Bill Arnett, Collector and Promoter of Little-Known Black Art, Dies at 81

Bill Arnett, Collector and Promoter of Little-Known Black Art, Dies at 81

Christopher Knight of The Los Angeles Times wrote that the show demonstrated “the potential power in a highly personal art commonly made from castoff materials, by artists who have themselves been castoffs from American society.”

Over the years, Mr. Arnett said, he sold off parts of his collection of antiquities and his two houses to support the artists and pay off his debts from helping them. In 2010, he donated 1,300 pieces of the artists’ works to the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, which he founded. The foundation, in turn, has made gifts to museums, including one, in 2014, of 57 paintings, drawings, sculptures, quilts and mixed media works to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

When the Met exhibited some of the works in 2018, Roberta Smith of The New York Times wrote, “The show seems nearly perfect in art installation and irrefutability of greatness.” In addition to his son Paul, Mr. Arnett is survived by his brother, Robert; three other sons, Matt, Harry and Tom; and eight grandchildren. His wife, Judy (Mitchell) Arnett, died in 2011.

Two of Mr. Arnett’s grandchildren, including Viva Vadim, are the children of Matt Arnett and Vanessa Vadim, a daughter of Jane Fonda and the director Roger Vadim. Ms. Fonda was a partner with Bill Arnett in a publishing firm that produced books about the Black artists and is on the foundation’s board. Ms. Vadim and Matt Arnett produced a short film about the Gee’s Bend quilters in 2002.

Mr. Arnett was working with his son Matt in the late 1990s on a book about African-American quilters when a photo of a woman with a quilt from Alabama riveted them. They set out to find her — which they did, in Gee’s Bend — and were welcomed by her fellow quilters.

“We went to meet one quilter and after a few days, we’d met 15,” Matt Arnett said by phone. “Word got around that there were two crazy white men buying ‘ugly, raggly’ quilts. They weren’t ugly, but they were not the prevailing aesthetic. And once it was clear there was something extraordinary there, we went as often as we could.”

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