The Art Ambassador
William Dunlap is bold, outspoken, and not afraid to have a good time
On January 20, 2005, the date of George W. Bush’s second inaugural, I spent the day in our nation’s capital in the unlikely company of my friend the artist William Dunlap, who lives in nearby McLean, Virginia, for half the year. I knew Dunlap had not cast his vote for Bush—to this day he persists in sharing his irritating opinion that Al Gore was a bad candidate who would have made a good president. But he is a Southerner, with a Southerner’s sense of history, and he is capable of rising, with great style, to almost any occasion. So it was that immediately after the swearing-in, we made our way to the balconied Pennsylvania Avenue apartment of the late conservative columnist Robert Novak to watch the parade. As soon as we hit the door, Dunlap spotted a tall brunette who was very good-looking—but also sporting an insanely unflattering hairdo of sparsely spaced, gel-induced spikes. Before I knew what was happening, Bill had marched straight up to her: “Baby, who did that to you? Tell me right now so I can whip his ass.”
I held my breath—I knew this woman, and she’s pretty formidable. Also, her husband was within earshot. But I should have known better. Within minutes, she was utterly charmed and they were the best of pals, laughing and talking about art and shared friends in the Virginia hunt country. Before it was over, she’d enlisted his help with a fund-raiser, and I’d swear he sold her a painting.
I have told this story many times because everything about that day tells you a lot about Dunlap. He’s an unreconstructed lefty but would not dream of missing something as significant as a Presidential inaugural or as potentially fun as a parade-watching party because of something as trivial as politics. He can charm unlikely women and disarm angry cops in riot gear with equal aplomb. This was the first inaugural after 9/11, after all, but Dunlap managed to fast-talk us past the endless barricades my press pass was powerless to get us through. Then there was the lunch he’d hosted the day before at the Cosmos Club, where his guests included Mississippi Republican Senator Thad Cochran and Marsha Barbour, the wife of the Republican governor.
But that’s the thing about Dunlap. He’s an extraordinary painter, but he’s also a fully engaged citizen of the world. When I remark on that, he shoots back, “Well, thank you, but isn’t that why we’re here?” adding that in any case, the “difficult, more precious” approach to his craft has never held much interest. “I want to live a good, interesting, compelling life and not suffer. I think artists and writers are cast in this role. It’s a post-Christian thing—Jesus died for our sins and so must James Joyce. That may be why I don’t have a lot of artist friends. They whine and complain. I have to lecture them. I say, ‘Listen, our job as artists is to have more fun than anyone else.’”
Throughout his life, he’s always managed to excel at that. But fun has always been entwined with the pursuit of his art. Between college and grad school in his native Mississippi, he toured the country with a rhythm and blues band, playing drums, but also soaking up the contents of the museums in each city. While teaching at Appalachian State University in the 1970s, he convinced the dean to let him start a branch campus in New York, and he and his students commuted to an enormous loft he rented in Tribeca. In 1995, he won a Wallace Grant and traveled and painted in Southeast Asia for six months. Ten years later he returned to Thailand with his wife, Linda Burgess, and their fourteen-year-old daughter, Maggie (both of whom are artists), for a month-long painting holiday, and last fall the trio spent a month as visiting artists at the American Academy in Rome.
He has produced work that resides in the collections of institutions ranging from the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan to the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson and the William Morris Museum in Augusta, Georgia. But he has spent at least as much time serving as a roving ambassador of sorts, employing his famous charm and seemingly tireless energy to promote Southern art and culture from a variety of platforms including the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, where he serves on the board of directors, and the Governor’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts ceremony, which he emcees every year in Jackson. And while he excels at his official posts (he has elevated the Governor’s Awards to such a level of buzz and importance, you’d think it was Oscar night), his cheerleading goes well beyond any official duties.
“Bill’s generosity in supporting Southern artists of all shapes and forms is beyond measure,” says William Ferris, the folklorist and former National Endowment of the Humanities chair who now teaches at the University of North Carolina. Generosity is indeed a consistent theme. “Bill is a constant source of inspiration and encouragement to younger artists,” says David Houston, the chief curator and co-director of the Ogden. “He wants to bring the next generation along with his success.”
One member of that generation is Phillip McGuire, an artist who began his career as Dunlap’s assistant. “I realize now that Bill often took me along to meetings or art events where my presence was not really required,” he tells me. “I encountered writers, artists, and other cultural forces that I would never have had the opportunity to meet. I learned a lot from Bill. He affirmed that drawing is the underlying foundation of visual art, for example. Not least though is that he taught me how to be big-hearted, to freely give more than I’m asked.”
Among Dunlap’s closest friends is John Alexander, the artist originally from Beaumont, Texas, who now lives in New York. “The key to understanding Dunlap is realizing that what he does is not about self-promotion,” Alexander says. “He does it out of an enormous generosity of spirit. It’s real—and it’s not new.”Alexander points to one of their early experiences together, the Southern Rim Conference that Dunlap organized at Appalachian State in 1976, just after Jimmy Carter’s election. Taking as his rough model the Black Mountain Conference, which had included young artists of the 1950s (Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage) who later became superstars, Dunlap invited Southern artists, writers, and musicians to a four-day retreat in the Blue Ridge Mountains. “Southern art at that time was just beginning to get outside recognition,” Alexander says, “and Dunlap believed it would be in everybody’s best interest to bring all of us together so that we could share ideas and common goals.”
In addition to Alexander, the attendees included artists James Surls, Jim Roche, and Ed McGowin, photographers William Eggleston and William Christenberry, and songwriter and artist Terry Allen—all of whom went on to become influential figures. But Dunlap’s particular genius was to include curators and museum directors and critics from outside the region as well. “He wanted to give them some understanding of what we do,” Alexander says. “It’s very difficult to explain why what we do is different—it’s almost like a mojo thing. The one thing we could impress upon them is our history of storytelling. It translates into pathos and a strong sense of narrative that comes out in all our work—and certainly in Dunlap’s. And they all got it. It is no exaggeration to say that everybody’s career took off after that. Marcia Tucker [then the curator of painting and sculpture at the Whitney Museum] gave Jim Roche a show, Surls had a show at the Guggenheim. Jane Livingston totally got it.” Livingston, then curator at D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery, would go on to commission one of Dunlap’s most significant works. But connections were by no means the only byproduct of the conference. “There had been an ‘us against the world’ mentality,” Alexander says. “And we left with a real sense of optimism. It was a huge deal.”
Not only does Dunlap continue to promote artists of the South in the wider world, he also promotes institutions within the region. He recently curated a critically acclaimed show of Civil War artifacts at the Ogden with his friend the Civil War historian and novelist Winston Groom, and he was instrumental in landing a huge plum for the museum in the form of Sally Mann’s recent show of photographs.
“I’m just trying to support the visual arts in a place where they’ve been fallow,” Dunlap tells me. “I’d like to think that the life I’m having, the career I’m having—other folks can have it too.”
The current world of engaged artists and enterprising museums was not the South in which Dunlap arrived. He was born in Webster County, Mississippi, to a schoolteacher mother and a father who died when he was three. His stepfather was a peripatetic Baptist preacher who moved the family all across the Deep South before returning to Mississippi when Dunlap was in high school, but he and his brother spent every summer with their grandparents in the small town of Mathiston. The family house, called Starnes House, is featured in some of Dunlap’s best-known paintings, as are the purebred Walker hounds his foxhunting grandfather raised. In the work, they become stand-ins for people, including the artist himself, and he still remembers their names: Lucky, Mary, Speck, Sally, and Bo. “Those dogs were all legs, lung, nose, and heart,” he says. “They lived to run.”