It should come as no surprise that, for 82 continuous years, the University of Texas College of Fine Arts has profoundly influenced the arts scene in Austin.
For one thing, it is enormous. According to the college’s website, more than 150 faculty members teach more than 2,000 students, about three quarters of them undergraduates.
And although such a large program enshrouded in a vast campus inevitably operates inside something of a bubble, UT’s active artists and thinkers have populated much of the city’s arts scene since the college’s inception.
By Austin standards, the college is also old. In 1937, the Texas Legislature restored UT’s fine arts courses, 12 years after Gov. Miriam "Ma" Ferguson deleted them from the budget. The college opened for classes under multifaceted Dean Ezra William "Bill" Doty during the 1938-1939 school year, according the authoritative Handbook of Texas.
Yet one can trace fine arts activity on the campus at least back to the founding of the long-running Curtain Club in 1909. That easily makes UT among the oldest arts groups in town.
So far in this series about artistic resilience through troubled times, I’ve profiled the Austin Art League (1909), Austin Symphony (1911), the Contemporary Austin (1911), Paramount Theatre (1915) and Zach Theatre (1921).
Whether you choose 1909 or 1938 as the founding date for fine arts at UT, it has been through a lot. The formal college was set up on the comprehensive model, meaning that students applied themselves to the art and craft of their chosen majors, but they also studied liberal arts, sciences, languages and other subjects to mold well-rounded graduates, unlike rival conservatories that tend to focus entirely on narrow sets of artistic skills.
It could be argued that the college has put ever greater emphasis on wider academic inquiry rather than on practical expertise in theater, dance, music, art and design.
There was a time when all of Austin trekked to the UT campus to hear its concerts, see it plays and visit its galleries. If they do so now, they are more likely to be attracted by two giant outcroppings — Texas Performing Arts on the eastern side of campus and the Blanton Museum of Art to the south, the latter no longer part of the College of Fine Arts.
After its founding, the college was tested right away. Many of its fresh faculty, recruited from around the country, and a quite a few of its students left to serve in the military during World War II. More women gained traction in the college during those years, among them famed theater director Margo Jones, who brought along her friend, playwright Tennessee Williams, not to teach, mind you, but to interact briefly with local artists.
For years, the college operated out of fairly improvised quarters. The drama students performed at Hogg Memorial Auditorium, opened in 1933. An ambitious and systematic building campaign did not come until the 1960s and ’70s, when boomers boosted student numbers, just as their parents had done — with the G.I. Bill in hand — after the war. The newer facilities on either side of Waller Creek are first rate, but few people profess fondness for their brutalist silhouettes.
Among the college’s celebrated graduates have been Oscar winners Renée Zellweger (who actually majored in English, but renewed her interest in acting across campus, so let’s count her) and Marcia Gay Harden; TV star Farrah Fawcett; artist, writer and cartoonist Chris Ware; award-winning playwright and screenwriter Robert Schenkken; actor, dancer, director and all-around pepper-upper Tommy Tune; and ace trumpet player Billy Hunter, who happily is returning to teach at UT.
This incomplete list also does not count standouts from Curtain Club days, such as Walter Cronkite, Zachary Scott, Eli Wallach, Rip Torn and Pat Hingle, and those ebullient musical creators Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt.
No history is without controversy and among the least proud moments came in 1957 when college leaders, under pressure from the Legislature, removed Black mezzo-soprano Barbara Conrad from the cast of "Dido and Aeneas" because it would have meant a mixed-race couple onstage. The university later named Conrad among its most distinguished alumni and offered a scholarship in her name.
In later years, some of the college’s artists became deeply involved in protests for civil rights and ecology as well as against the Vietnam War. Today, you can find its faculty and students at the forefront of reimagining what social justice, diversity and inclusion might look like.
U.S. News and World Report ranks UT’s well-managed fine arts program at No. 23 in the nation and its sculpture unit at No. 6. With a student to faculty ratio of 10:1, it proffers more than 20 undergraduate degrees and a wide selection of master’s and Ph.D. programs in the Butler School of Music, Department of Art and Art History, Department of Theatre and Dance and School of Design and Creative Technologies, the last a fairly recent unit that faced some wrangling when a floor of the Fine Arts Library was cleared of books then devoted to its programs.
One reason for the college’s survival, even during times when it experienced periodic identity crises, has been its sheer size and variety. Other universities in the state have triumphed in particular areas — Texas State University, for instance, has come out on top nationally in musical theater training; North Texas State University has been a jazz mecca for decades — but UT can offer a dizzying array of courses in the context of a "public Ivy," in other words, a widely recognized center for higher learning set in a pretty cool city.