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.
“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.
The following section contains audio
Audio (1:17)Arnett on the Rev. George Paul Kornegay
The Rev. George Paul Kornegay turned the rolling hill outside his home in Brent, Ala., into what he considered a sacred space. He used such diverse items as bottles, tree branches, old TVs and hubcaps. He’s gone now, dead at 100 in 2014, and so is his work.
1 of 15 | "Gateway to the House." (William Arnett)
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 self-taught art. “There are many great collections of work by self-taught artists, but there is nothing like the Souls Grown Deep collection.”
46 artists from Arnett’s collection
1 of 47 | Works from various artists with the Souls Grown Deep foundation founded by Bill Arnett. (Photos courtesy of William Arnett)
‘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.
William Arnett, left, and artist Lonnie Holley step outside Holley’s home and studio in Atlanta. Arnett holds a newly discovered Holley piece in his hand called “Who Locked Up the Rules?” (Melissa Golden for The Washington Post)
“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.”
The following section contains audio
Audio (0:56)Arnett on Lonnie Holley
Growing up in poverty and dysfunction, Lonnie Holley, 67, channeled his pain into his art. His works range from delicate, tabletop sculptures to sprawling assemblages of torn clothes and stained mattresses. Holley’s music, a mesmerizing blend of electronic keyboards and improvised vocals, also has earned him acclaim.
1 of 33 | FROM LEFT: "Setting Liberty Free" (2015); "Praise Door" (1996). (Melissa Golden for The Washington Post; William Arnett)
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 big-mouthed, manipulative white collector ripping off poor, naive black artists. Back then, nobody wanted to admit to being a source.
Works by Emmer Sewell, who 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. (William Arnett/Souls Grown Deep)
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 following section contains audio
Audio (0:38)Arnett on Thornton Dial
Thornton Dial, a metalworker for much of his life, created art out of objects he collected around his home in Alabama. He created installations that referenced popular culture, and his abstract paintings were inspired by the racism he witnessed. And although Dial grew up poor, by the time of his death at 87 in 2016, his work had been recognized by critics, major museums and the art market.
1 of 30 | "Nesting." (Melissa Golden for The Washington Post)
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 following section contains audio
Audio (0:55)Arnett on Joe Minter
Joe Minter’s “African Village in America” sits on a hilltop, made up of objects he assembled to represent everything from the destruction of the World Trade Center to the tragic church bombing in his home town of Birmingham, Ala. Minter, 73, hopes someone can find a way to protect and preserve the work, which has been deteriorating in the open air.
1 of 19 | "The Price to Vote, the Price to Be a Human" (1995) A copy of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. (William Arnett)
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?”
“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.
Bill Arnett stands in a warehouse in Atlanta, where works from artists he discovered in the South are on display. “The art,” he says, “has always been here.” (Derek Blanks for The Washington Post)