Public Humanities and the Arts of the Present / Education as a Public Good / Amy J. Elias

The author in conversation at the symposium “In a Speculative Light: The Arts of James Baldwin and Beauford Delaney.”

The “Humanities For All” online database hosted by the National Humanities Alliance currently showcases nearly 2000 examples of public humanities projects and provides a general topographical mapping of public humanities work, from unidirectional university programming that is simply opened to a public audience to international consortia involving numerous academic and public partners.1 Many private foundations have leaned in to this public mission as well—an example being the 2018 redefinition of the prestigious Andrew W. Mellon Foundation as a social justice organization supporting public humanities work.2 At a time when neoliberal and neo-“traditionalist” values threaten to gut or even eliminate humanities disciplines on campuses worldwide and to instrumentalize humanities work in the name of a “workforce development” agenda, the humanities can fight back by reminding administrators, boards, and legislators that universities—particularly US public land-grant institutions—have been predicated since their inception on the idea of humanities education in and of itself as a public good.3

Of importance to ASAP/Journal should be the fact that concurrent with this developing discussion about the role of the public humanities within universities has been a reformulation of art perspectives around participation, relationality, reciprocity, and engaged art and scholarship, from the “public arts” and “relational aesthetics” movements of the 1990s and early aughts to new theories of care, resilience, hope, and coalition building of the past fifteen years.4 Today, new approaches to publishing, arts criticism, and poetics emphasize public problem solving, public education, and the dismantling of privilege undergirding society’s (and often higher education’s) resources. They also offer alternatives to “star systems,” monograph culture, and critical rhetoric and methodologies that address only a coterie audience of scholars. Engaged with public humanities almost since their inception, today’s humanities centers and institutes support interdisciplinary and public-facing work that academic departments on their own are often too strapped or understaffed to include in their roster of activities.5

As someone who has devoted the past fifteen years to investigating the commons, dialogic aesthetics, and reciprocity, I am invested heavily in that idea that nothing necessarily sets public humanities apart from other forms of scholarship—or, to put it differently, that scholars should have deep expertise in a subject but bring that expertise into multiple contexts of dissemination.6 Public humanities work allows scholars to engage with artists/creatives, enrich and learn from local and regional collectives, invite communities inside and outside the university into educational conversations, and cross siloed disciplines and departments on their own campuses.

I can give a quick example of what I mean. In spring of 2020, through the auspices of the UT Humanities Center (UTHC) and the NEH, I hosted a symposium about the friendship between, and works of, the writer James Baldwin and the visual artist Beauford Delaney. The symposium was the UTHC’s contribution to The Delaney Project, a consortium of Knoxville organizations that worked alongside longstanding Delaney champions in the art world to restore and celebrate the reputation of the painter Beauford Delaney.7 The symposium was scheduled to run during an extraordinary public exhibition of Delaney’s painting at the Knoxville Museum of Art, Beauford Delaney and James Baldwin: Through the Unusual Door, that featured more than 40 of Delaney’s paintings and works on paper. Delaney and Baldwin met in 1940 at Delaney’s Greene Street apartment in New York City when Baldwin was a teenager and Delaney was thirty-nine years old. They were friends, even family, for almost forty years, until Delaney’s death. Both artists were sons of preachers from the American South, were prolific craftsmen who moved through many artistic genres and modes, were influenced by jazz and blues, were obsessed with the connotations of color and light, and were gay expatriates from the US alienated by homophobia and racism that permeated society and arts culture. Born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1901, Delaney lived in Boston and New York before following Baldwin to Paris, where he lived the rest of his life; in every phase of his career, he moved among the greatest musicians, writers, and arts patrons of his day, a beloved figure and mentor to younger artists, though he lived in abject poverty and suffered from mental illness throughout his life. His painting moved from realism through modernist modes to arrive at a unique form of abstractionism; light was at the center of his aesthetic, and he painted realistic and abstractionist portraits throughout his lifetime, a number of which were of his friend Baldwin.

