Carol M. Highsmith via Library of Congress, Commons / CC0

June 15, 2020; Hyperallergic

From its start, the Souls Grown Deep Foundation was different than most philanthropic institutions. It began life in 2010 with the donation of 1,300 “overlooked” museum-quality artworks created by African Americans working in the US South after the Civil Rights era, the gift of white collector William S. Arnett. The foundation’s original vision was bold, “born of a belief that art history needed to be rewritten to include the creativity of some 160 artists of the 20th century who had toiled in oppression, poverty, and obscurity, far from the mainstream art world.”

The foundation’s first goal, after documenting and caring for its collection, was to move its artworks into the permanent collections of leading art museums—both to increase their visibility and to display them alongside some of the best known postwar white US artists—to revise art history as conceived by curators, academics, and the media. At this, it has succeeded. Today, twenty well-known museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the High Museum in Atlanta, the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, and the Minneapolis Institute of Art, house hundreds of these Black Belt artworks.

Price played an important role in these art transactions. The foundation’s strategy is to half-gift, half-sell the artworks, thus moving them at 50 percent of the fair market value. Says Angie Dodson, director of the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, “We want to applaud the Souls Grown Deep Foundation for their vision. They could have created their own museum. They could have added yet another museum to the landscape. But instead they felt the best way to really honor these artists was to make sure they did in fact become widely recognized pieces and part of larger, smarter art history. They decided to err on the side of generosity and created a very advantageous gift purchase program as a way of distributing these pieces to all of us.”

Another foundation strategy to diversify the museum field is the foundation’s new Internship Program, which annually provides three students of color with financial support and the opportunity to work alongside curators, conservators, educators, and administrators at partner museums.

But increasing the visibility of African American artists and diversifying the mainstream museum world’s collections is only the first step for this Atlanta-based foundation. Their second goal is “to improve the quality of life of the communities that gave rise to the art in our care.”

What does this mean, and what does it look like? It’s a particularly salient question today, as institutions of all shapes and sizes begin the work of discerning what it tangibly means to promote racial justice and end white supremacy.

Perhaps the best-known artists in the foundation’s collection are the women behind the Gee’s Bend quilts, whose extraordinary works toured extensively in the mid 2000s, were widely written about, and featured on a series of US postage stamps.

The quilt makers, who had not previously thought of themselves as artists, rode buses from Alabama to the early New York openings, dressed in their Sunday best, to see the quilts that had once kept their children warm in the winters displayed before throngs of museumgoers.

But Gee’s Bend, a former tenant farming and sharecropping community of 700 encircled on three sides by the Alabama River, and the home of these quilters for many generations, has not changed. There are no stores, just trailers, unused barns, and houses built by the Resettlement Administration in the 1930s. Wilcox County, where Gee’s Bend sits, is the poorest county in Alabama.

In 2019, the foundation’s board restructured the organization, reincorporating it as a supporting organization of a new entity, the Souls Grown Deep Community Partnership, with the mission to “address the social and economic inequities that contributed to [the artists’] disenfranchisement.” The Community Partnership would make grants out of the proceeds generated by a new social impact fund, initially seeded with $1 million from the foundation’s assets. (Current assets for the organization totaled $2.15 million in their last fiscal year.)

One of the first acts of the Community Partnership was to create the Gee’s Bend Resource Center, temporarily housed at Aunt Ruby’s Kitchen in one of the two unincorporated towns in the community. Souls Grown Deep is paying community members to staff the center, now trained to help residents fill out the 2020 census (Wilcox County had the lowest response rate in the state) and forms for federal stimulus checks, as well as register them to vote. Staff are running a phone bank to target those not yet participating and offering gift certificates at local grocery stories as incentives. Almost two out of three of the community’s households have no home Internet service.

The right to vote is a salient one for this African American community. After Martin Luther King Jr. came to Wilcox County in 1962, local officials closed off ferry service from Gee’s Bend to the county seat, making it much more difficult for residents to register to vote. The local sheriff reportedly said, “We didn’t close the ferry because they were Black, we closed it because they forgot they were Black.” The ferry did not resume service until 2006.

During this COVID-19 crisis, the foundation is paying the quilters to actualize their idea to use their sewing skills to make a face mask for every resident in their community, personally delivering these masks to the doorsteps and mailboxes of the 700 community members, many of whom are elderly.

“We’ll start going up the road,” says one of the lead quilters. “We’ll go as far as we can. It’s simple. We want to keep people safe. Everything that we can do, we’re doing it.”

In addition to its commitment to “limit its investments to entities that can help improve economic opportunities and promote racial and social justice in that region, and to be transparent about its investments in the hope that other larger endowments might follow suit,” the foundation has a new take on board leadership. Though the board includes luminaries like Jane Fonda; well-known curators, researchers and collectors in the African American art world; along with wealth managers and an attorney, its chair, Mary Margaret Pettway, is a quilter from Gee’s Bend.

The art collection and its former owner, Bill Arnett, have not been immune to criticism. Important questions have been raised about his privileged white position versus the poorly resourced Black artists that he supported via stipends, materials and purchasing their art. Was Arnett “the art world’s equivalent of the executives at Chess Records—white men who, in the 1950s, got rich by exploiting black songwriters”?

And what about the artists’ new promoter, the Souls Grown Deep Community Partnership, led by a very prominent white man in the museum world? Are its grants to Gee’s Bend and other communities in the Black Belt, its efforts to connect Black artists to copyright advocates and resources, its internship program, its board chair, all merely winks at the deeply engrained racism and classism that undergird the mainstream art world? Or, are these important first steps at dismantling oppressive structures? It’s worth watching as we work to create a nation that remembers and celebrates all of its history and rewards all of its citizens.—Debby Warren

Correction: This article has been altered from its initial form to confirm the number of museums where Souls Grown Deep’s collection can be found and give Ms. Dodson’s correct title.