How has the Austin Art League persevered for 111 years?


It stayed small. It stayed focused. And it sold some key assets at a critical time.


"It has likely survived because, in my opinion, it was comprised of a relatively small group of people extraordinarily interested in art," says Kathleen Davis Niendorff, recently completing her third term as president of the group, "and who could more or less fit into someone’s living room. Some of these are artists, others are collectors, others just appreciate it very, very much."


(Full disclosure: Literary agent and publishing consultant Niendorff, who has been involved in many other Austin causes, edited all three volumes of the "Indelible Austin" series of historical books that I wrote for Waterloo Press.)


Besides meeting socially and hearing from experts — it was likely the city’s first formal presenter of art, and it continued to organize exhibitions through the decades — these art lovers raise money for charitable gifts. Of late, they have funded scholarships for area art students, but with art schools regrouping during the coronavirus pandemic, this year the league gave $10,000 to Mexic-Arte Museum, which plans a major renovation to its downtown building.


In 1909 — when Mrs. R.H. Baker, Margaret Burroughs and Ann Garrison founded what was formally known as "Austin Art League, Group 1" — Austin was emerging from its status as a frontier town. Still small at almost 30,000 residents, it had begun to pave its streets; built dams and bridges; and devoted greater attention to parks, schools, libraries and community centers — segregated during the Jim Crow era.


Then came the arts.


True, German sculptor Elisabet Ney had created lasting works at her castle-like studio just north of Hyde Park from the 1890s until she died in 1907. Literary figures such as William Sydney Porter, also known as O. Henry, had lived in Austin, too, during the 1890s.


Future drama critic Stark Young organized the long-running Curtain Club at the University of Texas in 1909. Prior to that, traveling shows had stopped at area opera houses, concert halls and dance halls with increasing frequency, especially since the arrival of the first railroad in 1871.


Yet as the city grew wealthier and more educated, more Austinites had leisure time to indulge in the arts. And many of them were women, who also started many of the country’s museums, symphonies, choral groups and art theaters during this era.


Among of these groups, the Austin Art League attracted some of state’s leading women.


Its list of members, many of them associated with UT, has included achievers such as Janet Long, Ida Bickler, Sally Scott (mother of Zachary Scott), Martha Detherage, Jane Sibley, Teresa Lozano Long, Karen Pope, Jessie Otto Hite, Sharon Watkins, Lou Ann Barrow, Lulu Flores and Sylvia Orozco, director of Mexic-Arte.


By the 1960s, the league had also acquired a quite of collection of paintings that, among other things, reflected the changing tastes of Texas artists over the years. In the 1970s, the collection was stored at UT, then moved to the Austin History Center, already home to the league’s meticulous archives.


In 2009, for the league’s centennial, the Austin Museum of Art exhibited a selection of this collection at Laguna Gloria. Shortly thereafter, the league also arranged to sell the collection to Houston lawyer J.P. Bryan who added them to the Bryan Museum, which is devoted to Texas history, in Galveston.


That tidy sum of money has helped fund the league’s ongoing charitable gifts.


"Also, one thing I noticed almost immediately — in 1991 when I was invited to join — was that, even though everyone really looked ‘normal,’ this was definitely a wonderful gathering of eccentrics," Niendorff says, "which delighted me enormously probably because I went to Rice University where everyone was eccentric! At meetings you always, always learn something about an art movement, an artist or a particular work."