Beauford Delaney (Knoxville 1901-1979 Paris), Portrait of James Baldwin, 1944. Pastel on paper, 24 x 18 ¾ inches. Knoxville Museum of Art, 2017 purchase with funds provided by the Rachael Patterson Young Art Acquisition Reserve, © The Estate of Beauford Delaney by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire, Court Appointed Administrator.

Running three weeks before my university went fully online in response to the Covid-19 outbreak, the “In a Speculative Light” symposium featured keynotes by Fred Moten and Hilton Als as well as the work of twenty-four scholars—including David Leeming, who had been Baldwin’s assistant and was the only person who had produced authorized biographies of both artists.8 The symposium hit a number of markers of scholarly excellence. It was funded in part by a $50,000 Collaborative Research grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities, and the grant narrative was posted by the NEH at its website as a model proposal. Papers were revised into short articles after the symposium and the collection of essays is now under contract with a well known university press.9 Thus faculty who attended brought their research expertise to bear on the topic at hand. But as important, the comradery that emerged among different constituencies during the semester was transformative. During the symposium, for example, UT faculty from the Department of Art sponsored “The Portrait Project,” a public pop-up studio in the symposium space in which they drew portraits of symposium speakers and illustrated to attendees (including students and members of the public) the portraiture techniques for which Beauford Delaney was famous. This studio was in dialogue with an exhibition of Delaney’s own never-before-exhibited work in the Student Union Gallery, hosted by the executor of the Beauford Delaney estate; paintings could be purchased after the symposium run.

Key members of the public involved in The Delaney Project—including Monique Wells, who “zoomed” in from Paris—were invited to speak as part of the symposium luncheon not as guests or a local welcoming committee but as experts in Delaney’s work and life who could teach the academics in the room something from their own efforts on Delaney’s behalf. The opening night reception and keynote by Hilton Als was held at the Knoxville Museum of Art for symposium speakers but also for many members of the public (more that 200 people attended), including members of The Links Knoxville chapter, Black community leaders and arts patrons, and members of the Baldwin and Delaney families.10 Events for students were run on campus preceding the symposium: a library display of Baldwin’s and Delaney’s work; online library research guides about Baldwin; a film screening of I Am Not Your Negro; large banners on the university boulevard and in downtown Knoxville celebrating Delaney and the symposium, created by UT’s award-winning Printmaking program; and coordination with UT classes around Baldwin’s and Delaney’s works. The book we produce should be a foundational resource about Delaney’s work, but with its color plates, it should be a great coffee-table book as well.

The upshot of this public humanities event was that the University of Tennessee forged new connections with its adjacent communities, undermining some long-standing town/gown tensions and communicating the willingness of the university to recognize expertise and historical knowledge in those communities equal to if not even more developed than that of its academic experts—as well as a willingness to connect communities sometimes alienated by race relations in the state of Tennessee. The UT Humanities Center established itself as a catalyst for research excellence, community engagement, and support for UT arts and humanities faculty. And new pathways were opened for future projects with regional partners outside of the university that might support additional grant-funded opportunities for research and student internships, for making visible to university stakeholders the outstanding arts and humanities work done by community members, and for underscoring to regional communities that the university was a community partner rather than a city on the hill disconnected from its constituency.

Does all arts research need to be “publicly engaged”? Of course not. But we need to acknowledge that as discourse escalates about academic activism and the potential of the arts to intervene radically in society, our work must be disseminated beyond insular coteries. The move to online publishing and recognition for publishing in public magazines and review journals is a move in this direction. But in many ways, today we are seeing a return to the academic star system as cultural capital becomes something marketable for universities as well as authors, while adjunct faculty earn less than minimum wages. Surely this cannot be the direction in which we want to go as a profession. Defining the public humanities as a public good, and the contemporary arts as a reciprocal conversation with our public fellows, seems more in line with our stated values.

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This is part of the cluster Public Humanities and the Arts of the Present. Read the other posts here.

