for years, lived in a rented apart­ment with a mat­tress on the floor. Just re­cently, he moved into a con­do­minium owned by one of his sons.

And Ar­nett has no plans to cash in on his col­lec­tion. He wants Souls Grown Deep to give it away to great mu­se­ums. That, he says, will be his vin­di­ca­tion.

On a week­day morn­ing, Ar­nett ar­rives at the ware­house for a two-day road trip. This used to be his life, how he dis­cov­ered new artists and kept up with his reg­u­lars. But at 77, health is­sues — three heart at­tacks, di­a­betes — keep him from trav­el­ing much. For this, Matt will drive and Hol­ley, the artist and mu­si­cian, will ride shot­gun.

Hol­ley, 67, is more than an artist in Ar­nett’s col­lec­tion. He’s friend, de­fender, am­bas­sador and scout.

“I first didn’t know him, so I didn’t trust him,” Hol­ley says. “He is a white guy from out of nowhere, and he’s com­ing into your life. Then Bill started com­ing around . . . . He took the time to lis­ten. The spirit god let me open up more and more. That’s where our re­la­tion­ship be­gan to grow.”

Back then, Hol­ley lived on an over­grown hill near the Birm­ing­ham air­port. You couldn’t see his house from the road. You could see his artscape, which in­cluded del­i­cately sculpted heads, like sand­stone, rest­ing on boul­ders in the yard and a wooden cross hang­ing on a screen door sus­pended against the open air. There were cre­ations ev­ery­where, crafted of bas­ket­ball rims, um­brel­las, suit­cases, even a home­less man’s so­lic­i­ta­tion sign.

“Lon­nie was so far ahead of the white artists in the world you can’t even be­lieve it,” Ar­nett says. “I said to him the day I met him, I walked up to his door, and I said, ‘Mr. Hol­ley, I’ve been all over the world, and I’ve never seen any­thing like this.”

Ar­nett wasn’t ex­ag­ger­at­ing about his trav­els. After grow­ing up in seg­re­gated Columbus, Ga., near the Alabama bor­der, he had earned a de­gree in English at the Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia and headed to Europe, even­tu­ally joined by his fu­ture wife, Judy. (She died of Alzheimer’s in 2011.) His fa­ther, Hil­liard, who owned a dry-goods store, co-signed a loan that started Ar­nett in the art-col­lect­ing busi­ness.

First, Ar­nett ac­quired clas­si­cal and Asian art. He ex­panded to African art. Then, in the 1980s, Ar­nett re­turned to the Amer­i­can South and de­cided the art in his own back yard was as great as any­thing he had found abroad. He sold his other col­lec­tions to bankroll this new one. He didn’t

in­tend to only col­lect works black artists, he says now. It just ended up that way.

“I came to re­al­ize that the work cre­ated by black cul­ture across the board was as good as any work made by white peo­ple. And no­body was giv­ing it any credit.”

That’s not ex­actly true. In 1982, the Cor­co­ran Gallery of Art’s ex­hi­bi­tion, “Black Folk Art in Amer­ica 1930-1980,” in­cluded Mose Tol­liver, Gertrude Mor­gan and Bill Tray­lor. But in­sti­tu­tion­ally, th­ese un­trained or out­sider artists re­mained mar­ginal fig­ures.

“It wasn’t just the lo­cal mu­se­ums in the South,” says Lynne Cooke, the se­nior cu­ra­tor of spe­cial projects at the Na­tional Gallery of Art. “The re­sis­tance came from in­sti­tu­tions across the coun­try. There was sense that the great con­tri­bu­tion from African Amer­i­cans was mostly in the fields of mu­sic and lit­er­a­ture.”

“The prob­lem,” Ar­nett says, “is that the his­tory of mu­sic is de­cided mainly by the pop­u­la­tion in gen­eral who can lis­ten to it. But in art, you’ve got five peo­ple in the whole United States who de­cide what gets seen in ev­ery mu­seum.”

Sur­rounded by con­tro­versy

In ru­ral New­bern, Ala., the Ar­netts and Hol­ley wind through sev­eral small roads to see Di­nah Young. She’s 85 now, crouched over, and may or may not still be liv­ing in the house that’s on the prop­erty, which is par­tially cov­ered by a plas­tic tarp. She hugs the Ar­netts. They had stopped at the store to pick up some of her fa­vorites. Creamy peanut but­ter. An­i­mal crack­ers. Bagels.

Young’s art is scat­tered through­out the woods. She as­sem­bles sticks and branches and stones into con­fig­u­ra­tions, spir­i­tual tal­is­mans that will one day turn to rot.

Next stop is Em­mer Sewell. She lives in a small house at the side of a state high­way. She wears no shoes and greets Ar­nett, as al­ways, by telling him that she can’t let any­body in the house. The baby is sleep­ing. There is no baby, of course, as Sewell, born dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion, lives alone.

