For the final entry in our series on collective artistic resilience through times of trouble, we turn to what might just be the oldest surviving arts endeavor in town.
Previously, we studied the Austin Art League (1909), Austin Symphony (1911), the Contemporary Austin (1911), Paramount Theatre (1915), Zach Theatre (1921) and University of Texas College of Fine Arts (1938).
Older than all these is the arts center now known as the Elisabet Ney Museum, located in the oldest purpose-built art structure still standing in the state.
You could date the use of the turreted limestone treasure — a strange but charming blend of Gothic and classical elements — as a gathering place for the arts to 1892, when the German-born sculptor completed her studio, always meant to be a place of teaching and communing as well, on the northern edge of town.
Or to 1908, when, after Ney’s death in 1907, her friends Ella and Joseph Dibrell bought the building in Hyde Park to turn it into an arts center.
Or to 1941, when the city of Austin assumed control of the building and grounds under the auspices of the Parks and Recreation Department.
Until the 1970s, that museum displayed mostly art of the day. It was closed in 1980 for a big redo and reopened in 1982 with an ongoing attempt to recreate Ney’s studio and life there. This was possible because her husband, Scottish physician and scientist Dr. Edmund Montgomery, followed Ney’s wishes and donated her sculpting tools, working figures, busts, medallions and full-length statues to the University of Texas.
The life of Franzisca Bernadina Wilhelmina Elisabet Ney, the subject of several books and many articles, is too long and rich to relate fully here. An extraordinarily independent woman for her time — she dressed and acted in eccentric ways while roaming the world — Ney trained with top German sculptors in a neoclassical style. She was celebrated in Europe before she left for America in the 1870s as a political refugee. In 1872, she and Montgomery purchased a fading plantation in Waller County, which Ney managed for much of two decades. It was a losing proposition.
In order to complete statues of Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin, commissioned by leading Austin figures and meant for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, she purchased a spot on Waller Creek. Ney dubbed it "Formosa" after her studio in Madeira, Portugal, where she and Montgomery were married. She lived in a tent and slept in a hammock during its building.
There, Ney alternately withdrew from company — she reputedly had a special telephone made that allowed her to call out but did not take incoming calls — but she also was born with a gift for abiding friendship, which she shared with key Austinites; famed international artists such as Enrico Caruso and Jan Paderewski; and at least four Texas governors.
Since she first visited Austin in the 1880s at the invitation of Gov. Oran Roberts to consult on statuary for the current Capitol, she also had promoted the idea of a Texas Academy of Liberal Arts. This seed came to fruition after her death as the Texas Fine Arts Association in 1911, a predecessor of the Contemporary Austin and organized at Formosa.
Yet separately, Formosa opened for exhibits as early as 1908, and its role as a museum space appears to antedate the Texas Fine Arts Association. Amazingly, one person, Willie B. Rutland, managed the museum from 1927 to 1967.
In any case, the small museum, supported by Friends of the Ney, continues to honor the sculptor by artfully showcasing her personal affects and tools. More than 50 of her works are on display, including portraits from her European years, which include Otto von Bismarck, Giuseppe Garibaldi and King Ludwig II of Bavaria, as well as Americans Austin, Houston, William Jennings Bryan and Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston.
Nevertheless, Ney considered an allegorical figure of Lady Macbeth, her final and best work. While a draft of that piece exists at the Ney, the final marble iteration is in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The museum also stages regular public events — suspended during the pandemic — and displays of art and artifacts not directly related to the sculptor. For instance, it has put together a digital exhibit, "Suffrage Now," related to the centennial of passage of the 19th Amendment that earned women the legal right to vote. Visit it at austintex.gov/elisabetney.
I think Ney would have approved.