A curated life
How Matt Arnett escaped the shadow of his art
collector father to become a collector of people.
There is no grocery on Home Street.
It would be easy to mistake Grocery on Home for a corner store. Above the threshold to Matt Arnett’s red front door on Home Street in Atlanta’s Grant Park neighborhood is a small, hand-painted sign that reads simply, “Grocery.”
The building was indeed once a corner store, tucked among one of Atlanta’s oldest neighborhood streets.
“It stopped being a grocery store in the early 1980s,” Arnett, 49, explains, examining the dirt under one of his fingernails. “It was later a storage space, an event planner’s fabrication studio, and before that a beauty shop. It was just an empty shell downstairs when I moved in around 2009.”
Most days, the first floor at Grocery on Home is Matt’s living room. The grocery aisles are long gone; only the exposed brick walls remain from the structure’s previous incarnations.
Against that brick backdrop are a classy clutter of things. A handmade quilt hangs on a wall next to Southern folk art from Thornton Dial, Lonnie Holley, Purvis Young and others. In the bathroom are relics Arnett has collected from the civil rights era, including a faded portrait of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. attached to a stick fan handle.
There are countless other interesting things among Matt’s possessions. He has vintage things, fancy things, rustic things, hand-me-down things, famous things and things that aren’t valuable or historic to anyone but himself. All of it collected by Matt and carefully curated, much like his life story.
Photo: Matt speaks with Atlanta musician Faye Webster as she prepares to play at Grocery on Home.
Ninety minutes before a 7:30 p.m. show time, folk singer Faye Webster, a recording artist for Awful Records, shows up. Arnett looks up from the audio cords he is untangling on the small stage built into a corner near his front door, and gives her a head nod.
“ ’Sup Faye!”
Matt is a little pacier, a little louder, a little busier than normal, in his preparations for the 60 or so guests who’ll soon file into his living room to hear her opening act performance.
A few times each month, Matt’s living room becomes Grocery on Home, a site for intimate concerts. Just don’t call it a venue.
“It’s my living room, not a music venue,” he insists.
No matter what you call it, one thing is sure: Under-the-radar musical talent from around the country come to Arnett’s private stage when they pass through Atlanta, like a private, BYOB Tiny Desk concert series for fans of underground folk and Americana music, and for people in the know.
Two members of the Louisville, Ky.-based headline act Vandeveer are already here when Webster arrives. Lead singer and songwriter Mark Charles Heidinger picks at a sandwich from his seat at Arnett’s long wooden dining table, and supporting vocalist Rose Guerin naps on one of the couches.
Vandeveer are in Atlanta en route to an event in Tallahassee the following day. Webster, however, is a regular opener at Grocery on Home. For her, it’s a chance to connect with her audience in the most intimate of settings.
“There’s not a better feeling that exists than people really listening and appreciating your music, so Matt and Grocery on Home have been some of the most dear things to my heart.”
Matt isn’t shy about Webster either. Ask him who is the next Atlanta musician likely to get famous, and he says without hesitation, “Faye Webster,” whose self-titled second album, and first with Awful Records, was released May 12.
By 7:15 p.m., Grocery on Home is abuzz with people making idle conversation in small clusters over bottles of wine and craft beer. When his phone vibrates inside his coat pocket, Arnett adjusts the position of his black snapback hat with MSL (for Muscle Shoals) stitched in white block letters on the front. He clears his throat and answers with one hand while adjusting the direction of a stage light with his other.
“Hey … how many are you?” he asks. “Uh-huh. How far away? A hummus plate? That’s fine. OK … bye,” he says, approving two more guests. Matt is the kind of communicator whose question marks and periods sound sharper and more aggressive than is his intent.
He has no inside voice, and no first gear. But Arnett does have a family-style approach to life: Anyone can attend a show in Matt’s living room so long as they RSVP. New shows are posted on the Facebook page.
Hanging up with his caller, Matt whispers, “56, 57,” in counting the additions to his mental RSVP list. He curates the audience in the same way that he curates the musical artists who perform on his stage, and the same way he curates the artwork filling his walls. No doubt Matt curates all things Grocery on Home.
It’s an Arnett thing. Matt’s older brother Paul — a Harvard educated art historian — is one of the last guests to stroll through the door as the clock nears 7:30. He isn’t surprised to see Matt’s living room has a following, a nickname and a Facebook page with more than 8,200 fans.
“I don’t use the word curating very often, because you could curate your medicine cabinet if you really wanted to. I prefer to say that my brother has inherited dad’s collecting gene,” says Paul, the eldest of the four Arnett brothers.
