An Appreciation: William Sidney Arnett (1939–2020)

August 20, 2020

From left to right: Louisiana Bendolph, Thornton Dial Sr. (seated), Richard Dial, and Bill Arnett

William Sidney Arnett

May 10, 1939 – August 12, 2020

The Museum wishes to celebrate the life and contributions of Bill Arnett, an early champion and collector of exceptional works of art by self-taught African American artists from the American South, and particularly Alabama.

An art collector from an early age, Arnett turned his attention to self-taught artists in the 1980s.  With his organization called Tinwood, he brought public attention to these deserving, but then largely unknown, artists through publications and museum exhibitions, which led to a reimagining of larger art historical contexts. Both on his own, and later through his Souls Grown Deep foundation, Arnett introduced Alabama artists such as the Gee’s Bend Quilters, Thornton Dial, Sr. and the Dial family, and Lonnie Holley to the world.

In 2015, the MMFA partnered with the Souls Grown Deep Foundation and Arnett on History Refused to Die: The Enduring Legacy of the African-American Art of Alabama—an exhibition and publication project the two institutions realized in conjunction with the Alabama Contemporary Arts Center in Mobile. And in May of 2019, the Museum and Foundation collaborated once again with the historic acquisition of five works from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation’s William S. Arnett Collection. This acquisition includes a major work by Thornton Dial, Sr., an early work by Jimmy Lee Sudduth, and three quilts from Gee’s Bend quiltmakers Minnie Sue Coleman, Emma Mae Hall Pettway, and Joanna Pettway. Collectively these five newly acquired works enrich our collection, document the experiences of their makers, and serve as windows onto the lives of African Americans in Alabama in the twentieth century. Fulfilling Arnett’s goals for the dispersal of the material he collected, this acquisition, along with others at major art institutions throughout the U.S., has forever deepened and enhanced our understanding of African American contributions to American culture.


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