When the spectacular “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend” show came to the MFAH in 2002, Kelly Klaasmeyer reviewed it, starting off her piece by describing a denim-and-olive-green quilt made by Loretta Pettway, one of 45 African-American female artists from Gee’s Bend, Alabama whose work was on display. “It looks like a Joseph Albers painting if Albers were less anal and handy with a needle and thread,” she wrote.
A few years later, Pettway and another quilter, Annie Mae Young, are suing the man who helped bring national attention to their work -- Bill Arnett, founder of non-profit organization the Tinwood Alliance, set up to “illuminate previously unknown or underrepresented aspects of American art and culture.” The two women believe Arnett has swindled them out of thousands of dollars. Arnett says his organization has gone out of its way to support the quilters financially, and in fact, most of them stand behind him.
Still, Klaasmeyer saw problems brewing from the beginning. “William Arnett is one of those ‘good Southerners,’ a liberal with an acute awareness of how black people have been systematically screwed over,” she wrote at the time. “While the alliance is well intentioned and has preserved the quilts, there is also something uncomfortable about the way the people who made them have lost control of their cultural production and its presentation.” – Cathy Matusow