Emory Report
April 20, 2009
Volume 61, Number 28


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April 20
, 2009
John Howett, advocate of arts community

John Spurgeon Howett, who died April 8 of a cerebral hemorrhage, was one of Atlanta’s most ardent advocates for the arts and a distinguished teacher and mentor to many at Emory.

The professor emeritus of art history took great pride in the achievements of Emory’s art history department, the Carlos Museum, the artists he mentored, and, especially, his students. The greatest joys of his life were Catherine, his wife of 52 years; his four daughters; and his grandchildren. Three of his daughters — Maeve, Ciannat and Catherine, all Emory alumnae — continue his legacy of service to the University through their work at Emory.

Howett was born Aug. 7, 1926, in Kokomo, Ind. His grandfather, Silcott Spurgeon, had been mayor of the city from 1924 to 1928. Howett entered the army at 18, and served with the U.S. Infantry in the Philippines and Japan during World War II. After his discharge in 1946, he traveled to France, where he was exposed for the first time to a vibrant intellectual and artistic culture. On his return, Howett entered the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis, earning a B.F.A. in 1953. His lifelong spiritual search led to a conversion to Catholicism while in art school, and, after graduation, to a year spent at the Trappist monastery of Gethsemane in Kentucky.

In the years that followed, he began to consider a career teaching art history, and applied to the University of Chicago. After completing a master’s degree in 1962, and while working on his doctoral dissertation, Howett accepted a position as curator of the University of Notre Dame’s art museum and professor of art history. A specialist in the art of the Italian Renaissance, he was then recruited by Emory University in 1966 to help build its new program in art history.

Arriving in Atlanta at the height of the civil rights movement, he became active in anti-war and social justice efforts, at the same time completing work on his Ph.D. from Chicago. As an ardent supporter of Atlanta’s burgeoning arts community, he curated exhibitions at Emory and the High Museum of Art and sought to nurture connections between local artists and currents of thought and practice developing elsewhere in the country.

Among many awards bestowed throughout his 30-year career at Emory, Howett received the Emory Williams Distinguished Teaching Award, the Award for Outstanding Teaching and Service to Undergraduate Students, and the 2002 Arts and Sciences Award of Distinction. Shortly before his death, Emory announced that Howett would receive the 2009 Woolford B. Baker Award for life-long service to the arts at Emory and to the Carlos Museum, where a gallery is named in his honor.

A memorial service was held April 15, and a funeral mass April 18 in Cannon Chapel. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the John Howett Works on Paper Fund at the Michael C. Carlos Museum or Veterans for Peace.

To honor her favorite professor in Emory College of Arts and Sciences, Rhoda Barnett Bernstein ’76C and her husband, Howard, have given Emory $50,000 to establish the John Howett Travel Fund for Advanced Undergraduate Seminars in Art History. (See related story)