Fitting in does not come naturally to Arnett. During college, at Georgia Tech, he was often the only white person at the Royal Peacock, an Atlanta jazz dub. He feels more at home in Europe than in America. He was bom William Arenowitch, but after college he changed his name to Arnett, as did his brother, Robert, who makes photography books about India.
Arnett’s inside voice is an outside voice. He interrupts, a lot. He often begins a sentence with «No, no,» even if heʼs about to say something positive. His jokes can sound like insults. He tends to miss, or ignore, social cues, and alienates people before he realizes what is happening; then he tortures himself about his gaffe for days. He has creatively profane opinions of people he perceives as enemies. His excitement can come across as aggression: one day, while making a point during a long drive through Alabama, he beat on the dashboard repeatedly and punched himself in the palm with his fist. It surprises him when others are startled by such behavior. Talking about art, he is a ricocheting monologuist: one minute he’s on Verrocchio’s bronzes, the next on the unrivalled magnificence of Borobudur. Trained art historians tend to speak of the grandest masterpieces with critical detachment; Arnett’s default tone is effusive, which can make his views seem suspect to academics.
He is round of shoulder and of belly, with thinning silver hair that curls at his collar. He tends to wheeze when he talks. At one point, he lifted his untucked shirt, unprompted, revealing a wide abdominal scar from colon surgery: an old wound. He has had two heart attacks, and describes his diabetes as «out of control.» The struggle over the art has done it to him, he jokes.
Bernard Herman, a professor of folklore and American studies at U.N.C., helped facilitate the archive arrangement. He said, «Bill’s passion and commitment to this art and these artists is so focussed and powerful it overrides almost everything else. He is frying to change the way we think about not just American art but world art.» He added, «That kind of no-holds-barred advocacy creates adversaries.»
Jane Livingston, the former chief curator and associate director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C., said, «Bill has almost a monomaniacal, feverish, missionary zeal about what he’s doing, but it’s very hard for him to compromise, to listen. I do not think the guy is dishonest or intentionally negative, lie’s simply it’s almost like Bill has never grown up.» Livingston has curated shows from Arnett’s collection, but she found working with him too difficult, and decided to stop.
«There’s a kind of apostolic flavor about Bill that can turn people off,» Anderson said, «They re accustomed to the delicate minuet of the art gallery, where you don’t really sell, you just hint, versus his cri de coeur that this work demands your attention, Bill has stuck his neck out time and again, only to find disappointment and betrayal no doubt, in part, because he, too, is not a player in the «correct» social circles. He’s a self-made person in ways that breed defensiveness. That defensiveness expresses itself in loquaciousness, and in anxiety about people’s judgments which has been borne out by subtle whisper campaigns in the art world that he must be corrupt, or coaching these artists, or other ridiculous allegations. In 2002, as the director of the Whitney Museum, Anderson approved a «Quilts of Gee’s Bend» exhibition, curated from Arnett’s collection. A surprise blockbuster, the show made the quilts famous.
My concerns were how he functioned as a patron with artists who were, by and large, poor. He was providing a stipend and materials, and owning or selling the art. There was a question when Bill provided Dial with paper. Would works on paper be eminently more salable than a large construction? Is that a medium that Dial naturally would’ve wanted to work in? Or did it have a market-driven suggestion behind it? And whose suggestion was it, the artist’s or Bill’s? There was also a question because Bill was creating art history around these artists while functioning as a dealer and promoting exhibitions. If you’re a museum person, it raised every red flag you’re taught to pay attention to.»
It frustrates Arnett that, after all these years, he still inspires doubts. Hadn’t his long-term relationships with the artists proved his commitment to them? Sure, he paid the artists other collectors were shortchanging them. Yes, he created a body of scholarship where none existed was he supposed to wait for someone else to do it? As for Dial’s works on paper, Dial wanted to make them. Arnett gave him the materials, and he’d do it again.
«I told everybody when I started, Were not gonna make money on this I’m not gonna let us,» Arnett told me. «I mean, how re we gonna do books that document a whole field of art that may or may not become as important as any other field of art that exists on the planet in the last century, if we’re making money оff of it?»
Now, with time bearing down on him, he was becoming even more impatient. He said, «It’s true that in my old age I’ve become cantankerous, bellicose, belligerent, contemptuous of society and all the people that run it.»
Arnett lives alone in a small apartment near the High Museum, amid ever-rising mountains of paper. He sleeps on a mattress and box spring on the floor. He sits in a worn leather recliner dead-centered before a large television. The walls are bare, and there’s little other furniture; his treadmill is ignored. Early in his life, he loved dogs, but when his wife Judy, developed dementia he bought her a cat; then the cat seemed lonely, so he added one. By the time Judy died, in 2011, he had four cats, and now he prefers eats to dogs, because he finds diem more «discriminating.» His cats are named Giuseppe, Lottie, Harito, and Julio Caesar all «fancy» names, out of fear that those without them would feel slighted.