ATLANTA -- Last week's New Yorker magazine featured Atlanta's Bill Arnett along with the legendary artist Thornton Dial of Bessemer, Ala.
Arnett is a writer, editor, curator and renowned art collector. On the west side of town, in a mid-century brick warehouse, he has amassed 1,500 works by more than 100 African-American artists. It is the most comprehensive collection of Black Vernacular Art on earth.
"It's as American as anything this country has ever produced because it's made by people of their culture, born here, made here," Arnett said.
He has spent decades searching, collecting, and harvesting from the rural South.
"It's not African or European art -- it's American art!" he said.
The art is organized like a big city museum, displayed as though the crowds will be allowed to enter at any time. But this is a warehouse and fans of this spectacular art will have to go somewhere else to see it.
Arnett's collection contains the work of the celebrated Thornton Dial.
"(Dial) is perhaps one of the greatest artists who ever lived," Arnett said without reservation,
An 82-year-old African-American artist born in a corn field, Thornton Dial only hasa third grade education. He is now compared to the 20th century masters.
"We put the collection together and tried to protect it and preserve it. So when museum world was ready to appreciate it -- it would be there and could be shown with all its documentation," Arnett said.
The contemporary museum art business has been slow to warm to this genre over the years because this art is from a different place -- the rural South -- and different artists.
"You would see it in cemeteries, and there were people who made art in their yards and along the roads," Arnett said. "But you didn't see it in the form you'd recognize it as art."
In fact, some of Dial's work is 6 feet wide and weighs hundreds of pounds. Dial created one after the death of Princess Diana -- an astonishing depiction with Buckingham Palace included.
Arnett said he was "always optimistic this work would go down in history, but I wasn't sure I would get to see any of it. It seems possible. I'm talking about this kind of art, grew here, matured here, stayed here."
Arnett has been the intellectual engine of this kind of art. He has fought tirelessly for it, spending the last 30 years as a sort of guardian and trustee. He has spent millions of dollars gathering the art and publishing enormous books on the subject. His view on the art is unwavering in 2013.
"It will be shown and it will be seen and those things are already developing -- that's good for America," Arnett said.
Bill Arnett has a nonprofit called
to bring the art to a wider audience.
About a decade ago, he self-published two volumes of Souls Grown Deep. Each of these books weighs 10 pounds and contains more than 1,000 pages.
Jane Fonda helped. Fonda's daughter is married to Arnett's son. She calls him a "mad genius."
There is no arguing that.