Who hasn’t noticed the beautiful marble building that houses Memphis Brooks Museum of Art? For that striking landmark and all it represents, we can thank, in large part, a woman.
T he daughter of a prominent Memphis attorney, Bessie Vance Brooks studied art at the Clara Conway Institute in Memphis under her longtime friend Kate Carl. She later married Samuel Hamilton Brooks, a successful wholesale grocer who also had an interest in art and in starting a public art gallery.
Mr. Brooks must have sold a lot of groceries; when her husband died in 1912, Bessie donated $100,000 in his memory (a vast sum at the time, roughly $2.5 million today) to the creation of such an institution — a Georgian marble structure designed by the renowned New York architect James Gamble Rogers (who designed many buildings on the Yale and Columbia campuses, as well as the Shelby County Courthouse). Ground was broken for the building in Overton Park in 1914 — exactly 100 years ago — and at its dedication on May 26, 1916, Bessie’s speech was read by Episcopal Bishop Thomas F. Gailor: “I hereby give and donate this building to the public use as a repository, conservatory, and museum of art — to be kept and maintained forever for the free use and service of students of art and for the enjoyment, inspiration, and instruction of our people.”
Just a few years after Brooks’ opening, Bessie Vance Brooks moved to Florida, where she died in 1943. It’s doubtful she knew just how that gallery would flourish, and how art education would thrive, thanks to countless women, and men, who have raised funds, given lectures, inspired children, and found their creative niche within its walls.
Bessie Vance Brooks
Martha Ellen Maxwell