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  1. National Humanities Alliance, “Humanities For All,” For a typology of public humanities that apply, see Daniel Fisher, “A Typology of the Publicly Engaged Humanities,” Humanities for All, National Humanities Alliance,, accessed June 23, 2021; “Public Humanities Network,” CHCI: Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes,, accessed June 23, 2021.
  2. See The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, “About,” at, as of August 2021.
  3. The online and print literature and conversation on “public humanities” and the need for a reformed, publicly engaged university is now vast. Naomi F. Collins offered a discussion and bibliography of the debate for the ACLS published in 1990: see “Culture’s New Frontier: Staking a Common Ground,” American Council of Learned Societies Occasional Paper No. 15, For introductory discussions, see Christopher Newfield, The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016) and the special issue of the University of Toronto Quarterly, “Publics for the Humanities?” edited by Robert Phiddian, vol. 85, no. 4, Fall 2016, which grew out of a two-day workshop at the Jackman Humanities Institute sponsored by the international CHCI: Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes.
  4. The literature on this subject is considerable. One might start with movements in the avant-garde after 1945—such as Alan Kaprow’s Happenings, Fluxus and its near relations, and Adrian Piper’s and Marina Abramovic’s performance art—and move to “relational aesthetics” of Nicholas Bourriaud in the 1990s, Grant Kesler’s work in participatory aesthetics in the early twenty-first century, queer and affect studies that bring the body back into play as a platform for revolutionary change, through Black aesthetics of care (particularly the work of Fred Moten, Saidiya Hartman, and Christina Sharpe) and new environmental/Anthropocene studies that emphasize kinship and relation.
  5. For a listing of such activities, one might consult the website of the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI) at
  6. Indeed, the inaugural issue of ASAP/Journal was about this participatory, public turn. See ASAP/Journal, “Art & the Commons,” 1.1 (2016), ed. Amy J. Elias,
  7. Symposium website, “In a Speculative Light: The Arts of James Baldwin and Beauford Delaney,”, accessed October 2021; Knoxville Museum of Art, “Beauford Delaney and James Baldwin: Through the Unusual Door,” February 07, 2020 – October 25, 2020,; Alan Sherrod, “Review: Marble City Opera’s ‘ShadowLight’ – A Stunning Celebration of the Art and Life of Beauford Delaney,” Arts Knoxville (February 29, 2020),; The Beck Cultural Exchange Center, “The Delaney Museum at Beck,”; The East Tennessee Historical Society,; Monique Wells, Les Amis De Beauford Delaney, The catalogue from the Knoxville Museum of Art’s exhibition Through the Unusual Door has been published by the University of Tennessee Press,
  8. David Leeming, Amazing Grace: A Life of Beauford Delaney (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) and James Baldwin: A Biography (Arcade, 1994).  Delaney’s work had been, and continues to be, exhibited and sold by the Paul Facchetti Gallery in Paris and by the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York City. The Michael Rosenfeld Gallery ran a noteworthy exhibition “Be Your Wonderful Self: The Portraits of Beauford Delaney” just this past year, Oct 13-Nov 13, 2021: see Roberta Smith, “Beauford Delaney: Portraits Glowing With Inner Light,” New York Times, October 14, 2021. “The Delaney Project: Gathering Light” can be found at In spring of 2020, those involved with the Delaney Project included Marble City Opera (which produced a new short opera about Delaney, “Shadowlight,” with music by Larry Delinger and libretto by Emily Anderson); the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, which strove to create a center of excellence at the Delaney family home; the East Tennessee Historical Society; Les Amis de Beauford Delaney in Paris and The Wells Foundation, both run by Monique Wells, who has been instrumental in resuscitating Delaney’s reputation internationally; and the Knoxville Museum of Art.
  9. National Endowment for the Humanities, “Collaborative Research,”, accessed August 2021.
  10. “Knoxville Chapter of The Links, Incorporated,” , accessed 10-15-21:  “The Links, Incorporated” is an international, not-for-profit corporation, established in 1946. The membership consists of nearly 16,000 professional women of color in 292 chapters located in 41 states, the District of Columbia and the Commonwealth of the Bahamas. It is one of the nation’s oldest and largest volunteer service organizations of extraordinary women who are committed to enriching, sustaining and ensuring the culture and economic survival of African Americans and other persons of African ancestry.”