Early in his career, Mr. Arnett and his brother ran an Atlanta art gallery, and his journeys took him throughout Asia, Africa and the Middle East, in search of artifacts. His collection of Chinese jade was considered among the world’s finest.
He was known for his discerning eye and for an occasionally abrasive manner that alienated some people in the art world. In the 1970s, he pronounced a wealthy collector’s Chinese porcelains fake — a declaration confirmed by experts from the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art. But the well-connected collector wasn’t the person ostracized by Atlanta’s art-world elite: It was the sharp-tongued Mr. Arnett.
His $1 million jade collection was promptly removed from display at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, Mr. Arnett said, and left in cardboard boxes in his front yard while he was out of town. He refused to set foot inside the High Museum for years.
“There was the work,” former High Museum director Ned Rifkin told The Washington Post in 2017, “and then there was Bill, who was a piece of work.”
Soon afterward, Mr. Arnett began to look for art in out-of-the-way places. Believing there had to be a visual parallel to blues and gospel music, he went in search of creations by self-taught African American artists.
In Birmingham, Ala., in the 1980s, he met Lonnie Holley, who assembled sculptures out of old furniture, branches, wires and bric-a-brac, often resulting in works that alluded to the struggles of Black people in the South.
“I’d been all over the world and seen all kinds of art in museums and cathedrals and temples, but I’d never seen anything so moving as Lonnie’s place,” Mr. Arnett told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1993. “Nothing has been the same since. I had to go out and tell the world that there’s this forgotten civilization doing this great work.”
Before long, he was driving around the South, discovering others whose artwork had been ignored and overlooked, including Thornton Dial, Georgia Speller, J.B. Murray, Mose Tolliver and Joe Light. The art world called their work, whether in the form of paintings, sculpture or hard-to-classify assemblages, folk art or outsider art.
Mr. Arnett preferred the term “Black vernacular art,” which he said was ignored by critics and galleries but was as deeply felt, as rigorously made and emotionally ambitious as the high-dollar works of Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning, Gerhard Richter and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
“All of this effort is made to diminish these artists,” Mr. Arnett told the Wall Street Journal in 2001, but they were making “some of the most intellectual and sophisticated art in the history of mankind.”
Many of the artists encouraged by Mr. Arnett — most, but not all of them, African American — held low-paying jobs and had little free time for their art. Like a latter-day Medici, Mr. Arnett began to pay them a weekly stipend, typically $200, with the agreement that they would come to him first with their new works.
At one point, Mr. Arnett said he was spending $50,000 a month to support a network of artists and their families. He sold off other holdings as he built a collection of folk art so large that it had to be stored in a warehouse.
“I was buying enormous amounts of work I didn’t want to get the pieces I did want,” he told the Journal-Constitution. “I was trying to give the artists some financial security and confidence.”
He arranged museum exhibitions for his artists throughout the country, including at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. But some people in the art world, and even members of the artists’ families, began to accuse Mr. Arnett of exploitation, of running the artistic equivalent of a plantation society.
The most stinging blow to his reputation came in 1993, when “60 Minutes” aired a segment presented by Morley Safer, suggesting that Mr. Arnett was manipulative and cheating artists on his payroll.
One of the most successful artists whose careers were launched by Mr. Arnett was Dial, a onetime Alabama metalworker whose works sold for $25 when Mr. Arnett met him in 1987. Six years later, Dial’s large-scale paintings and collages were going for more than $100,000 and he was living in a large house. “60 Minutes” pointed out that Mr. Arnett’s name was on the deed. Mr. Arnett said he had helped arrange the purchase because Dial had little credit history and could not otherwise obtain a bank loan.
“They acted like I was supposed to be surprised,” Dial told the Journal-Constitution soon after the “60 Minutes” segment ran. “But I knew about it. Bill don’t own me.” (Full ownership was later transferred to Dial, who remained on good terms with Mr. Arnett until his death in 2016.)
In 1997, Mr. Arnett and his son Matt first visited Gee’s Bend, an African American community with a long tradition of quiltmaking. Mr. Arnett began to acquire the strikingly colorful quilts, sometimes offering more than $2,000 apiece.
Over a four-year period, he bought more than 500 quilts for $1.3 million. He arranged for about 70 of them to be displayed in 2002 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, creating an art-world phenomenon. The female quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend became minor celebrities as they appeared at museums in Houston, New York and other cities.
In the words of a reviewer for the Times of London, the quilts were “an astonishing revelation of the seemingly accidental genius of the world’s most improbable colony of artists.”
William Arenowitch was born May 10, 1939, in Columbus, Ga. His family ran a wholesale business selling items to dry-good stores in the South.
Mr. Arnett changed his last name in about 1960 and added a middle name, Sidney, after one of his grandfathers. He attended Georgia Tech and the University of Pennsylvania before graduating from the University of Georgia in 1963.
He then traveled throughout Europe for two years while doing market research for a food business, studying art and becoming a devotee of opera. He and a brother, Robert Arnett, later opened an Atlanta gallery specializing in pre-Columbian, Asian and African art.
In the 1970s, Mr. Arnett left the gallery business to become a lecturer on art and an occasional guest curator. When he began to focus on African American folk art, he heard one Atlanta grandee scoff, saying that it was “nothing but rusted tin and rotten wood.”
Never one to forget a slight, Mr. Arnett later launched a publishing arm, which he called Tinwood Books. His financial partner in that endeavor was actress Jane Fonda, who had a substantial collection of quilts and vernacular art.
Mr. Arnett published two books on the Gee’s Bend quilts and two lavish volumes under the title “Souls Grown Deep” — the same name as his foundation to promote the study of Black vernacular art.
With hundreds of illustrations, accompanied by essays from scholars and other observers, including the late congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.), the two-volume work was described by museum director Peter Marzio as “groundbreaking scholarship … so profound it’s subversive.”
Mr. Arnett’s wife of 46 years, the former Judy Mitchell, died in 2011. Survivors include four sons, Paul Arnett, Matt Arnett and Tom Arnett, all of Atlanta, and Harry Arnett of Carlsbad, Calif.; a brother; and eight grandchildren.
All four of Mr. Arnett’s sons have worked with him in the family business of discovering and encouraging little-known artists. Mr. Arnett had financial setbacks and health problems in his later years. He and members of his family were sued for fraud in 2007 by the families of two quilters from Gee’s Bend. The suits were dismissed.
In 2018, Mr. Arnett’s longtime lawyer was disbarred for allegedly misappropriating hundreds of thousands of dollars of artwork and for illegally drawing money from Mr. Arnett’s accounts.
For years, Mr. Arnett lived in an art-filled, three-level house in one of Atlanta’s most desirable neighborhoods. He sold the house to settle debts — and to buy more art.
“It’s fun to surround yourself with art,” he said in 1993. “I imagine myself diving into it the way Donald Duck’s rich uncle ran his hands through coins.”
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