April 30, 2007
draws from the papers of the late Benny Andrews
by Randall Burkett
On May 8 the Manuscript Archives and Rare Book Library opens an exhibition drawn from the papers of the late Benny Andrews (1930–2006). Andrews — born in Madison, Georgia — was one of the state’s best-known and best-loved artists. His work draws on his deep roots in Georgia, his close connections to family, and his intimate familiarity with the religious and folk culture of the rural South.
The exhibition “Benny Andrews: Voice of the Artist” highlights the development of Andrews’ creative work as well as his dedication to advocacy and education. Andrews believed passionately in fostering a supportive environment in which young artists could develop their talents, and his work with students at all levels demonstrated this commitment.
His devotion to education extended beyond the classroom, perhaps best exemplified by his work with prisoners. In the early 1970s, Andrews began teaching an art class at the Manhattan House of Detention, known as “The Tombs.” From that single class grew a major art program in the New York prison system that became a model for similar programs throughout the country. The exhibition includes photographs and letters that document Andrews’ passion and dedication as well as the ways in which he inspired his students.
Andrews worked tirelessly to promote the inclusion of African American artists in major American museums such as the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As one of the founders of the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition — a group promoting the interests of black artists — he gained a reputation as a determined activist who drew upon his talents not only as a visual artist but also as a writer and organizer.
Andrews was highly critical of art critics who marginalized the work of African American artists through neglect or biased commentary. However, he also recognized the value of criticism, and as the first African American director of the Visual Arts program of the National Endowment for the Arts, he secured funding for more art criticism.
The MARBL exhibition includes original works of art by Andrews drawn from public and private collections. It also features examples from the 17 sketchbooks Andrews produced while serving in the Air Force and while studying at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. These sketchbooks include pencil, ink, pastel, charcoal and watercolor pictures and sketches, as well as diary entries that detail his evolving philosophical approach to art.
The MARBL exhibition “Benny Andrews: Voice of the Artist,” opens Tuesday, May 8, with a talk by Emeritus Professor Richard Long at 7 p.m. in the Jones Room of the Woodruff Library. A reception in MARBL’s 10th floor space follows.