One Austin arts group has lasted for more than 100 years by always focusing on the present and, just as importantly, by always adapting to it.
Sure, the Contemporary Austin is associated in the public mind with one of the oldest and most adored arts structures in town, the Mediterranean-style villa at Laguna Gloria, built in 1916.
And it claims even more ancient roots in Stephen F. Austin’s Little Colony, although to date nobody has produced the archival evidence — if you’ve got it, please send it — that the Anglo-Texan colonist wanted to build a home at that very spot on the Colorado River, lovely though it may be.
Yet since a group of friends founded, in 1911, the Texas Fine Arts Association — one of Contemporary Austin’s many ancestors — to honor sculptor Elisabet Ney, it has promoted living artists and their art.
Like the previously profiled Austin Arts League and Austin Symphony, the 109-year-old Contemporary Austin was founded by women.
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Women set out to "civilize" American towns and cities, especially in the years between 1890 and 1930. The independent "Art for Art’s Sake" movement, borrowed from Europe, fit neatly with the "City Beautiful" campaign to dignify U.S. cities, which dates back to the Columbian World Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
In some ways, the Austin-based Texas Fine Arts Association duplicated the efforts of the slightly older Art League. Both collected and exhibited art. Both promoted awareness of artists and artistic styles.
In 1943, arts backer Clara Driscoll deeded her villa and the surrounding land to TFAA. Some thought that it would become the state art museum.
After several exhibits, Laguna Gloria Art Museum split off from TFAA and, among other things, built and expanded its popular art school. The two groups later joined together again under the aegis of the Austin Museum of Art, which eventually morphed into the Contemporary Austin after multiple efforts to build a large downtown museum failed.
To share an old joke: You knew an economic bust was coming when the group announced another plan for a downtown museum.
This long haul mirrored somewhat the bumpy road to creating a University of Texas museum worthy of the name. One could stretch that history back to gifts from philanthropist, author and art collector, Archer M. Huntington, in the 1920s, and later the seeding of the Michener Collection in the 1960s. Part of the museum-in-the-making occupied the bottom floors of the Ransom Center, then later the art department’s building.
In the 1970s, UT officials unveiled plans to build a standalone UT museum near the LBJ Presidential Library.
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Long story short, UT eventually built the Blanton Museum of Art at a key entryway on the south side of campus, while it accumulated an admirable permanent collection of art and staged sterling exhibits. To top it off, UT built Ellsworth Kelly’s signature art-as-building, "Austin."
Whatever friction that arose between the two big multinamed visual art entities— and there certainly was — that seems to have faded. They have attracted many of the same donors and board members.
In 2017, the Contemporary gave UT its relatively small collection of art, acquired through its many manifestations. UT kept some of the art and distributed the rest to other Texas art museums.
Now the Contemporary operates two spaces rigorously focused on the art of today. The Jones Center downtown is an excellent smallish indoor museum — with an outdoor space atop; it is Austin after all. It matches well with the extraordinary and growing Marcus Sculpture Park on the grounds of Laguna Gloria.
It also has contributed to an admirable "museum without doors" movement that has helped transform Austin into a place with a fantastic and underrated assembly of outdoor art, from murals to sculptures and everything in between.
The Contemporary’s board is sharp and knows how to raise money. There’s no reason to doubt that, by focusing on today and planning for tomorrow, it will continue to endure.