art collector and advocate for black artists
William Arnett, of Atlanta, died Aug. 12 at age 81.
He was well known in the Atlanta art community as an art historian, collector, and philanthropist. He and his family founded the Souls Grown Deep Foundation to promote Southern African-American artists and foster economic empowerment and racial and social justice.
Arnett was not active with the foundation at the time of his death, Matt Arnett said.
“Until the end of his life he never spent time working on anything other than preserving, documenting and becoming an advocate for the world of South African American artists,” including Lonnie Holley and Gee’s Bend quilters,” said Matt Arnett.
Atlanta-based artist and musician Lonnie Holley, formerly known as Sandman, first met Arnett in 1986.
By this time, Holley’s work had already been shown in several major cities, but he credits Arnett with helping him become “more of a global artist with my music and art”.
Holley said they have become more than just friends. He considered Arnett a big brother.
Arnett “felt there was something sacred in our art,” said Holley, who was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama. “When it came to art, he was really a strict person. He didn’t play. He didn’t like anyone trying to abuse or abuse him. From Africa to America, he had helped American citizens better understand our arts.
Another son, Paul Arnett, remembers growing up in a house filled with “thousands” of artworks from around the world.
“We had visitors from all over the world. Every race. Every religion. Every sexual orientation,” he said. “We’re mostly talking about people in the art world.”
One of his father’s best friends was Millicent Dobbs Jordan. “She was usually with us once a week. She introduced him to many people in her social circle.
Birmingham artist Joe Minter was also a longtime friend.
“He’s a hero not just for humanity (but) for the next generation that needs that piece of the puzzle,” Minter said. “He was beaten because of what he was doing, because what he was trying to do was tell the whole story.”
He said Arnett worked tirelessly to get the work of South African American artists into major museums and collections. “Bill fought every museum that exists,” he said.
His work, however, was not without controversy.
According to a 2008 article in the Seattle Times, three of the Gee’s Bend, Alabama quilters named William Arnett, among others, for failing to pay them their legitimate earnings.
The lawsuits were ultimately dismissed.
The son of Hilliard Arenowitch, a wholesaler, and Minna Moses Arenowitch, a housewife, Arnett grew up in an upper-middle-class Jewish family in Columbus during segregation.
He learned about class divisions and racism early on.
As a teenager, Arnett fell in love with the music of black artists like Fats Domino, Clyde McPhatter, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. He used to beg his mother to take him to black neighborhood record stores so he could buy black music, items he couldn’t find in his community.
He also enjoyed sports, especially baseball and basketball, his son Paul Arnett said.
There he also learned of the injustice and racism of white players not being allowed to play against black athletes.
“He just couldn’t understand what segregation was for,” said Paul Arnett. “It kept him from playing against the (black) players he wanted to test himself against. It instilled in him the need for fairness in the world and that people should rise up not on the basis of biography or of identity, but on capacity.
After attending Georgia Tech and the University of Pennsylvania, Arnett graduated from the University of Georgia. He left Atlanta for London, where he developed an affinity for the visual arts. During his lifetime he traveled to over 60 countries to study and collect works of art.
He and a brother, Robert Arnett, became art dealers and collectors, specializing in non-Western civilizations, including those of the Middle East, China, Southeast Asia and Africa .
In 1964, he married his high school girlfriend, Judy Ann Mitchell, who died in 2011, and raised four sons.
He is survived by his four sons, Paul Hilliard Arnett (Erin Brauer); William Matthew Arnett (Virginia Prescott); Richard Harrison Arnett (Kim); and Thomas Robert Arnett (Erin); and eight grandchildren; and his brother, Robert Arnett.
“In lieu of donations, the family is asking people to listen to Verdi and Aretha, eat a slice of Mexican-style flan, be kind to the next cat they meet, and pursue any curiosity about new art forms,” according to the family. obituary.
A memorial ceremony will take place at a later date.