Since 1978, contemporary artists and art enthusiasts have enjoyed the use of the Bannister Gallery, located within Roberts Hall at Rhode Island College. The space is named for famed African-American landscape artist, and Rhode Island resident, Edward Mitchell Bannister. While the gallery bears his name, it does not focus on his art. Rather, the gallery serves as an open space for various modes of contemporary art, and also as a learning space for students and visitors to study artistic forms and conventions.
Born in Canada in 1828, Edward Bannister is celebrated as the first African American artist to have received a major award for his work. He earned national recognition for his Bronze-Prize contribution, “Under the Oaks," at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial (an award that was nearly “reconsidered” by judges upon learning Bannister's racial background).
His professional artistic career began in the 1850s and continued well into the 1880s, despite hostility from contemporary white critics who believed that African Americans, while capable of appreciating art, were most definitely incapable of producing it. However, to many within Providence and the greater New England artistic community, he was celebrated as among the most notable landscape painters of his time. Though Bannister was actively committed to the abolitionist movement prior to and during the Civil War, and later to the greater fight for African-American civil rights, he kept such themes and political issues out of his painting, choosing instead to explore pristine beauty and rich detail through solemn impressionism and other classical styles.
The Bannister Gallery emerged out of the newly found acceptance and appreciation for African-American contributions that grew out of the Civil Rights Movement. The Gallery’s dedication in November 1978 was a major event that, in effect, made a public vow to acknowledge and value the contributions of art and artists from all backgrounds, racial or otherwise. Looking to emphasize Rhode Island solidarity in this effort, the ceremony was attended by various public officials, along with representatives of the Rhode Island Historical Society and the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities.
The gallery presently hosts monthly exhibitions during the academic year and one exhibit during summer. In addition, the gallery regularly hosts presentations by artists, curators, performance artists and other guest lecturers. Above all, the overarching theme might be said to revolve around the countless utilities of art, and in particular its use in stimulating socio-political dialogue and critical thought.