Reece Museum receives collection  of works from estate of Sammie L. Nicely

Published 3:12 pm Wednesday, May 26, 2021

JOHNSON CITY – East Tennessee State University’s Reece Museum recently received a donation of 50 artworks from the Sammie L. Nicely estate.

Nicely, a resident of Atlanta at the time of his death, served as the Reece Museum’s artist-in-residence during the 2014-2015 academic year. That year, he worked with youth at Johnson City’s North Side Elementary School, the Carver Recreation Center after-school program, and students in the Department of Art and Design at ETSU.

Nicely also curated two exhibitions for the museum in 2015: “EXUBERANCE! Kids Make Art about Art” and “From an African American Perspective,” which included artworks from the collections of Jan and Sylvia Peters, Knoxville, Tennessee; Dr. Jerome Wright, Savannah, Georgia; and Nicely’s personal collection of African and African American art. Most of the Sammie L. Nicely estate-donated artwork was first seen locally in “From an African American Perspective.”

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 Included in the donated collection are works by renowned artists like Bessie Harvey, Mose Tolliver, Lonnie Holley and John Preble. The collection also consists of works by unknown artisans and artists purchased by Nicely in his African and Caribbean travels. Represented materials include acrylic and oil paintings, prints, metal and wood sculptures, mixed media, glass, ceramics, beaded cloth and stone.

 The estate executor, in describing Nicely’s collection, said, “Even growing up, coming to his house . . . it was always like coming to a mini-museum. Even the kids (the executor’s children), as they grew up and came to Uncle Sammie’s house saw it as a mini-museum/playground. They had their favorite pieces, and like I said, it was just a playground for them, and they enjoyed it very much.”

 Born in 1947 in Russellville, Tennessee, Nicely developed a love for the arts at an early age. A graduate of Middle Tennessee State University with a B.S. in art education, he continued graduate studies in sculpture at The Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg. As a co-founder of the From Africa to Appalachia Foundation, Nicely embraced his cultural heritage as an African American man from Appalachia.

 “We are so grateful to Sammie Nicely and the Nicely family for their generous gift,” said Ron Roach, director of the Center of Excellence for Appalachian Studies and Services. “This collection is an outstanding addition to the Reece Museum and will enable these works to be enjoyed for generations to come.  It will also help us highlight the important role of African American artists in our region, which has too often been neglected in the past.”

 When asked about the significance of the Sammie L. Nicely Collection to the Reece Museum, collections manager Becca Proffitt said, “This eclectic and diverse collection of works reflects Mr. Nicely’s talents and eye for beauty as both a collector and an artist. The pieces in this collection will further his personal mission to provide the campus community with educational opportunities that explore, as Mr. Nicely said, ‘. . . how the African American artist fits into the American (art) landscape.’ We hope sharing his collection with the public will be an empowering experience for everyone.”

 The Reece Museum, housed in the Department of Appalachian Studies at ETSU, is a unit of the Center of Excellence for Appalachian Studies and Services, which resides in the same department. The museum is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, and is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.

 To learn more about the Sammie L. Nicely Collection, call 423-439-4392. For information about current and upcoming exhibitions, visit