The New Orleans curator pioneered mainstream acceptance of work by self-taught artists
Few museum curators have had as big an impact on a city’s cultural life as William A. Fagaly. The internationally renowned scholar, who died last year aged 83, built up important museum collections of Outsider, African and contemporary art during his 50 years at the New Orleans Museum of Art. He also made a substantial contribution to the understanding of southern Outsider art.
Fagaly — universally known as Bill — was known for seeking out and championing self-taught African American artists from the surrounding region, including David Butler and Sister Gertrude Morgan, bringing them to national and international attention.
At the New Orleans Museum of Art he rose from registrar to assistant director. He was also a founder of the city’s Contemporary Arts Center and the Prospect New Orleans triennial.
Prospect.1 debuted in 2008, inviting the art world to a beleaguered New Orleans recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Since then, Prospect New Orleans has presented the work of more than 300 artists from around the globe — many underrepresented and identifying as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of colour) — selected by some of America’s most talented curators. For more than a decade, Prospect invited artists to be inspired by New Orleans and to reflect the intricate histories of the port city in their work.
Fagaly curated exhibitions at museums beyond Louisiana, including the American Folk Art Museum in New York. ‘Bill Fagaly was a foremost force in the field,’ says Cara Zimmerman, Head of Americana and Outsider Art at Christie’s.
Works he owned, which filled his home in the French Quarter, are included in the Outsider Art auction at Christie’s New York on 3 February 2022, alongside paintings, drawings and sculptures from other private collections. The collection includes works by Butler, Morgan and other famous Outsider artists such as Henry Darger, Bill Traylor and Martin Ramirez.
The proceeds from the sale of Fagaly’s works will benefit the William A. Fagaly Memorial Fund for Social Impact established by Prospect in his memory. The purpose-driven fund honours Bill’s lifelong devotion to New Orleans, his appreciation of its rich cultural diversity and his strong commitment to racial equity, social justice, and the environment. The fund will directly support and promote the impact-driven work of the city’s arts organizations and next-generation creative entrepreneurs in these areas.
‘Bill knew many of the artists he collected personally,’ says Zimmerman. He built long-term relationships with Butler and Morgan in particular. ‘He would visit them, he got to know them, he understood how they worked, he supported their art and brought it to a larger museum-going and collecting public,’ she adds.
Black Angel, an undated self-portrait by Morgan, encapsulates the larger-than-life street preacher, poet, performer and artist. She was born in Lafayette, Alabama, in 1900 but lived in New Orleans from 1939 until her death in 1980.
Fagaly was an early advocate of her art and went on to curate several exhibitions of her work, including The Tools of Her Ministry: the Art of Sister Gertrude Morgan at the American Folk Art Museum in 2004.
Fagaly was perhaps closest to Butler (1898-1997), who lived in Patterson, Louisiana. He started making art in his 60s after an accident at the factory where he was employed as a labourer left him unable to work.
Butler filled his home and yard with hand-painted sculptures made from found pieces of tin plate and other malleable materials. ‘His entire body of work was an environment,’ Zimmerman says. ‘He was focused on making a wonderful yard that people could enjoy. Bill met him when he was in the heart of this endeavour in the 1960s.’
Fagaly was the first curator to give Butler an exhibition, in 1976. The artist was subsequently included in the landmark exhibition Black Folk Art in America 1930-1980, which opened in 1982 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC and toured the US.
Among the pieces being sold at Christie’s is Butler’s sculpture Walking Stick with Figure, c.1975, one of the works illustrated in the Black Folk Art in America catalogue. ‘I think it's right up there with some of the most wonderful objects in this category,’ says Zimmerman. Built on a sturdy wooden rod attached to an umbrella handle, the sculpture ‘almost seems utilitarian as well as decorative’, she adds. ‘He meant for his art to be on some level interactive, and this is no exception.’
The sale also includes key works by Ramirez, Darger and Traylor. Fagaly bought two outstanding works by Traylor: Self Portrait Striding, c.1939-42 and Black Dog, 1939-42, which he regarded as the highlights of his collection.
‘Bill collected over many years with a curatorial eye and an understanding of the field and the aesthetics involved,’ says Zimmerman. ‘He really was at the forefront of understanding the Outsider artists we now see as having real power and gravitas.’