Talk show 60 Minutes

In July, 1951, Dial married Clara Mae Murrow, and they had five children: Thornton, Jr. (Little Buck), Richard, Dan, Mattie, and Patricia, who was born with cerebral palsy. The family lived in a brick bungalow that Dial built amid the shanties of Bessemer s Pipe Shop neighborhood, not far from the Pullman-Standard railcar factory where he worked as a machinist. Shortly after Patricia died, in the spring of 1987, Arnett appeared. Dial took it as a godsend.

One of the first pieces that Arnett bought from Dial was a tall sculpture of a turkey, for two hundred dollars, «I said, What? This man crazy,» Dial recalled to the collector William Louis-Dreyfus and the gallery owners Frank Maresca and Roger Ricco, when they visited his Bessemer studio, in 1991. When Arnett offered to pay Dial two thousand dollars a month so that he could concentrate on art full time, Dial said yes, Arnett wrote out a contract, on a brown paper bag, and read it to Dial, who signed it.

At first, he titled his work simply: «Factory», «Deer.» As they got to know each other, Arnett suggested more elaborate titles. Dial produced «Birds Don’t Care Whose Head They Crap On» and «If the Tiger Had Knew He’d Be the Star in the Circus, He Wouldn’t Have Hid So Long in the Jungle.» He didn’t talk much about his work, but Arnett did, functioning almost as an interpreter: tigers often symbolized black-male strength; un-recycled tin cans, the laboring class; monkeys, white men. These readings were blunt, but they primed critics to consider Dial’s work with a more careful eye.

As Dial started having shows and selling his art for thousands of dollars, dealers sought to represent him. He would work only with Arnett. Articles appeared in industry magazines, questioning Arnett’s role. «He was saying what’s right and wrong like he was the authority», Ned Rifkin, a former director of the High Museum, said in «The Last Folk Hero,» a 2006 book about Arnett and Dial. «It is the role of the museum to adjudicate these issues. He couldn’t help himself from playing God. He had his own pantheon of hierarchical dimension about this art. He would say, Dial is Picasso, this one is Matisse, that one is Chagall. Bill was manic about all of this, and if you didn’t agree with Bill Arnett you were bad in his eyes.»

In the early nineties, Dial’s reputation took off. A Paris show of his work was planned. In New York, a joint exhibition was announced, at the American Folk Art Museum and the New Museum of Contemporary Art. People included Dial in a spread on «amazing» Americans.

The Dial family, seeking privacy, wanted to move from Pipe Shop. When Dial had trouble getting a mortgage, Arnett refinanced his own home and, for three hundred and forty thousand dollars, bought a six bedroom house, on twenty one acres in Bessemer. The Dials moved in. Arnett and the Dials agreed that the property would stay in Arnett’s name for the time being, to spare Dial a tax hit, but would eventually be transferred to the Dial family.

In 1993, «60 Minutes» contacted Arnett about doing a segment on Dial. Arnett’s inner circle was skeptical: the program had just aired a notorious story in which the correspondent Morley Safer characterized contemporary art as ridiculous, and dealers as people who «lust after the hype able.» But, as the art historian Thomas McEvilley later wrote, Arnett «with his usual sort of Jewish redneck teenager bravado, and perhaps with the promise of wide public recognition for Dial» decided to take «the CBS crew to Dial’s anyway». «60 Minutes» taped the story, with Safer as the on camera reporter.

That fall, the joint Dial show opened in New York.» A party was held in Dial’s honor. It was not his idea of fun, but he and Clara Mae dressed up and went, in a white stretch limo. Arnett sat beside Dial in the car that night. A film-maker shot footage of them, which later appeared in «Mr. Dial Has Something to Say», a documentary by Celia Carey. Arnett said to the camera, «Success is going to come to him like nobody ever could dream it. It’s just the beginning, This is a big deal, a black man getting to ride in a limo and he doesn’t have to learn to dribble a basketball to do it.» Dial laughed.

A few days after the show opened, the «60 Minutes» piece, a survey of the outsider-art movement, aired. It portrayed Dial as Arnett’s dupe. Without citing sources, Safer said of Dial, «There are those who accuse Arnett of having total control over him.» This claim was juxtaposed with Dial telling Safer, «I don’t fool with nobody but Bill Arnett». After Dial casually referred to the Bessemer estate as «mine,» Safer declared, in voice over, that the property was actually owned by Arnett. The implication was that Dial had been tricked, but Safer did not ask Dial if he knew of the arrangement. The segment quoted only one Arnett critic: Bessie Harvey, an artist, who told Safer that Arnett owed her money for sculptures. Arnett, on camera, nervously denied the charge, coming off as the embodiment of white exploitation. After taping the segment, Harvey, who has since died, rescinded her accusation; Lee Kogan, a curator emeritus at the American Folk Art Museum, told me that she saw Harvey publicly «apologize to Bill Arnett on two separate occasions».

The segment’s producer, Jeff Fager, who is now the head of CBS News, said in an e-mail that he stands behind the story, noting, «The only thing Mr. Arnett told us about the house Thornton Dial lived in was that Mr. Dial owned it, and we felt, at the time, that he wasn’t forthcoming about their relationship. We checked the public records and found out Dial did not own the house, it was in Arnett’s name a fact we reported and Mr. Dial seemed unaware of when we interviewed him.» Arnett told me that he informed «60 Minutes» producers about the Bessemer deal; two years before the segment aired, the magazine Atlanta published along article about Amett and Dial that described the property arrangement and Dial’s satisfaction with it Although the «60 Minutes» report proved no wrongdoing, its effect was catastrophic. Exhibitions were cancelled. Those who had expressed interest in Dial’s art backed away. Three years later, Arnett curated an exhibition on vernacular art for the 1996 Summer Olympics, in Atlanta, but, while the show was acclaimed, the artists failed to receive the mainstream recognition that Arnett believed they deserved. Dial’s work was no longer being shown in New York, where it mattered most. In 2007, several quilters from the Gee’s Bend community sued Bill and Matt Arnett, alleging insufficient compensation for their art, which had been reproduced on calendars and licensed for home-decor products. The suits were setded, for an amount the parties are barred from disclosing. Arnett claims that the lawsuits were orchestrated by outsiders, «just to discredit us». «They couldn’t take credit for it. They figured, Well, let’s just kill it and nobody’ll know we missed the boat. It was more sinister than anything I’d ever seen in the art world». As the years passed, Dial’s work became bolder and more intricate. The Arnett and Dial families grew closer. Clara Mae and Judy died. In Bessemer, Dial’s sons built him a studio in a comer of the warehouse where they made their patio furniture, allowing him to work near his children. In 2009, Dial had the first of the two strokes. By then, Arnett had survived his second heart attack. Both men returned immediately to work each time they got out of the hospital. In «Mr. Dial Has Something to Say», Dial is shown saying, «Life have been rough with me. How it been with you? Life is rough with everybody. We all have had a hard time. If you got a million dollars you still got a hard time in life, because it ain’t nothing easy».

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