The Arnett’s “collecting gene,” is a well-known one thanks largely to their dad, William S. “Bill” Arnett. All four brothers have worked for him at some point, and on the subject of curating art, answering to Bill Arnett is a tall order.
A father’s legacy
Bill Arnett, 78, spent much of his career dealing African and Chinese art before turning his attention to self-taught African-American artists from the South. He is a legendary, if controversial, dealer in the art world. He’s spent a lifetime collecting art from around the globe, has served all manner of museum and collector, and has written a dozen books on various topics.
He is perhaps best known as a loud and brash champion for self-taught, African-American artists living in the South. He has amassed a collection of artwork so vast, it could one day have its own museum.
This topic is what most excites Bill during a recent conversation. From a pile of papers on his dining room table, he digs out blueprints for the proposed Arnett Museum. Last month, 54 pieces of his collection found a new home at the High Museum, in a gift/purchase agreement with the Souls Grown Deep Foundation Bill established in 2010 to promote his artists.
And promote them he does. Bill is doggedly committed to convincing the art world that the work of self-taught black visual artists is as significant as the blues or jazz invented by self-taught African-Americans.
“You look at black contributions to music in American society, and the fingerprints are undeniable. Surely they have to have made an art that is equal to that,” Bill pleads rhetorically, the passion in his cadence implying the question remains unanswered. “Well, where is it? The fact is, black people made it, but they hid it in the woods, or in their yards.”
It wasn’t hanging on the walls of museums or galleries when he started in the business because it was a cultural phenomenon unique to the aristocratic white societies that purchased and curated fine art, Bill says.
So he set out to change that beginning in the late 1960s. Sometimes with his sons in tow, he went out in search of the artists he thought might matter, in much the same way a record label A&R man might scour the South for the next James Brown, or a baseball scout might crisscross the countryside in search of Willie Mays. Bill was looking for an Alabama Picasso.
“Not everyone likes me,” says Bill, speaking in his Decatur condominium. (Curiously, there is no art hanging on the walls of his home. The collection is all stored off site.) “But that’s OK. If everyone likes you, you are probably either full of (expletive), or you are an accommodating (expletive).”
He attributes many of his detractors to a 1993 segment about outsider art on “60 Minutes” that painted an unflattering picture of Bill’s relationship with perhaps his most significant discovery, Thornton Dial, who died last year and whose work sells for as much as six figures.
Reporter Morley Safer suggested Bill was financially exploiting Dial. Of particular contention was Dial’s home, which the artist referred to as “mine,” but which, in fact, Bill owned.
The Arnetts still bristle at any suggestion of malfeasance and insist they took out a mortgage for Dial because he could not get one; that in doing so, they were helping their friend buy a home. Although nearly 25 years have passed since the episode first aired, it remains a front-of-mind subject among the Arnetts, because Bill believes he still has to fight to legitimize his artists.
For Matt, witnessing his father’s character assassination on national television helped him internalize an indelible lesson about the value of fighting the good fight.
It was the same lesson he learned from his father against a very different backdrop: soccer.
First came soccer
To hear his brother Paul tell it, Matt was a soccer phenom in his youth.
“Don’t let Matt undersell you on what a soccer player he was. He was ahead of his time,” says Paul.
Matt would go on to be an All-American striker with career scoring records at Emory University. But Matt’s soccer career had humble beginnings, at the YMCA league.
“At the time, there weren’t many club programs like Atlanta has now,” says Matt. “We found that the way teams were being put together was unfair. Because I was a good player, they moved me onto the team with all the other best players. It didn’t seem right.”
The shady dealings heated Bill Arnett, so he pulled Matt from the league and founded his own club, the Buckhead Soccer Club, now called the Concord Soccer Club.
“My dad brought in his own coaches and instructors, stood up to unfair practices, and he caught a lot of flak along the way,” says Matt. “But in the end, he built a lasting soccer program in Atlanta.”
It’s telling that when reflecting on his time as a top-performing athlete, Matt’s memories seem more inextricably bound to the sideline view of his father battling “the system” than to his own on-field accomplishments.
“Matt took lessons from our dad on convention, and so Matt was always more of an anti-establishment thinker,” says Paul. “It’s clear that Dad isn’t concerned with embracing the status quo. Neither is Matt, really.”
Just as Bill remains at once defiant and independent to the core, so does Matt. Just as Bill seeks the approval of the world for his efforts in art, so does Matt — for Bill’s sake. The heart of their family dynamic is that very push and pull. Bill seeks approval from the art world, Matt seeks approval from Bill, neither man able to stop pushing his boulder up the hill, for fear that it will roll back down.
