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William S. Arnett (born May 10, 1939) is an Atlanta-based writer, editor, curator and art collector who has built internationally important collections of African, Asian, and African American art. He has exhibited works from those collections and delivered lectures at over 100 museums and educational institutions in the United States and abroad. He is perhaps best known for writing about and collecting the work of African American artists from the Deep South.
Arnett was born in Columbus, Georgia, and attended the University of Georgia, where he earned a B.A. in English.
After living in Europe in the mid 1960s, Arnett built an extensive collection of Mediterranean art and antiquities. He also became interested in Asian art, and amassed works dating from 2000 B.C.E. to the 19th century.
For a number of years, Arnett's main interest was African Art. He collected masks and carved figures from West and Central Africa, particularly the numerous cultures of Nigeria, Benin (formerly Dahomey), the Cameroon Grassfields, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 1978, he co-authored the catalogue Three Rivers of Nigeria for Atlanta's High Museum of Art. In 1994, he donated a significant portion of his extensive collection of African art to the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University.
In the mid 1980s, Arnett began to collect the work of artists in the black American South, including pieces by Thornton Dial and Lonnie Holley. In late 1990s, he also began to collect quilts created by women living in Gee's Bend, Alabama. He arranged for the first influential exhibition of those quilts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 2002. The exhibition titled The Quilts of Gee's Bend was shown at 13 major US museums including the Whitney Museum of American, the High Museum of Art, MFA Boston, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Corcoran and the deYoung Museum.
As Arnett's collection of African American art grew, he became convinced that the so-called folk or outsider artists of the black American South were a coherent cultural movement and constituted a crucial chapter in world art. He spent years gathering extensive documentation and amassing a near-definitive collection of work crucial to the understanding of this cultural phenomenon.
In an effort to introduce southern black vernacular art to a wider audience, Arnett founded Tinwood Books with Jane Fonda. Under the Tinwood imprint, he edited and co-authored Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South, a massive book that featured over 1800 illustrations and ran to over 1000 pages in two volumes. An exhibition of the same title was presented at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Additionally, Arnett has edited and/or co-authored many other books, including Gee's Bend: The Women and Their Quilts, Gee's Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt, and Thornton Dial in the 21st Century.
- "Michael C. Carlos Museum-African Art Collection". Emory University. Retrieved 14 September 2011.
- Wallach, Amei. "Fabric Of Their Lives". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved 14 September 2011.
- "Souls Grown Deep Foundation". Retrieved 14 September 2011.
- Sellman, James. "Truth and Consequences: The 25-Year Friendship of Thornton Dial and Bill Arnett". Folk Art Messenger. Folk Art Society of America.