James L. Clayton


James L. Clayton created the Clayton Family Foundation in 1990 for the benefit of present and future generations of Tennesseans. Today the Foundation is one of the largest in the South with liquid assets of $160 million. It is a vital source of support for cultural, educational and human services programs in the region. The Foundation played a pivotal role in the creation of the Clayton Arts Center, a state-of-the-art performing and visual arts facility on the campus of Maryville College that is considered a treasured cultural resource.

Clayton was born the son of a sharecropper in 1934 in the small city of Finger located in McNairy County. As a child, he wanted to be a country music singer and after high school, he moved to Memphis for college and to perform in local honky tonks. Clayton received an engineering degree in 1957 and a law degree in 1964.

While a student, he began a used-car business that grew into Knoxville’s Clayton Automobiles operated by Clayton and his brother Joe. Clayton branched into the mobile home business in 1966 and built it into the United States’ largest producer and seller of manufactured housing, a publicly traded company that was sold to Berkshire Hathaway in 2003 for $1.7 billion.

Despite his success, Clayton never forgot where he came from. He said, “Giving back to communities that supported the Clayton family as we ‘learned and earned’ is my dream fulfilled.”

In the late 1980s, Clayton was the largest single contributor to the construction of the Knoxville Museum of Art (KMA). In 2015, the Museum celebrated its 25th year in the landmark Clayton Building, named in honor of Clayton’s transformational $3.25 million gift. He has generously supported the KMA’s ongoing operations ever since and remains the museum’s largest single annual donor. His example inspires others through the James L. Clayton Award, presented annually for uncommonly generous and sustained support of the KMA.

Clayton also supports the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra (KSO) through the Symphony’s annual Clayton Holiday Concert, a much-beloved, decades-old family tradition. Additionally, he has served as board president of the KSO and continues to serve on the nominating committee.

The arts have been important to Clayton throughout his career, as a performer, impresario, donor and patron. While promoting Clayton Homes, he showcased his musical talent on popular local television show Startime with acts like the young Dolly Parton and the Kountry King Band. Clayton tells the story of his epic business and philanthropic career in a 2002 autobiography, First a Dream.

Special thanks to David Butler and the Knoxville Museum of Art
Videography by Dr. Bradley Hanson; Editing by Christie Caldwell; Directed by Suzanne Lynch