To meet Matt’s dad is to meet a man still fighting for the broader acknowledgement of his achievements. He heaves bold, hyperbolic statements at anyone who will listen. He marches full steam ahead, torpedoes damned, into situations where grace may better serve him, a style that perhaps explains Matt’s own sharp corners.
Whatever Matt gleaned from watching Bill’s accomplishments achieved, robbed and later returned to him, one thing is sure: He learned that his father’s approval is worth everything. Which is why it must be hard being the son of Bill Arnett, the kind of man who will take out a second mortgage for Thornton Dial, but who dismisses the work of his own son outside the context of its value to the Bill Arnett legacy.
When told a feature was being written about his son, Bill offered a dismissive wave of the hand and an inquiry: “What for?”
The Grocery on Home concert series, he was told.
“At least he’s collecting someone else’s money for a change, instead of mine,” Bill replied.
A few Matt-centric questions followed by Bill-centric responses later, it became clear that Bill did not want to talk about Matt. He wanted to celebrate the legacy of Bill Arnett, all that he found for us and all he had done for art history.
“That’s just part of my charm,” the Arnett patriarch offers.
Matt’s charm differs greatly from Bill’s. Matt likes connecting people and sharing his interests. During the course of writing this story, he introduced me to Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox and the artist Lonnie Holley, whose musical efforts are sometimes showcased at Grocery on Home.
Matt maintains friendships with many influential people in Atlanta, many of whom refer to him as a “maven,” an “influencer,” a “connector.” Affixed to an unknown number of cars around Atlanta is a bumper sticker that reads: “Honk if you know Matt Arnett.”
At Emory, Matt studied art history and African-American studies. Following graduation in the early 1990s, he went to work for his dad, and soon thereafter the family met Jane Fonda, who was living in Atlanta at the time. So taken by Bill Arnett’s mission, she joined him in starting Tinwood Books, which produced “Souls Grown Deep,” an authoritative historical accounting of what Bill calls “Deep South vernacular art,” and famously, “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend.”
It was at Gee’s Bend, Ala., that Fonda’s daughter, Vanessa Vadim, a filmmaker, became interested in the quilts as subject matter for a documentary. And so it was that Matt met Vanessa, and together they co-produced a 2002 documentary as a companion to Bill’s book. They also co-produced a daughter, now 14, named Viva.
It’s not so much that Matt knows lots of famous people (though, he does), but rather that he is so relentless in his ways — like Bill — that people are drawn to him and his endeavors. Among them are noteworthy believers.
“Matt wasn’t as interested in knowing every last detail of an artwork, nor did he want to spend his time putting together encyclopedic overviews of a culture. That was Dad’s modus operandi,” says Paul. “Instead, Matt was drawn to the connections, to the places, and the people, to the visual aesthetic, and the music. He’s social, and has an almost genius level E.Q. (emotional intelligence). He’s always listening, remembering facts and details about people and events. It is natural then that he’s led to the most people-oriented of all the arts, in music.”
When it comes to music, Matt’s taste is eclectic.
“I book everything — as long as it’s good — from black gospel to poetry to Americana, even jazz. We’ve had Tank and the Bangas, My bubba, Ben Sollee, the poet Derrick Brown, Lonnie Holley,” Matt says. “For this space, it’s typically Americana music, because the music has to fit the space. I love AC/DC, but they wouldn’t work in my living room.”
So would he ever consider opening a commercial venue?
Not a chance.
“I can pick and choose artists and performers that I think are interesting, and that need to be heard and I can present them in a place where people come take a shot,” Matt said. “But run a venue and book multiple shows? The quality of what I’d present would suffer. It’d be impossible to book seven incredible shows a week, week after week, and I would have a hard time booking something just because it is popular or has a following. Those are not the reasons I got into art and music; to support and validate things that are already supported and validated. I’d prefer to illuminate trends rather than follow them.”
Besides Grocery on Home, Matt hosts the Southern Storytellers series and open mic nights at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur. For how long any of Matt’s efforts might persist, he remains non-committal, sometimes even suggesting that the next Grocery on Home show might be his last.
“Who knows how long I do Grocery? There is no grand plan. As long as it continues to introduce exciting and relevant music to an audience, and as long as I have the personal time to do it, I’ll probably keep doing it.”