Sewell has de­scribed what she does as any­thing but art. “It ain’t noth­ing but crazy stuff,” she has said. Yet one of her pieces is in the Met.

Chairs are stacked up­side down onto one an­other into sculp­tures. The rusted hulk of a car over­flows with soda cans like a wash­ing ma­chine filled with too much de­ter­gent.

About an hour away, in Birm­ing­ham, Ar­nett starts to com­plain. About the back­ward city, the small-time thinkers, the his­tory of racism that can’t be stamped out. As if on cue, he points out the 16th Street Bap­tist Church, the site of the 1963 bomb­ing. Matt drives them to the hill­side near the Birm­ing­ham-Shut­tlesworth In­ter­na­tional Air­port where his fa­ther dis­cov­ered Hol­ley.

In the ’90s, the air­port au­thor­ity forced the artist to move so that it could ex­pand a run­way. It was an ugly le­gal bat­tle that ended with Hol­ley’s art be­ing re­moved or de­stroyed. The run­way was never built.

“Why are we here?” Ar­nett asks, not feel­ing a tinge of nos­tal­gia for what was once there.

It is in Alabama that Ar­nett ex­pe­ri­enced his low­est lows, sparked by “60 Min­utes.” The 1993 re­port framed him as a big­mouthed, ma­nip­u­la­tive white col­lec­tor rip­ping off poor, naive black artists. Back then, no­body wanted to ad­mit to be­ing a source.

But Mar­cia We­ber, a dealer in Mont­gomery, now says that she helped CBS build its re­port. She re­mains a critic of Ar­nett, whom she re­mem­bers ar­riv­ing in the area dur­ing the late 1980s and meet­ing artist Mose Tol­liver. She grew so sus­pi­cious that she paid the artist’s daugh­ter $10 to call her when­ever Ar­nett would ar­rive.

“I was out­spo­ken about it, say­ing this isn’t right,” she re­calls.

She told peo­ple Ar­nett cheated artists. Word spread. By 1990, a lengthy Art & An­tiques mag­a­zine story stated that Ar­nett was “sur­rounded by con­tro­versy” and that “only time will tell if Ar­nett is a saint or a sin­ner.”

Around then, Lynn Rabren, an Alabama-based cam­era­man who had worked for “60 Min­utes,” called Jeff Fager, then a pro­ducer for the news mag­a­zine. Rabren told Fager about the con­flict. Be­fore long, Fager and Safer had come South. We­ber wouldn’t go on cam­era, but she gave them a map to Char­lie Lucas, an artist who, over the years, has ac­cused Ar­nett of cheat­ing him. Bessie Har­vey, an­other artist, also com­plained. Ar­nett de­nied that he had taken ad­van­tage of ei­ther of them, but no pa­per­work ex­isted to set­tle the dis­pute. Safer sided with Ar­nett’s crit­ics. “Long be­fore there was any mar­ket for their art, Char­lie and Thorn­ton Dial and Bessie Har­vey and the oth­ers were mak­ing art sim­ply be­cause they had to,” he said in a voice-over. “Now it seems that pu­rity has been lost.”

Safer even turned Ar­nett pur­chas­ing Dial a house — the artist couldn’t se­cure a bank loan — into ev­i­dence that he was con­trol­ling the artists. To­day, Dial’s fam­ily owns that house and praises Ar­nett for help­ing their fa­ther. Har­vey, who died in 1994, even­tu­ally apol­o­gized to him. Lucas calls Ar­nett “a guy who don’t give a rat’s ass about peo­ple” but won’t dis­cuss their fi­nan­cial deal­ings.

Fager, later chair­man of CBS News, re­cently reread the tran­script of the re­port and says he feels it was fair.

“The African Amer­i­can artists who had con­cerns and beefs,” he says. “What were we sup­posed to do, ig­nore them?”

The end of the jour­ney

Ar­nett says he be­lieves the ru­mors didn’t just hurt him but they also slowed the as­cents of Dial, Hol­ley and the other artists in his col­lec­tion for years. David Ross, the di­rec­tor of the Whit­ney Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art in New York in the ’90s, had en­ter­tained the idea of fea­tur­ing the Souls Grown Deep work in a show. He spoke with Rifkin, his for­mer col­lege room­mate and then the High di­rec­tor, and de­cided to pass.

In 1996, when the Sum­mer Olympics came to At­lanta, Rifkin worked with for­mer Na­tional Gallery of Art di­rec­tor J. Carter Brown to host a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar ex­hi­bi­tion called “Rings,” that meant bor­row­ing canon­i­cal works from Ti­tian, Rem­brandt and Rodin from mu­se­ums around the world. Ar­nett got a smaller, sec­ondary space in City Hall East, a for­mer Sears build­ing out­side the down­town.

