Beauford Delaney stands holding several paintbrushes and the corner of an unframed work on canvas. Behind him, a large piece of his tactile abstract artwork fills the frame.

Bringing a Legacy Home

Nearly half a century after his death, painter and Knoxville native Beauford Delaney is finally gaining some of the renown he has long deserved.

A pioneering artist, Delaney was a member of the Harlem Renaissance and then the expatriate American arts community in France. His life was often difficult, with the hardships of being a gay Black artist from the South compounded by poverty and, later, mental illness. While his genius was hailed by other artists of his era, including Georgia O’Keeffe and Willem de Kooning, his work was long ignored or dismissed by critics.

Thanks to a collaboration involving UT, the Knoxville Museum of Art, the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, Estate of Beauford Delaney administrator Derek L. Spratley, and other individuals and agencies, Delaney’s legacy is being grounded in his hometown.

UT Libraries recently announced the opening of the Beauford Delaney Papers in the Betsey B. Creekmore Special Collections and University Archives. It is the most extensive collection anywhere documenting Delaney’s work and life.

The origins of the acquisition date back to 2015, when the Knoxville Delaney Project was launched by a group of arts and service organizations including KMA, which holds the largest public collection of Delaney paintings, and the Beck, a Knoxville center for African American history and culture.

The Denbo Center for Humanities and the Arts (then named the UT Humanities Center) joined the project in 2018. In 2020 the center’s director, Chancellor’s Professor and Distinguished Professor of English Amy Elias, received a $50,000 collaborative research grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for a symposium focused on Delaney and the writer James Baldwin, Delaney’s protégé and close friend.

The internationally acclaimed symposium, In a Speculative Light, was conducted in conjunction with a KMA exhibition curated by Stephen Wicks, the museum’s Barbara W. and Bernard E. Bernstein Curator. It helped establish Knoxville as a center of Delaney studies and formed connections that made later developments possible.

Dog on Yellow

The Beauford Delaney Papers contains correspondence with about 140 people including Baldwin, O’Keeffe, and Henry Miller. There are also loose sketches, photos, sketchbooks, journals, and preliminary studies for paintings.

Archivist and Associate Professor Kris Bronstad says she was thrilled when she learned the collection would be coming to UT. “I won’t forget [Dean of Libraries] Steve Smith and [Senior Associate Dean] Holly Mercer on the ground at the KMA, lifting tubs and going through some damaged books with me.”

Processing the collection involved years of meticulous work. “It was a group effort,” says Bronstad. “The list of all these items took our whole special collections department, under the supervision of Jennifer Beals, to compile and get right. It was intense work, but we do all of this to make it accessible.”

Mercer and Stacy Palado, the libraries’ development director, wrote a proposal that led to a $250,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation’s American Art Program to promote the collection and deepen the collaboration. The grant, awarded in March 2023, also funded a two-year graduate research fellowship.

Katrina Stack, a doctoral candidate in geography whose work centers on the preservation of sites of 20th-century Black history in the South, specifically through homes and ideas of home, was named to the position. Stack has worked with the libraries to finalize catalog descriptions for the collection and conducted oral history interviews, and she will spend three weeks this summer researching Delaney in Paris.

“I feel really lucky that there’s an opportunity to do something like this while I’m getting my PhD,” she says. “And getting to work with members of the faculty and staff in a different capacity is also really awesome, and I think it’ll help prepare me for whatever job comes next to have these two experiences side by side.”

Abstract artwork depicting energetic brush strokes in yellow, ochre and green.

The wider collaboration, now the Delaney Legacy Committee, includes the Beck, KMA, Spratley, and UT—represented by the School of Art as well as UT Libraries and the Denbo Center.

The group’s mission encompasses not just Delaney but his younger brother Joseph Delaney, a well-known artist in his own right with works at KMA, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Joseph served as artist-in-residence at the School of Art from 1986 until his death in 1991.

In October 2023 the committee held an event at KMA featuring the inaugural reading of a commissioned work by poet Nikki Giovanni, who grew up in the same neighborhood as the Delaney home. In the same month, an exhibition of Joseph’s works was staged at Hodges Library.

The collaboration’s work continues. UT Libraries is working to make digital images of the collection available and ensure that the items within it are preserved. Stack, who expects to graduate in spring 2025, is planning an exhibit at the libraries for the following fall. “It’ll be a reason to come back,” she says.

Elias is editing a collection of essays by scholars who attended the 2020 symposium. In a Speculative Light: The Arts of Beauford Delaney and James Baldwin is in production with Duke University Press and is scheduled to be released in January 2025.

The Beck has purchased a home that was owned by the Delaney family and is converting it into a Delaney museum and study center.

In the School of Art, Associate Professor of American Art History Mary Campbell—who has been working in the Delaney archive since 2018, before it came to UT—is writing the first book-length analysis of Delaney’s art, scheduled for publication by Princeton University Press in 2026. Campbell has made numerous contributions to the growth of Delaney studies on campus and in Knoxville—for example, introducing Stack to people and resources in France and consulting with the president of the Beck Center, Rev. Reneé Kesler. Her work has been supported by separate sabbatical fellowships from the NEH and the Denbo Center and by undergraduate research assistant funding from UT.

Campbell’s current research assistant, junior musicology and history major Avery Noe, has spent three years in the Delaney archives and is building her own academic credentials through the project. In April, Noe was invited to present her Delaney research at Stanford University’s prestigious undergraduate research symposium, where she received first prize in the humanities division.

“I love being able to do this work, and it’s possible because I’m part of a community that loves Delaney,” says Campbell.

Delaney, who died in 1979 at the age of 77, is buried on the outskirts of Paris, with a tombstone that reads “I am home.” But thanks to these collaborative efforts, his legacy is blooming in his first home of Knoxville.

Images from the Beauford Delaney Papers, MS.3967, Betsey B. Creekmore Special Collections and University Archives, University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Estate of Beauford Delaney by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire, Court-Appointed Administrator.

an artwork featuring a vibrant pink background with figure outlined in expressive black strokes and filled in with deep purple and browns

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