Mary Lee Bendolph, Blocks and Strips, 2002, wool, cotton, corduroy, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Patrons’ Permanent Fund and Gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

Frayed edges, interwoven color palettes and patterns, pops of color sewn into fields of gray and brown mingle together to form Mary Lee Bendolph’s Blocks and Strips. When I look at this work I picture Sundays around the kitchen table defined by thread, needles, and pins. I picture it being placed on top of a sleeping grandchild. I picture it hanging off a porch, the sun cleaning its fibers as it has for hundreds of Gees Bend’s quilts over the years. 

I wonder what a collector or curator at the National Gallery of Art sees.

Above a label that reads like the caption above, this quilt by Mary Lee Bendolph, Blocks and Strips (2002), hangs in the National Gallery’s exhibit Called to Create: Black Artists of the American South. The exhibit features forty sculptures, assemblages, paintings, reliefs, quilts, and drawings exploring multifaceted representations of and reflections on Black identity in the American South. The exhibit successfully juxtaposes rampant hatred, racism, and discrimination with the empowered cultural and spiritual traditions of Black Americans living in the South.

         Reading reviews of the exhibit, I decided to ask my boyfriend if he wanted to visit the show with me. A few weeks later we braved the stairs to the third floor and began exploring the Southern Black experience on the walls of the National Gallery.

         Walking through the first few galleries, we explored works by Thornton Dial, James “Son Ford” Thomas, Lonnie Holley, Mary T. Smith, and Purvis Young. It was refreshing to see pieces by artists so frequently left out of the National Gallery on display. I got particularly excited when I noticed a wall text recognizing the unfortunate novelty of this exhibit–a statement of recognition toward the Gallery’s dark history of a systemic and institutionalized abandonment of Black artists and creators. Despite how positive the start of the exhibit was, our excitement didn’t last long. 

As I looked deeper at the wall texts, organization, and narrative of the exhibit, I began to wonder if this show was a recognition of Black artists by the nation’s foremost art institution, or whether it was really a catwalk for the Gallery’s shining new DEAI initiatives and the white collector of Black art who donated all of the works featured in the show. 

The Souls Grown Deep Foundation was founded in 2010 by Atlanta collector William S. Arnett. Deriving its name from a 1921 Langston Hughes poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” the Foundation stands as the largest collection of Black art in the United States, comprised of over one thousand works by more than one hundred sixty artists, more than half of whom are women. The Foundation has a living archive, a grant program, and several thriving community partnerships designed to enrich and showcase art by canonically underrepresented artists. Before his death in August 2020, Arnett began to transfer the majority of works in the collection to major art museums and collecting institutions, hence the Called to Create exhibit.

While it is easy to speculate in the negative about why a white man born and raised in a racially segregated South came to ethically collect Black art, Arnett is clean. A native Georgian, writer, editor, curator, and art collector, Arnett was a staunch advocate of Black art and artists. His foundation is a testament to that. In the 1980s he began collecting works by Thornton Dial and Lonnie Holley. In the 1990s he published a popular visual survey of Black art titled Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South. Arnett and Dial maintained a twenty-five year friendship until Dial died in 2016; a selection of his works in Called to Create reflects their friendship. Together they orchestrated a national revival of Black art into the American artistic vernacular. They called attention to the now famous Gee’s Bends Quilts, including the Mary Lee Bendolph above. It is fair for us to credit Arnett for his work; however, I doubt he would have wanted credit at the expense of the art and artists he championed. 

Looking back to our time in the exhibit, I remember the moment I looked at the gallery texts and realized most of the credit was given to Arnett. While the gallery championed the legacy of Gee’s Bends and highlighted the use of raw recycled materials throughout the show as the manifestation of reality into spiritual transcendence, it did not pass up the chance to highlight and thank Arnett for his donations. But the art, legacies, and stories of the artists featured in the show should not be irrevocably tied to Arnett’s, lest we have a tale as old as time: a story of Black success due only to white patronage. The credit line for Mary Lee Bendolph’s work included above speaks to this and signals a deep-seated problem in museums: who gets the credit — the artist or the donors? 

For major museums like the National Gallery, the answer has been the donor, even if the artist or artists featured are white. Think of all the times you have walked into a gallery and read “Andrew W. Mellon Foundation,” “Bloomberg Philanthropies,” or “Robert W. Woodruff Foundation,” on the wall. Per the National Gallery policy for major gifts, gifts of over $1,000 are recognized in Gallery publications, including their Annual Report. A thousand dollars will buy you a formal museum document to show your friends; imagine what ten thousand will get you. 

In 2017 the corporate donors listed above gave $1.31 million to US museums. They received their “gifts” back in tax breaks, a reward significantly more notable than their names on the National Gallery’s Annual Report. 

While protests and official statements against controversial donor funds have emerged following a large wave of activism to reform museum spaces, there is still a lack of institutional care and oversight given to the effect this donorship has in diversifying museum spaces. Regardless of the status of the donor, their names will still appear under works of art by Black, African, Asian, Middle Eastern, South American, and Indigenous artists with little attention paid to the colonial relation of ownership implied within these artist-patron relationships.

