Making a Statement, Five Major Museums Acquire 51 Works by African American Artists From the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

The foundation supports self-taught black artists from the American South.

Purvis Young, Sometimes I Get Emotion From the Game has been acquired by the Morgan Library & Museum in New York from Souls Grown Deep. Photo by Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio.

Five more museums have acquired works of art from the non-profit Souls Grown Deep Foundation, which collects and promotes the work of African American artists from the southern US.

A total of 51 works by 30 black self-taught artists will become part of the collections of the Brooklyn Museum, New York’s Morgan Library & Museum, Atlanta’s Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, the Dallas Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The works are worth a total of about $1.6 million, though the museums paid a discounted rate of $455,000 for the partial gifts.

“There is an awakening of interest in African-American art from museums trying to be inclusive and diverse,” Souls Grown Deep president Maxwell Anderson told the New York Times.

Souls Grown Deep founder William Arnett began collecting art in the Deep South in the 1980s. He started the foundation as a way to stage exhibitions and conduct scholarly research about previously unknown artists such as Thornton Dial, Purvis Young, and Lonnie Holley, and the Gee’s Bend quilters, a women’s collective from rural Alabama.

Since 2016, Anderson has been working to place the collection at various museums across the country. The Morgan, with its usual focus on Old Masters, was not among the institutions Anderson had thought to approach, but its interest could be a good barometer of the foundation’s success in changing the narrative around African American art of the South.

“Artists from the mainstream are looking at this kind of art,” Morgan curator Isabelle Dervaux told the Times.

Thorton Dial, <em>Fading</em> (2002) is being auctioned this week at Christie's New York by Souls Grown Deep to benefit the foundation's new internship grant program. Photo by Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio.

Thornton Dial, Fading (2002), is being auctioned this week at Christie’s New York by Souls Grown Deep to benefit the foundation’s new internship grant program. Photo by Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio.

Other past acquisitions from the Souls Grown Deep collection, which contained about 1,300 works at its peak, include a 57-work donation to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2014, and 62 works that entered the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco through a joint gift and purchase in 2017. To date, 12 museums across the country now own more than 300 works acquired through Souls Grown Deep. The Met showcased its works from the foundation in the show “History Refused to Die,” which closed in September.

The foundation is also selling works on the public market for the first time this week. On Friday, Dial’s Fading (2002) will be offered at the post-war and contemporary art sale at Christie’s New York, where it is expected to fetch $60,000–80,000.

The proceeds from both the museum acquisitions and the upcoming auction will benefit Souls Grown Deep’s new grant program, which will kick off with paid internships for students of color at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the New Orleans Museum of Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, three institutions that have acquired work from the foundation in the past. The organization also plans to create grants in support of the women of Gee’s Bend, who still live in the impoverished rural area despite growing appreciation of their work in the art world—a response to the criticism that the community hasn’t reaped the benefits of their work’s popularity.

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