In a case of the announcement having greater implication than the news being announced, the High Museum of Art revealed this week that it had received a gift of 47 works created by more than 20 Southern self-taught artists.
The gift from Gordon W. Bailey –the third significant one to the Atlanta museum by the Los Angeles collector, scholar and advocate –will help solidify an exhibition the High announced simultaneously. Featuring more than 25 wood carvings and constructions, A Cut Above: Wood Sculpture from the Gordon W. Bailey Collection will open May 14 for a run through October 30.
The collector’s most recent gift adds paintings, sculpture and works on paper by artists including Leroy Almon, Burlon Craig, Roy Ferdinand, Howard Finster, Bessie Harvey, Lonnie Holley, Ronald Lockett, Elijah Pierce, Herbert Singleton, Purvis Young, Arthur Dial and Thornton Dial Jr. to the High’s folk and self-taught art holdings.
Most importantly, it signals that the High’s folk and self-taught department, which seemed moribund before the arrival of curator Katherine Jentleson last fall, is being revived after a long dormant period that had some patrons concerned. The folk and self-taught curator position had gone unfilled for more than two years after longtime folk art curator Susan Mitchell Crawley resigned in early 2013.
Collectors worried that the High was neglecting — and might even abandon — a collecting area in which it had taken a prominent early role among major museums. The High launched what was then called the Folk Art Department in 1994, becoming the first North American general museum with a full-time curator devoted to folk and self-taught art.
Its folk and self-taught collection — now numbering more than 900 pieces and widely considered one of the most significant among public institutions internationally — boasts a particularly strong representation of works from the South, a region fertile in vernacular expressions.
But after Crawley’s resignation, for reasons never made public by the curator or institution, folk and self-taught collecting slowed to a virtual standstill. For instance, when the High released an extensive list of museum-wide recent acquisitions in summer 2014, folk was the only of its seven collecting departments not represented.
Relative inactivity seemed to rule until the position now held by Jentleson was endowed that same summer with a $2.5 million gift from Atlanta patrons Dan Boone and his late wife Merrie Boone. In fact, the folk post was the last of the High’s seven curatorial positions to be endowed. Jentleson clearly has been making up for lost time since her arrival last September — meeting with collectors, dealers and artists, and beginning to dent the museum’s exhibition schedule.
A Cut Above will give special focus to the art of the late Almon, a Tallapoosa, Georgia artist whose carving tools and teaching tablets will be displayed alongside his wood bas reliefs. Another highlight will be the late Mississippi-born Pierce’s 1974 carved tribute to Hank Aaron in honor of his record-breaking 715th home run.
Bailey’s gift “pushes the High’s collection to a new tier, both in quality and quantity,” Jentleson said in a High statement. “It also makes possible exhibitions like A Cut Above, which will give our audiences an unprecedented opportunity to consider how self-taught artists respond to a varied material like wood, creating majestic works of art that range from relief carving to root sculpture.”
The curator, who was working on her Ph.D. in art history at Duke University at the time of her High appointment, was preparing A Cut Above as her first exhibit at the Midtown museum when one of the giants of the self-taught genre, Alabama artist Thornton Dial, died in January.
In an extremely compressed time frame, Jentleson organized the exhibit Green Pastures: In Memory of Thornton Dial, Sr., featuring nine Dial drawings and paintings from the High’s collection, opening the small show in mid-February. It will continue to be on view in the museum’s Octagon gallery on the Stent Family Wing’s Skyway Level through May 1.
In conjunction with the Dial exhibit, the High will host an event, To Honor Mr. Dial: A Celebration of His Legacy in Word and Song, on April 23 featuring talks by friends, family, patrons and scholars, as well as music by cellist Ben Sollee, keyboardist-singer (and noted self-taught artist) Lonnie Holley and singer-songwriter Marshall Ruffin.
Following the 1 p.m. memorial celebration, presented in partnership with the Souls Grown Deep Foundation and the Grocery on Home music venue, guests can join Jentleson in the gallery for a discussion about Green Pastures.
Jentleson has other exhibits in planning stages that are not quite ready for official announcement. She said at the time of her appointment that she felt called to lead the museum into a “new era,” building on the High’s support of “visionary artists whose masterpieces importantly broaden our understanding of who can be considered an artist in America and on what terms.”