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Dial Tone

A septuagenarian creates evocative art from cast-off objects

A 1993 60 Minutes profile of Arnett by Morley Safer raised questions about the nature of Arnett's financial relationship with Dial, asserting that Arnett exploited Dial and essentially had him as a tenant artist in a $340,000 house Arnett owned. Essays in the catalog state that Arnett took out a second mortgage on his own home for Dial, who had difficulty buying in the all-white neighborhood.

Amazingly, the MFAH's exhibition catalog features four essays that contain rebuttals of the 12-year-old TV segment. The editor of the catalog is William Arnett's son Paul; Paul wrote one of the essays; and the catalog was published by Tinwood Books, Atlanta, in association with the MFAH. One essay implies that the program's questioning of Arnett's motives was demeaning to Dial, while another implies that the show was "foiling black artistic progress." Still another describes a monthly stipend agreement between Arnett and Dial that counts toward the purchase of works. Arnett gets right of first refusal up to the value of the stipend and can purchase additional work at a "mutually agreed upon" price. While it sounds a little "company store," the deal might be highly equitable. 60 Minutesmay have been patronizing and nasty toward Dial, but the fact that Arnett is also using an exhibition catalog he produced as his own platform is strange, to say the least.

The spectacular Stars of Everything is a 
mixture of wrath and glory.
Courtesy of the artist and Tinwood Media, Atlanta
The spectacular Stars of Everything is a mixture of wrath and glory.

Letting collectors generate exhibitions brings in agendas that have nothing to do with the work itself. A similar situation happened with the Pigozzi Collection show, in which one Swiss guy's collection became the definition of "African Art Now." It's good that the MFAH is bringing in more diverse exhibitions, but it needs to go a step further and put the money out there so it can self-organize and take the curatorial lead. That's what the MFAH Latin American Art Department has been empowered to do, and the results have been stunning.

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