Hoping to inspire a new generation of young creatives in East Knoxville and bring in admirers from across the globe to celebrate one of the greatest modern painters of the 20th century, the Beck Cultural Exchange Center is breaking ground on the Delaney Museum at Beck.
The new museum includes a restoration of the only remaining ancestral home of world-famous artist Beauford Delaney and will preserve an extraordinary piece of Knoxville history.
“We wanted to create a space and a destination place for tourism and a place we can display artwork and some of the archives and anything related to the Delaney family. We hope this will get people interested in discovering their own roots,” said Derek Spratley, court-appointed administrator for the estate of Beauford Delaney.
“I used to drive by this house probably a thousand times in my lifetime and I had no idea that there was a world-renowned artist, arguably one of the most important artists of our time, certainty from this city. I had no idea that type of talent lived in my neighborhood.”
The Delaney home, built in 1910, sits next door to the Beck Cultural Center on Dandridge Avenue. The Beck Center bought the home in 2015 because it was distressed and in need of stabilization.
Though it still sits blighted, the restoration will be the start of work on what will soon be the Delaney Museum. Samuel Emery, elder brother of Beauford and Joseph Delaney and a Beck founding member, purchased the family home in Knoxville in the 1960s.
The Delaney childhood home at 815 Vine Ave. had been destroyed during Knoxville’s urban removal, which leveled a swath of mostly Black-owned homes and businesses on the edge of downtown from the 1950s to the 1970s.
Marissa Shrum, a relative of Delaney who traveled from New York City to be a part of the groundbreaking ceremony Monday night, said Black families in the Jim Crow south were discouraged from the arts. The museum is a step in honoring American visionaries like Beauford and his brother Joseph Delaney, also a renowned artist.
“I think it’s important when we think about legacy, we think about artists. A lot of times we put art to the side, and we think that it’s frivolous but I think a lot of people are starting to realize that artists take the temperature of the country and they inspire new ways forward,” Shrum told Knox News.
The Rev. Renee Kesler, executive director of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, told Knox News that the Delaney Museum at Beck will invite people from here at home and around the world to learn more about the extraordinary family.
“We want to bring recognition to their home and show the great talent and success born right here in their hometown of Knoxville,” she said.
“Our hope is that this museum will put East Knoxville on the map at an international level, encouraging tourists, art lovers, students and people from all backgrounds to learn about the Delaney family and appreciate the roots of talent here in East Knoxville.”
In addition to the permanent exhibit on the history of the Delaney family, the museum will have an artist-in-residence program to bring fresh talent into the city. The program will help inspire all ages by exposing our community to African American artists who use different techniques and painting styles.
The opening date for the museum is still being determined because of construction delays and rising costs caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but Kesler is hoping for August 2022.
Partnerships with Les Amis de Beauford Delaney, led by Monique Wells in Paris, are in the works. Kesler says that she specifically included in a grant to have a delegation of students from Austin-East Magnet High School travel to Paris for inspiration from the city that transformed Beauford.
“The Delaney family struggled as many families in East Knoxville have struggled. Although they came from poverty, Beauford and Joseph became two of the greatest painters of the 20th century. We hope that the Delaney museum will not only inspire disadvantaged youth by sharing the story of these skilled artists, but also by nurturing the existing talents of today’s students and the students of generations to come through classes and travel opportunities,” Kesler said.
The Delaney family in Knoxville
In 1885, Samuel Delaney married Delia Johnson, who was born into slavery in Richmond, Virginia, on Feb. 1, 1865. Samuel was a circuit-riding preacher for the Methodist Episcopal churches in Knoxville and Jefferson City. The two married on April 9, 1885, and made their home in Knoxville at 815 E. Vine Ave.
Ten children were born to the couple: Carabelle, Sterling, Samuel Emery, Percy, Clifford Henry, Ougust Mae, Marion, Beauford, Joseph and Naomi. Only four children survived adulthood, Sterling, Samuel Emery, Beauford and Joseph.
Through the family’s struggles and the poverty in Knoxville, it was art that served as an emotional outlet to Beauford. Many of his earliest drawings were copies of pictures from Sunday school cards and the family Bible.
His mother, a talented seamstress, encouraged her children’s creative passion and has been credited with fueling Beauford and Joseph as young artists. By age 14, Beauford had completed his first commissioned painting and was beginning to gain notice for his accomplishments.
The Beauford legacy
When he was a teenager, Beauford helped at the Post Sign Company and began creating signs for the firm.
The young painter drew the attention of Knoxville’s most successful artist, an elderly Impressionist named Lloyd Branson. By encouraging Delaney to move to Boston, Branson hoped to foster his artistic talent. His passion for art history led him to Boston’s museums and galleries, where he was fascinated by Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.
His training in the arts led him to New York, where he pursued a career as an artist. In spite of the financial troubles following the Great Depression, Harlem’s cultural melting pot inspired his portraits as he felt a strong affinity with the people who lived there.
James Baldwin, a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, received tremendous inspiration from Delaney’s work and ultimately had a lifelong friendship the artist.
At the age of 52, Delaney left New York for Paris. At the time, Paris offered greater freedom for African Americans than the United States. A number of his favorite painters had flourished in Paris, including Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne and Monet.
Delaney died in Paris in 1979 after mental health struggles.
James Baldwin wrote about Beauford Delaney: “He is a great painter, among the very greatest” and that he was “the first living proof, for me, that a black man could be an artist. In a warmer time, a less blasphemous place, he would have been recognized as my Master and I as his Pupil. He became, for me, an example of courage and integrity, humility and passion. An absolute integrity. I saw him shaken many times and I lived to see him broken but I never saw him bow.”