The Black Emergency Cultural Coalition: Direct Action and Attica Prison

The Black Emergency Cultural Coalition: Direct Action and Attica Prison

Chad Dawkins is a visiting assistant professor of Art History and Curatorial Practices at Spelman College. He was the recipient of the 2022 Benny Andrews Award, which provides funding for researchers exploring the collection of visual artist, teacher, activist, critic, and writer Benny Andrews.

In 1968, protests raged all over the globe. Incited by local affairs, or in response to larger modes of thought, protest movements in the US focused on civil rights and the conflict in Vietnam. Active calls for change were found in nearly every sector of America society—including the arts. Generated out of their frustrations with the racist and exclusionary practices of major museums in New York City, artists and writers formed groups to provoke, protest, and petition against the conventional institutional modes of working. One of the most involved groups was the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, made up primarily of artists and co-founded/ co-directed by artist Benny Andrews. From 1969–1982 the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC) was involved in protests against the Metropolitan, MoMA, and the Whitney museums and supported other artists’ activist groups—including the Art Workers Coalition, Artists and Writers Protest, and Artists Meeting for Cultural Change. The BECC was active in publications, exhibitions, and writing; they negotiated with museum leaders, and organized a nation-wide prison arts program that sent artists and poets into prisons to work with inmates.

On January 9, 1969, several artists met at Benny Andrews’ studio to discuss the creation of an organization to lead a picketing protest of the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition “Harlem on My Mind.”[1] A few months later, leaders of the BECC began negotiations with the leadership of the Whitney Museum, demanding actions on behalf of Black artists, curators, and arts professionals excluded from the museum’s exhibitions program. It’s impossible to say that nothing came of their meetings, but by 1971, talks between Andrews and Whitney leadership had broken down; the Whitney opened the exhibition Contemporary Black Artists in America and BECC organized Rebuttal to the Whitney Museum at Acts of Art Gallery to open the same day in April 1971.[2] Following this, the group focused on collaborations and protests with other groups against the ongoing war in Vietnam—and then Attica happened.     

Escalating tensions in Attica prison came to a head on September 9, 1971, when over 1,000 of the men incarcerated overtook guards and set into motion a hostage negotiation that would end four days later when New York State and local police killed 33 inmates and 10 of the 42 prison officers held as hostages. High-profile political personalities and politicians were involved in the negotiations with prisoners over the unsanitary conditions and inhumane treatment at the prison. But in the end, Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered hundreds of officers to fire from the parapets of the prison walls into the expansive yard, filled with people below. The state immediately put blame on the inmates, lied about the deaths, and initiated a decades-long coverup. No one has ever been prosecuted for the massacre. Only recently has more information come out about the horrendous conditions for the inmates and the torturous retributions inflicted on them in the aftermath of the massacre.[3] Following Attica, the group’s priorities pivoted, carceral conditions and art’s capacity in society became the focus of the BECC’s activities. At this point, their attention turns away from the microcosm of the New York artworld and toward something perhaps more meaningful, something more real, something that no number of exhibitions in, or out of, major museums would change.

The massacre at Attica not only galvanized prison reformers, it resonated through American culture. Attica is known as the deadliest and most notorious prison uprising of the last century, but it was only one of many. Significantly, detainees rioted at the Manhattan House of Detention (a.k.a. the Tombs) one year earlier, taking guards hostage to negotiate for improvements to their conditions. Only two months after the tragedy at Attica, Benny Andrews visited the Tombs in Manhattan to give an instructional session in drawing.

Andrews’ class was publicized in the New York Times, reporters were invited to attend, along with members of MoMA’s Junior Council—financial supporters of the effort to bring art to inmates. This visit would initiate the BECC’s Prison Arts Program that would continue for a decade. By the early 1980s, individuals were teaching art and writing classes in jails and prisons across the country, many of them under the direction of the BECC.[4] (*Newsletter 3,) The Coalition’s program quickly grew to include exhibitions—both in and out of prisons, a newsletter, regular activity in the press—from local papers to Art in America, and notably the publication of a book—the Attica Book.

