High Museum Receives 54 Artworks from Souls Grown Deep Foundation
Acquisition strengthens one of the most significant collections of American self-taught art in the world; expands largest public collection of works by Thornton Dial and holdings by African American artists from the Southern U.S.
Rand Suffolk, Nancy and Holcombe T. Green, Jr., director of the High Museum of Art, announced today that the Museum has received 54 works from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, one of the most significant acquisitions by the High’s folk and self-taught art department since its establishment in 1994.
The combined gift and purchase features paintings, sculptures and works on paper by 33 contemporary African-American artists from the Southern United States, including 13 works by Thornton Dial (1928–2016) that span four decades of the artist’s astounding career. The acquisition also features 11 quilts created by the women of Gee’s Bend, Ala., tripling the Museum’s examples of this unparalleled tradition in American art. Work by Lonnie Holley and Ronald Lockett, artists whose work the High has been collecting since the 1990s, is joined by sculpture from their Alabama contemporaries Joe Minter and Richard Dial. In addition to Minter and Richard Dial, artists entering the High’s collection for the first time include Eldren Bailey, one of four Georgia artists represented in the acquisition, Charles Williams, Vernon Burwell and Georgia Speller. A significant group of paintings and sculpture by Joe Light, as well as individual works by artists such as Archie Byron, Mary T. Smith, Royal Robertson and Purvis Young, complement existing holdings by those artists.
The High’s acquisition is part of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation’s strategic gift/purchase program designed to strengthen the representation of African-American artists from the Southern U.S. in the collections of leading museums across the country, including the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“This gift dovetails remarkably well with our existing collection—essentially adding strength on strength to one of the most distinctive and important collections of its kind,” said Suffolk. “We’re grateful to the Souls Grown Deep Foundation for the opportunity to deepen our commitment to these artists and recognize their impact on contemporary art.”
“This landmark acquisition is a capstone of years of collaboration with the High Museum of Art, the anchoring institution in the Foundation’s hometown of Atlanta. We are very pleased to add dozens of significant works to the High’s collection of contemporary art and look forward to years of future collaboration through insightful programming, displays and publications,” said Maxwell L. Anderson, president of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.
This acquisition is the latest in a series of major milestones for the High’s folk and self-taught art department. In 2014 the Museum received a $2.5 million gift from Atlanta-based patrons Dan Boone and his late wife Merrie Boone to support and expand the Museum’s folk and self-taught art initiatives, including the endowment of a permanent, full-time curatorial position. Katherine Jentleson, Ph.D., joined the High in 2015 as the inaugural Merrie and Dan Boone Curator of Folk and Self-taught Art. Since Jentleson’s arrival, the Museum has added 177 artworks to the folk and self-taught art collection and continues to build its robust special exhibition program, which has included “Green Pastures: In Memory of Thornton Dial, Sr.” (Feb. 13 through May 1, 2016), “A Cut Above: Wood Sculpture from the Gordon W. Bailey Collection” (May 14 through Oct. 30, 2016) and the solo retrospective “Fever Within: The Art of Ronald Lockett” (Oct. 9, 2016, through Jan. 8, 2017). Since establishing the department in 1994, the High has presented other notable exhibitions, including “Howard Finster: Visions from Paradise Garden” (1996), “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend” (2006), “Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial” (2012–2013) and “Bill Traylor: Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum of Art and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts” (2012–2013).
The High began collecting the work of contemporary self-taught artists in 1975 and became the first museum outside of Alabama to make a major purchase of work by Bill Traylor in 1982. The following decade included a significant acquisition of work by Howard Finster and the foundational gift of more than 150 works of art from T. Marshall Hahn, which established the High as a leader in work by Southern self-taught artists. Subsequent gifts in the 2000s, including more than 130 works by Nellie Mae Rowe from the Judith Alexander Foundation and more than 80 works by various artists from the collection of Gordon W. Bailey, reinforced this strength. The Souls Grown Deep acquisition greatly deepens the High’s holdings of contemporary art from the South, endowing the collection with masterpieces collected by William S. Arnett throughout the region in the 1980s, which formed the basis for the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.