But the New York Times, the Wall Street Jour­nal, Newsweek, the Bos­ton Globe and oth­ers panned “Rings” for be­ing pre­dictable and pan­der­ing. The Souls show earned raves.

The dam­age had been done

One day in 2004, Ar­nett showed up to visit Korne­gay and dis­cov­ered that his yard was empty. He also didn’t find the rev­erend. He was met by the son, who threat­ened him. He told Ar­nett he had heard about how he cheated artists. Ar­nett would never see Korne­gay again. And the art? That’s the mys­tery. For years, the Ar­netts heard the Webbs, a pair of col­lec­tors in Texas, tore the yard apart and sold the pieces like base­ball cards.

“I’m not sur­prised that they would say that, but it’s not true,” Julie Webb says. “They never asked us, so how would they know?”

Korne­gay’s chil­dren — eight are listed in his obit­u­ary — are hard to pin down. Sev­eral don’t re­turn mes­sages. When reached by phone, one daugh­ter of­fers a “God bless you” and then hangs up. A son, in Illi­nois, says he doesn’t know about the art. A third sug­gests talk­ing to Don Korne­gay, one of the sons.

“It’s beau­ti­ful stuff, and I still have ac­cess to it,” Don Korne­gay says, though he de­clines to go into de­tail.

When Ar­nett’s name comes up, Don also is short.

“We had a bad ex­pe­ri­ence with that guy,” he says. “We had our mo­ments with him, and I’d rather not dis­cuss any­thing about it.”

Ar­nett gave up on Korne­gay long ago. He hasn’t given up on Joe Min­ter. Dur­ing the road trip, the Ar­netts and Hol­ley stop at the artist’s African Vil­lage. It sits atop a hill bor­der­ing a mas­sive ceme­tery. Min­ter, 73, be­gan craft­ing the pieces in the early 1990s. He’s cre­ated his own in­ter­pre­ta­tions of his­tor­i­cal mo­ments, such as Civil Rights marches, nat­u­ral dis­as­ters and 9/11.

The trou­ble is that Min­ter’s work is largely made out of wood and is start­ing to rot. Ar­nett has been talk­ing with peo­ple back in At­lanta about mov­ing and pre­serv­ing it.

They walk around the yard to a wooden copy of the bridge cen­tral to Martin Luther King Jr.’s march in Selma.

“Could that whole Ed­mund Pet­tus Bridge be moved and as­sem­bled some­place else, or is it too late?” Min­ter nods. “This can be moved to be pre­served be­cause it’s the end of the jour­ney,” he says, ex­pand­ing his view onto the whole vil­lage. “This is 30 years. That’s three decades. Look at it from the be­gin­ning and look at it now.”

Ar­nett takes in the al­most over­whelm­ing scene. He says he hopes he can save it, but he’s not sure.

“I prom­ise to God that if a white man had done this, there’d be a civic or­ga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cated to pro­tect­ing and pre­serv­ing and restor­ing it,” Ar­nett says. “I mean, this is im­por­tant.”

He stands back and once more shakes his head.

DEREK BLANKS FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Col­lec­tor Bill Ar­nett in a ware­house in At­lanta, where works by artists he dis­cov­ered are dis­played. “The art,” he says, “has al­ways been here.”

MELISSA GOLDEN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

ABOVE: “That’s Me Jimmy Lee” (1988) by Jimmy Lee Sud­duth, left, is made from mud, pen­cil and paint; “Woman Wear­ing a Fish Hat” (1980) by Nel­lie Mae Rowe, cen­ter, is acrylic and graphite on wood; “Gypsy Christ­mas Tree With Two Flag Birds” (1987) by Mose Tol­liver is made of paint on wood. RIGHT: Thorn­ton Dial’s “Nest­ing” is seen in Ar­nett’s ware­house in At­lanta. BE­LOW: Ar­nett and artist Lon­nie Hol­ley step out­side Hol­ley’s home and stu­dio in At­lanta. Ar­nett holds a newly dis­cov­ered piece Hol­ley made called “Who Locked Up the Rules?”

COUR­TESY OF WIL­LIAM AR­NETT

MELISSA GOLDEN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

MELISSA GOLDEN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

“Set­ting Lib­erty Free” (2015) by Lon­nie Hol­ley, who is more than an artist in Bill Ar­nett’s col­lec­tion. He’s friend, de­fender, am­bas­sador and scout.

DEREK BLANKS FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Bill Ar­nett sits in a ware­house where works from artists he dis­cov­ered in the South are on dis­play for the steady stream of cu­ra­tors and mu­seum direc­tors who visit in At­lanta. “I prom­ise to God that if a white man had done this, there’d be a civic or­ga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cated to pro­tect­ing and pre­serv­ing and restor­ing it,” Ar­nett says. “I mean, this is im­por­tant.”

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