Attica Book, published in 1972, was co-edited by artists Benny Andrews and Rudolf Baranik under the banner of their respective groups, the BECC and Artist and Writers Protest Against the War in Vietnam. Attica Book was initiated at the end of 1971 and took almost a year to produce. The book contains a collection of illustrations and texts by nearly 50 of the foremost artists of the period whose work, or conscience, was directed toward activism. Promotional material for the book often stated, “To be sold outside—to be given away inside.”[5] The goal was to sell this relatively inexpensive artbook to buy art materials for inmates, to pay teaching artists for their work, and to cover the cost of the book’s production so that copies could be given freely to those incarcerated. But it is clear from correspondence that the book was no easy task and that the well-intentioned deed didn’t go unpunished. Numerous letters between Andrews and Baranik and the company hired to print the book show that the artists’ put themselves into a predicament for the small print run of 2000 copies. It appears their agreement was to pay a portion of the production cost in exchange for a portion of the books, to be sold to pay for the remainder of the copies. Furthermore, the agreement included that one-third of the cost could be traded in original artwork from the book’s contributors—if the appraised value of that artwork exceeded the value of that portion of the cost.[6] Trading art for services is not uncommon for artists, and in many cases it’s beneficial, but the problem here is that the co-editors would have to leverage agreements between the owner of the printing company—who would select the artwork he wanted—and the artist-contributors.

It is not entirely clear how the transactions resolved, or what happened to half of the books printed, but letters dated two years later show the inability to sell enough books to pay the printer and his threat that “it will be necessary for me to go out and seek a customer or customers that will take the books from me for the best price I can get…. If selling by this method does not reimburse us fully, then I will certainly have to look to you and your group for any balance.”[7]

Despite plenty of positive interest from those in the arts, there were some artists who expressed their disagreements about the editors’ picks and the resulting content. Attica Book was produced as a fundraiser, so the artists asked to contribute had to have some public appeal. There was meant to be more work by prisoners, but bureaucracy prevented that. Circumstances determined that the book included the work of more men than women. A couple of artist groups went so far as to send out press releases denouncing the work in that “neither ‘good intentions’ nor financial limitations are a justification for the oppression of others.”[8] While some artists and groups were quick to protest at museums, strike, or write letters, it seems that few were willing to go further than that. Many artists make work labeled as political, but not many have sustained a balance between an artistic career and the work of activism in its own right. But the records of Benny Andrews and the BECC—adherents to “the principle of direct action, to be taken whenever and wherever necessary”—prove as an example of that ability.[9]   


[1] Benny Andrews, Appointment Books, Benny Andrews Papers, box 78, folders 1-2; Letter Allon Schoener to Thomas Hoving, November 26, 1968, Andrews Papers, box 20, folder 2. The most succinct account of the group’s early activities is found in Benny Andrews, “Benny Andrews Journal: A Black Artist’s View of Artistic and Political Activism, 1963-1973,” in Tradition and Conflict: Images of a Turbulent Decade, 1963-1973, ed. Mary Schmidt Campbell (New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 1985), 69–73.

[2] Info on these shows in Andrews Papers, box 20, folder 2; “Acts of Art,” box 18, folder 2; and “BECC; unfiled correspondence,” box 139, no folder.

[3] Recent documentaries on Attica prison include Betrayal at Attica, directed by Michael Hull (Fifth Column Films, 2021); and Attica, directed by Traci Curry and Stanley Nelson (Showtime Documentary Films, 2021).

[4] Richard Shepard, “Drawing Class at Tombs Eases Pent-Up Emotions,” The New York Times, November 16, 1971; Andrews Interview by Jim Hatch, September 30, 1972, AV1, digital id b9096. Numerous items on the Prison Arts Program in Andrews Papers, box 1, folder 16; box 37, folder 21; box 101, folder 9; box 120, folder 2; box 146.

[5] “Attica Book” promotional flier, box 103, folder 10.

[6] Norman Shaifer at Custombook Inc to Baranik, July 11, 1972, box 18, folder 11.

[7] Shaifer to Baranik, April 15, 1974, box 18, folder 11.

[8] Gorilla Art Action Group (Jean Toche and John Hendricks) “Press Release,” January 17, 1973, box 18, folder 11.

[9] “We are calling for massive boycott the Whitney Museum,” 1971, box 146, no folder.