Bringing Beauford Delaney Home
With $25,000 in county funding, a plan to create a museum for Knoxville’s most lauded and haunted visual artist moves forward.
by jesse fox mayshark • january 24, 2019
the delaney family home at 1935 dandridge ave. is to be remade as the delaney museum, part of the beck cultural exchange center.
Knoxville does not have a good track record of caring for the homes of its greatest artists. James Agee’s childhood home in Fort Sanders, which inspired the lyrical “Knoxville: Summer, 1915,” was razed in the 1960s. The South Knoxville home where Cormac McCarthy grew up burned in 2009.
Illuminating the artist, his family and his community.
And urban renewal plans in the 1950s and ‘60s so abused the East Knoxville neighborhood and home of poet Nikki Giovanni’s grandmother that Giovanni wrote one of her best-known prose pieces -- “400 Mulvaney Street” -- about the insult and absence.
The childhood home of the celebrated painters and brothers Beauford and Joseph Delaney was lost to the same wave of “renewal.” But a later Delaney family house, one where Beauford stayed in the late 1960s during his final visits to his hometown, still stands at 1935 Dandridge Ave. -- right next to the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, the museum and archives of African-American life in Knoxville.
The Beck Center acquired the vacant, boarded-up property in 2015. Now, a group of advocates has come together to make sure that that house, at least, is not lost -- and that it becomes a celebration of the Delaneys’ life and work. Wednesday afternoon, a check presentation ceremony brought that goal a little closer.
“It will be a beacon to the world,” said Sylvia Peters, a longtime local champion for arts education who chairs The Delaney Project, an effort to highlight and commemorate the Delaney brothers’ contributions.
Knox County Commissioner Evelyn Gill presented a check for $25,000 in county funds to Peters and Renee Kesler, president CEO of the Beck Center. (County Finance Director Chris Caldwell said the grant came from the county’s fund balance, at Gill’s request.) Kesler said the contribution was “a first step” toward an estimated $736,000 project that will turn the house into The Delaney Museum at the Beck.
Kesler said the goal is to present the story of the Delaneys, with personal effects from the family, and by extension illustrate African-American life in Knoxville. There is also the possibility of occasional displays of art by Beauford and Joseph Delaney from the collection of the Knoxville Museum of Art.
David Butler, KMA’s executive director, attended Wednesday’s presentation. Under his direction, KMA has amassed the world’s largest collection of Beauford Delaney’s art. He said Wednesday it has also recently acquired a major piece by Joseph Delaney, a painting of the now-vanished intersection of Vine Avenue and Central Street.
“I’m just so thrilled that the county’s doing this for the Delaney Museum and the Beck Center,” Butler said of the contribution.
The Delaneys were sons of an African-American Knoxville Methodist minister. Beauford Delaney in particular has undergone a new wave of appreciation in recent years, both in Knoxville and globally. Peters told a story of going to a museum in Paris and seeing his work.
“They said that he was a great American artist who was from Knoxville, Tennessee,” Peters said.
Beauford Delaney was a close friend of writers and artists including James Baldwin and Georgia O’Keefe, and spent most of his adult life in New York and Paris. (Like Baldwin, he was gay.) In 2016, the New York Times called him “one of the most important African-American artists of the 20th century.” In 2017, KMA presented “Gathering Light,” an exhibit of paintings and drawings by Beauford Delaney that showed the range of his work, from urban realism to ecstatic abstraction.
Beauford Delaney suffered from mental illness and died in a mental hospital in Paris in 1979, at the time little known or remembered.
His brother Joseph painted in a more realistic, narrative style than Beauford and was employed by the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. Joseph’s life had a happier trajectory than Beauford’s; he returned to Knoxville in 1985 as artist-in-residence at the University of Tennessee, where he remained until his death in 1991.
Kesler said she wants the Delaney house to anchor what she calls a “cultural corridor” along Dandridge Avenue, including the Beck Center and Alex Haley Heritage Square.
Peters said several events over the next few years will bring more attention to legacy of the Delaney brothers, including an opera about Beauford’s life that has been commissioned and a planned symposium at the University of Tennessee.
“We hope deeply in our hearts that this will be a project of reconciliation for this community,” Peters said.