To showcase these new acquisitions, the Museum will increase the physical footprint of the folk and self-taught art galleries by 30 percent as part of a permanent collection reinstallation planned for 2018.
“When we unveil works from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in our expanded galleries it will be a defining moment that makes undeniable the magnitude of achievement that has been realized by artists here in the South, regardless of their level of training,” said Jentleson. “This is art that breaks boundaries and defies expectations, challenging long-held assumptions about where great art comes from and whom we acknowledge as the leading artists of our time.”
Highlights of the gift/purchase
Thornton Dial, Sr.
For many years, the High has held the largest public collection of Dial’s work and has recognized his artistic genius through exhibition projects. With the addition of 13 paintings and sculptures from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, the Museum nearly doubles its holdings to include paintings and assemblages spanning Dial’s entire 30-year career, giving the critically acclaimed Alabama artist a lasting legacy within the High’s world-class collection.
- “Crossing Waters” (2006–2011), the largest painting Dial ever made, references the transatlantic voyage that forcibly brought hundreds of thousands of African people to lives of servitude in the United States.
- “Driving to the End of the World” (2004), five works created as a commentary on the global oil crisis made from an old truck that Dial found deserted in the woods, comprise the only series of work Dial ever completed.
- Three pre-1990 works, “Beaver Dam” (1987), “The Old Ku Klux: After All Their Fighting, Where’s the Profit” (1988) and “Turkey Tower” (1980s), illustrate the early period of Dial’s career previously undocumented at the High.
- Two works from 2002, “Looking Out the Windows” and “Mrs. Bendolph,” exhibit the highly sophisticated range of Dial’s assemblage practice as it blossomed at the dawn of the millennium.
Gee’s Bend Quilts
Gee’s Bend, Ala., was named after Joseph Gee, who built a plantation there in the early 1800s. The Gee family sold the plantation to Mark Pettway in 1845, and most present-day residents, including many of the Gee’s Bend quilters, are descendants of slaves from the former Pettway plantation.
Dating from the 1970s to 2005, the 11 quilts included in the Souls Grown Deep Foundation gift/purchase triple the High’s existing holdings of works by these celebrated women artists and demonstrate the incredible legacy of their artistic production, which parallels many of the experiments with color, flatness and abstraction associated with postwar American painting. Quilts by Louisiana Bendolph, Mary Lee Bendolph and Annie Mae Young complement existing holdings by these artists, while work by Lucy T. Pettway, Arlonzia Pettway, Arcola Pettway, China Pettway, Jennie Pettway, Agatha Bennett, Polly Bennett and Flora Moore enters the collection for the first time.
- A trio of found-object sculptures by Alabama-born, Atlanta-based artist and musician Lonnie Holley (born 1950), including “What’s on a Pedestal Today” (1990) and “Not Olympic Rings” (1994), two works that engage directly with the postmodern practice of institutional critique
- “The Comfort and Service My Daddy Brings to Our Household” (1988), a steel sculpture by Thornton Dial’s son, Richard Dial (born 1955), one of several works that demonstrates dynamic artistic exchange and cross-influence.
- Key works by Ronald Lockett (1965–1998), whose retrospective the High recently hosted. “Civil Rights Marchers” (1988) and “Once Something Has Lived It Can Never Really Die” (1996) span the artist’s brief but explosive career and complement the High’s existing holdings of Lockett’s cut-metal drawings and deer paintings, work in which animals become potent symbols for the vulnerability of African-American men in the post–Civil Rights era South.
- Works commemorating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: a painted cabinet by South Carolina artist Sam Doyle (1906–1985) titled “A Dream” and sculpted likenesses of Dr. King and Coretta Scott King by Vernon Burwell (1916–1990) of Rocky Mount, N.C. Both works represent an alternative narrative to canonical accounts of American portraiture, in which white subjects by white artists have been historically dominant.
- Rare work by Atlanta artist Eldren Bailey, who began decorating his property in the Mechanicsville neighborhood with concrete sculpture in 1945. “Pyramid” (1970s), a concrete sculpture embedded with found objects including costume jewelry, pennies and a freemason’s pin, is a 20th-century heir to the memory jug, a form that has long been associated with the survival of African traditions on American soil.