The current president of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation and Community Partnership, Maxwell L. Anderson, commented on the state of controversial museum donors and donations in an article published in Apollo magazine. He cites unbridled deference to wealthy donors and the half-punishments museums give them when they are canceled as “literally superficial.” Condemnation after the fact is one thing—we all make mistakes—but refusing to acknowledge past wrongdoings is not a mistake; it is a strategy designed to retain control while also seeming just in the face of injustice.

Throughout his life, Arnett criticized donors and collectors like himself. He called major donors and collectors the villains of the art world. Arnett built his ideal for ethical community stewardship and collecting and referred to himself as a corrector rather than a collector. He used his money to rewrite art history to include Black art. When collecting, Arnett did so to give back, correct, and repatriate power to Black artists. The credit that often came from this was negative, and, on multiple occasions, he was kicked out of major art institutions for his critiques.

The more you read about Arnett and the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, the more Called to Create unravels. If the current president and founder of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation are so publicly and outwardly against inflated donor recognition, why did the National Gallery give Arnett so much credit in the show? It seems that the National Gallery couldn’t care less about who Arnett was and what he stood for and cares more for the DEAI credit he gave them. The gallery championed this exhibit as a testament to their social justice reform, yet the diversity they seem to be championing was in large part created by someone else.

With all of this said, looking at the National Gallery at large, I understand that this exhibit is a step in the right direction. The label is right—the art in this exhibit has rarely been featured in the Gallery, and for my boyfriend, a Black man from the South, this exhibit allowed him a chance to explore many aspects of his family’s culture, upbringing, and style.

As we left the gallery, pushing my feelings aside, I asked him for his thoughts. He looked at me and asked, “Where was the history?” This exhibit is full of survivalist material. Formal artworks sure, but also quilts, drawings, and sketches created to document Black history, life, and progress. But this was all erased by an exhibition narrative connecting this endurance and survival to Arnett. The NGA makes meaningful entries and explorations into Black culture and identity impossible as the show’s deeper scope, mission, and credit are given to their white collector and the National Gallery.

Walking around the show, you get a glimpse into the life of Thornton Dial and a deep look into Will Arnett. This is not equitable credit; it’s establishment money talk at its finest. It is an effort to ensure neutrality. An effort to protect and shelter the museum’s whiteness. Instead of the NGA saying, “We are showing these works because we are trying to be better,” they are saying, “We are showing you these works in a vacuum of whiteness so you can see our development and change on our terms.” Opting for neutrality (in this case, tying these works to the efforts of a major donor over the efforts of an entire group of Black individuals living in the oppressive South), the National Gallery is expressing its desire to keep its board happy rather than speak out for an underrepresented group in a major way on behalf of their public.

Think back to the gallery label and image of  Mary Lee Bendolph’s Blocks and Stripes (2002) above. The label reads:

Mary Lee Bendolph, Blocks and Strips, 2002, wool, cotton, corduroy, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Patrons’ Permanent Fund and Gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

Mary Lee Bendolph, Blocks and Strips, 2002, wool, cotton, corduroy, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Patrons’ Permanent Fund and Gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. 

At first glance, this label seems innocuous in terms of credit. But imagine how powerful this label, and accompanying image, would be if it read:

Mary Lee Bendolph, Blocks and Strips, created 2002, wool, cotton, corduroy.

This label places the power in the hands of the woman who created it. It encourages deeper visitor and community engagement. This label speaks only to Black power, advancement, and invention, and it allows the work to stand alone despite its white patronage.

I am sure many museum professionals would see this rewritten label and balk at the lack of donor recognition. Sitting here after rewriting this label, I am coming up with excuses as to why recognition matters: collections management; donor engagement; and why not credit them (as long as they are not instead have to ask, “Why does the donor even matter?”

Art has always been all about patronage and power and deconstructing; but changing the museum world will take time and pressure. Giorgio Vasari, the Western world’s first modern art historian, spent pages in his 1550 Lives of the Artists crafting patron-artist reality series that are woven into our modern-day artistic vernacular. We are still captured by and practice his devotion to stories of power and artistic monetary flow. In an article titled “‘Testaments by the people who lived it’: Jane Fonda on the courageous works of Black Artists of the American South,Christie’s spends paragraphs praising Fonda’s patronage and love of Black art. Praising her comments on the artists, including Thornton Dial, positions her experience over that of the artists whom she claims to be in awe of. This is why label rewrites, like the one above, are necessary; they challenge a status quo that is so damaging that it erases Black lives and history for the sake of money.Called to Create: Black Artists of the American South cannot be the Gallery’s last step or even the basis for their next step in recognizing Black and diverse art. Instead, it should be a chance to reexamine the ways we credit art collections and exhibits. There is an entire ecosystem of injustice from which museums prosper. When we seek to cultivate diverse, equitable, accessible, and inclusive museum spaces, it is necessary to seed the voice of the artist and their vision and not the voice of the collector who claimed their work. 



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