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High Museum Receives Major Gift of Self-Taught Art

October 1, 2021

Nellie Mae Rowe (American, 1900–1982), Untitled (Dandy), 1978–1982, crayon and pencil on paper, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, gift of Harvie and Charles Abney, 2021.40. © Estate of Nellie Mae Rowe/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The High Museum of Art continues to expand its unparalleled collection of American self-taught art with a gift of forty-seven works by Southern self-taught artists from Atlanta collectors Harvie and Charles (“Chuck”) Abney. The paintings, sculptures, and drawings, which will be followed by twenty-six works to be bequeathed to the High, are by more than a dozen of the most widely celebrated self-taught artists, including Lonnie Holley, Howard Finster, Ronald Lockett, and Minnie Evans. The gift also includes one of the largest and finest private collections of work by Atlanta artist Nellie Mae Rowe, which will strengthen the Museum’s already unmatched holdings of her work.

“Without question, this gift underscores the international importance and distinction of our folk and self-taught collection—in particular, by further highlighting the remarkable contributions of Southern artists,” said Rand Suffolk, the High’s Nancy and Holcombe T. Green, Jr., Director. “We are immensely thankful to the Abneys for their steadfast support of the Museum and for recognizing our commitment to this important work with this generous donation.”

Longtime Atlantans and supporters of the High, the Abneys shared this love of art with their two children, including their son Charles Abney III, who served as the Museum’s board chair from 2015 to 2019 and is a current board trustee.

The Abneys were ahead of the curve in their interest in self-taught artists and began their collection locally. Chuck Abney recalled, “Here in Atlanta, in the late 1970s, we were exposed to the works of African American self-taught artists at the Judith Alexander Gallery. As early collectors, we had access to the best of this art. Our first purchase in 1980 was a Nellie Mae Rowe drawing from the Alexander Gallery, and our last was a Ronald Lockett collage in 2019 from Christie’s Auction House in NYC. A lot of fun happened in between!”

Although many great artists comprise the Abney collection, Rowe, in addition to being the first artist they collected, is also the most well represented, with seventeen works coming to the High. Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe draws upon the High’s leading collection of Rowe’s work—which includes the Abneys’ gift and bequest and now exceeds two hundred drawings and mixed-media sculptures—to form the first major presentation of her work in more than two decades.

“Chuck has a studied eye when it comes to Rowe’s work and has been able to represent some of her most important themes and symbols in his collection, so I am elated that the Abneys chose to make their gift in time for our forthcoming publication and exhibition on Rowe,” says Katherine Jentleson, Merrie and Dan Boone Curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art.

In addition to the Rowe drawings, the Abneys collected significant groups of work by other women self-taught artists who are often underrepresented. The gift and bequest include eight works by Evans, who translated her spiritual visions and experiences working outside of the Airlie Gardens in Wilmington, North Carolina, into stunning arabesques flowing with plant and animal forms and other mysterious designs. Also featured in the gift are three sculptures by Bessie Harvey, the Tennessee artist who transformed naturally occurring wood forms into fantastical beings.

In addition, the gift includes drawings by Juanita Rogers, Henry Speller, and J. B. Murray that supplement the High’s existing holdings by those artists and strengthen the Folk and Self-Taught Art department’s collection of works on paper. Three Lockett works, including a panel from his Oklahoma series, made in response to the Oklahoma City bombings, add to the High’s major holdings of his work. A 2016 mixed-media assemblage by Alabama-born and Atlanta-based artist Holley is the most recent of his works to enter the collection. Other Atlanta artists featured in the gift include Archie Byron, the city’s first Black private investigator, who made his sculptures and bas reliefs from sawdust, and John R. Mason, whose exuberant drawings are new to the collection.