Benny Andrews was an American of mixed African and European ancestry painter, printmaker, and creator of collages. During the 1950s, he studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he began to take an interest in painting. In 1958, he moved to New York City to pursue artistic and activist work. Among other successes, he created art education programs to serve underprivileged students at Queens College and participated actively in the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (1969). His advocacy of artists of color Howardena Pindell, Sam Gilliam, Roy DeCarava, and others contributed to their increasing visibility and reputation in museums and the historical canon. He received many awards, including the John Hay Whitney Fellowship (1965–66), the New York Council on the Arts fellowships (1971–81), and the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship (1974–81).
Benny Andrews was born into a family of ten on November 13, 1930, in the small community of Plainview, Georgia. His parents, George and Viola (née Perryman), were sharecroppers. His mother and father emphasized the importance of education, religion, and freedom of expression. Andrews’ father was a self-taught artist whose drawings and paintings led to renown as the “Dot Man” and a retrospective at the Morris Museum of Art.
Despite his parents’ stress on education, they could not afford to let Andrews go to school when they needed his help to pick or plant cotton. He attended Plainview Elementary School, a one-and-a-half room log cabin. Education passed the seventh grade was discouraged in the sharecropping community, but Andrews parents allowed him and his siblings to attend high school during the winter months. Andrews managed to graduate from Burney Street High School in Madison, Georgia in 1948, making him his family’s first high school graduate.
He received a two-year scholarship to go to Fort Valley College, a black state college in Georgia, for his work in the local 4-H organization. Unfortunately, Fort Valley College’s limited art curriculum made it difficult for him to explore a range of media. He did, however, spend one summer painting murals in Atlanta during this time. Andrews’ grades were poor, so when his scholarship ran out, he left college to join the U.S. Air Force. He trained in Texas before serving as a staff sergeant in Korea. While serving in the military, Andrews regularly sent his earnings home to support his mother and younger siblings. Having served from 1950 to July 1954, when he received an honorable discharge, Andrews used the G.I. Bill to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he was trained as an abstract expressionist and received his BFA. Prior to beginning his education at the Art Institute of Chicago, Andrews had never set foot in a museum. His professor Boris Margo helped Andrews discover his own personalized art style during this time and encouraged Andrews to experiment with combining painting and collage techniques. While earning his BFA, Andrews also worked as an illustrator for record companies and created advertisements for various Chicago theater companies. He also regularly created and sold sketches of Chicago’s jazz scene.
After graduating from the School of Art Institute of Chicago, Andrews moved to New York City in 1958, where he settled on the Lower East Side. He began working in the Christmas card division of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in order to generate income for his young family. His work also steadily gained critical attention and was exhibited in several cities, including New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Provincetown, Massachusetts, where Paul Kessler gave Andrews his first solo show in 1960. In 1962 the New York Times praised his first New York City solo exhibit at the Forum Gallery. He received the John Hay Whitney Fellowship for 1965. This fellowship was renewed in 1966, and Andrews used the money to return to Georgia. While in Georgia, Andrews created his Autobiographical Series of paintings. He then received a CAPS award from the New York State Council on the Arts in 1971. In the same year, he painted one of his most notable works, No More Games, which highlighted the plight of black artists and became an icon of his emerging social justice activism in the art world.
In 1966 Andrews began teaching art classes in drawing and painting at the New School for Social Research in New York, the Jewish Community Center in Bayonne, New Jersey, and an arts initiative in the South Bronx. Then, from 1968 to 1997, he taught at Queens College, City University of New York in the SEEK program, which offered academic support for underserved students.
In 1971, Andrews began teaching at the Manhattan Detention Complex. His arts program for prisons soon became a national model. Mayor John Lindsey honors Andrews for his work in 1973, and in 1976 Andrews curated an exhibition of work made by prisoners at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
In 1976, Andrews became the art program director for the Inner City Roundtable of Youths. This organization was composed of gang members who sought to combat youth violence and strengthen New York City’s urban communities.
Starting in the 1970s, Andrews regularly spent time at the MacDowell Colony. He is elected to the colony’s board of directors in 1987.
Social justice work
In 1969, Andrews co-founded the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC), an organization that protested the Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900-1968 exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. No African-Americans had been involved in organizing the show, and it contained no art—only photo reproductions and copies of newspaper articles about Harlem.
The BECC then persuaded the Whitney Museum to launch a similar exhibition of African American artists, but later felt compelled to boycott the Whitney show for similar reasons.
From 1982 to 1984, Andrews served as the director of visual arts for the National Endowment for the Arts. In this position, he had the chance to advocate for fellowships and grants to go to talented black artists who may otherwise have escaped notice.
Andrews traveled in 2006 to the Gulf Coast to work on an art project with children displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
Benny Andrews married Mary Ellen Jones-Smith, a photographer, in 1957. The couple had three children, Christopher, Thomas, and Julia, before separating in 1976. The couple officially divorced in 1986.
Andrews then married artist Nene Humphrey in 1986. The couple met at the MacDowell artist colony.
Andrews died of cancer on November 10, 2006, at the age of 75.