It’s 7:39 p.m. back at Grocery on Home. Every seat in the space is filled, and the din has grown louder as second glasses of wine are poured in anticipation. Matt lifts his hat from his head, and runs his hand through a wild tangle of hair before making his way to the stage. He tells a couple anecdotes and requests that his guests use his facilities instead of urinating outdoors and inflaming the ire of his neighbors. Apparently there had been a previous incident; the punchline is that Matt was the guilty party.
He encourages everyone to donate $25 to the box making its way around the room. All the money goes to Faye Webster and Vandeveer. He calls out a couple folks who might’ve missed the box the first time around.
Then Matt introduces “Miss Faye Webster.” The crowd claps energetically as the slender 19-year-old brunette takes the stage and begins to strum an acoustic guitar; the quiet between her notes hangs breathlessly among the transfixed faces around her.
Webster leads her set with a pair of soft and thoughtful folk songs that are, as she explains later, mostly written about her dog. Then she offers innocently that she’d “like to play one written by the head of Awful Records, where I’m signed. It’s a song called ‘Cheap Thrills.’”
The head of Awful Records is a breakout rap artist by the name of Father, and his music is decidedly different from the kind Webster performs. She starts in on the track, singing his verses softly as she strums her guitar. Her voice finds a second gear for the chorus, swelling in intensity without compromising tone or clarity, as she sings the refrain.
“What we gon’ do when that drink get low? / Something for that nose, but your friends can’t know / I need a freak in the evening, a freak in the morn’ / Where the after-party? Baby let’s get thrown / Life’s too short, and the (expletive) too long / Got a bag of cheap thrills, baby let’s get blown.”
After the second refrain, Webster breaks character and says, “Just kidding, I wrote this.”
She didn’t, it’s a double reverse. Matt is right about her. He’s right about a lot of things.
“I knew Matt was onto something when a friend of mine from Buckhead called me up to say that Matt’s place is the coolest thing in Atlanta,” Paul reflects in both seriousness and jest. “If the people in Buckhead think you are the next big thing, you were probably up to something pretty cool at some point in the past.”
But word spreading is not enough for Matt. All the connections in the world can’t alleviate the conflicted, oppositional forces that draw on him simultaneously, like opposing magnetic poles.
Matt wants recognition for his achievements, not in the hopes of experiencing public adulation like Bill craves, but in the hopes that Bill himself would approve.
“I know my dad casts a long shadow. And what I am doing now at Grocery on Home is a result of me finding my place beyond it,” he says.
They are both misunderstood, Bill and Matt; both mad scientists, flawed geniuses. Bill’s ego prevents him from accepting humble satisfaction for his place in art history. He is too perma-bruised from a televised black eye to acknowledge his son’s contributions.
And in Matt, perhaps there is too much scatter. He speaks in quadruple asides, relating complexities across hours of conversation without ever really arriving at the conversational destination he’d started a course for. And in that tangle of thought, he relates everything about his own life to that of his father, affixing himself to the Arnett family contribution to the arts in hopes of staking his own place in their legacy.
“Maybe I should spend more time on the aspirational thinking I do,” Matt says when asked about his ambitions. “I guess I’d like to see the world continue to see and appreciate and understand the work my family does, and I’d like to see the genius of Lonnie Holley appreciated, and I want to continue to make Atlanta a more artist friendly community, and a place that continues to support its artists and visiting artists.”
Whatever Matt does next, he will probably concoct it from a couch there in his living room, with the little family that lives in it, and the big family that visits it. And in one way or another, it will probably reflect a legacy of battling convention in service to our community and beyond to bring forth beautiful things for the world to see and to hear.
ABOUT THE STORY
A concert at Grocery on Home is like no other you’re likely to attend. From the converted space to the casual seating to the BYOB policy to the eclectic bill of performers, the experience is DIY authentic from beginning to end. The best part is how raptly the audience listens to the music with no wait staff interruptions or side conversations to interfere with the sound of the music. Grocery on Home is one-of-a-kind, sort of like its creator, Matt Arnett.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
ABOUT THE REPORTER AND PHOTOGRAPHER
Adam Kincaid is a freelance writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Bitter Southerner and other outlets. His previous Personal Journey was “Haleigh’s Hope,” about Janea Cox’s journey to legalize medicinal marijuana in Georgia. Follow him on Twitter at @adamjkincaid.
Bob Andres joined the AJC in 1998. Born in San Francisco, he has held photography and photo editing positions in California, Florida and Georgia. A journalism graduate of San Francisco State University, Andres has also worked as the AJC’s metro photo editor, Sports photo editor and has taught photojournalism at UGA and Cal State Hayward.