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Expanding the Canon

A new exhibit at VMFA looks to bring marginalized African-American art from the South into the historical narrative.

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It was the roaring 1920s when businessman Samuel H. Kress, who made his fortune off his five-and-ten-cent stores, began amassing a remarkable collection of Italian Renaissance art. Eventually numbering 3,000 works, the Samuel H. Kress Collection was distributed to 90 institutions, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington, from the early 1930s until 1961. This dissemination of art was an unprecedented game changer that impacted the appreciation, scholarship, and visibility of Renaissance art in America.

Now, Maxwell Anderson, the president of an Atlanta-based nonprofit, Souls Grown Deep Foundation, is hoping to do something similar by rewriting the story of American art by placing work by African-American artists from the 20th century in 60 art museum collections. Like the Kress Foundation, long-term goals include funding scholars through grant-making and other scholarly initiatives.

"I'd like to think that we're giving [African-American] artists [from the South] the visibility that their work deserves," Anderson says. "And that, in time, the history of American art will come to acknowledge this core tradition of American cultural identity rather than something outside of that stream."

The Souls Grown Deep Foundation was established in 2010 from the collection of curator and historian Bill Arnett, who began buying art in the 1980s from African-American artists in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and other areas of the South. Eventually Arnett's paintings, sculptures, quilts, and assemblages numbered 1,300, alongside thousands of archival objects.

Since 2014, the foundation has been parceling out its holdings to major museums nationwide, including the Metropolitan Museum of American Art in New York and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. To date, 300 works have been dispersed to 16 American institutions and the archival materials went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where they will be digitized.

Now the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts gets its turn.

It has purchased 34 works by artists such as Thornton Dial and Mose Tolliver at a 50 percent discount of the fair-market value.

"That way, two things happen: One, it's affordable for museums and two, it gets the board involved in the decision to commit to the materials. There's a degree of institutional buy-in, literally," Anderson explains. He adds that these financial resources are then used by the foundation for grant-making and the operations, storage and conservation of the 1,000 works housed in Atlanta.

The art goes on display at the VMFA in the exhibition "Cosmologies from the Tree of Life: Art from the African American South" through Nov. 17 and runs the gamut from drawings and assemblages by Thornton Dial such as "Bad Picture" (1997-1998) made with recycled bike parts, to sculptures such as [musician] Lonnie B. Holley's "Moses' Rod" (1996). Also there are a large number of quilts from the 1970s by the Gee's Bend Quilt Makers.

Valerie Cassel Oliver, the museum's Sydney and Frances Lewis family curator of modern and contemporary art, sits on the foundation's board of trustees and has known Anderson for years. In 1999, Anderson, then director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, appointed Oliver as a curator of the Whitney Biennial.

The oldest works in the collection date to the 1940s. Anderson and Oliver both explain that over the 20th and 21st century, the reception of this art has drastically changed as scholars rewrite the story of post-World-War-II art. Many of these African-American artists in the South, because they acquired their skills through guilds, workshops or family members, were simply left out of the story of 20th-century art and art museums.

"For me, [it's] this notion of revitalizing or expanding the canon," Oliver says. "To go back and say, material culture, quilts, all of these things really do have an impact on how artists create."

Even Arnett's perspective evolved while he was collecting, explains Anderson, from seeing the art as "cultural expression" to a "universal value that deserves a place alongside any other work in a museum."

Anderson is quick to point out that the foundation's philosophy is "somewhat different" [from Arnett's]. "We see a hybrid importance of these objects, both as works of art independent of their particular circumstances that are extraordinary formally," he notes. "But also they're ciphers for civil rights struggle and adverse circumstances that these artists lived and worked in. And we don't think that's something that should be put to the side."

Anderson explains that they must walk a line "between advocating [the works] as warranting consideration alongside artists who are already acknowledged in the market as well as works that have a story to tell about the disenfranchisement of a whole population in the South."

The distribution of the collection comes at a time when terms such as folk or vernacular art or self-taught are being debated and discarded.

"We have stripped our publications … of the phrases folk art, outside art, vernacular art, visionary art. We don't use any of that terminology. We just call it art," Anderson says with a laugh.

"Cosmologies from the Tree of Life: Art from the African American South" opens Saturday, June 8 and runs through Nov. 17 in the Evans Court at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. See vmfa.museum/exhibitions for information.

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