Hard as it may be to believe, when Elisabet Ney moved to Austin in 1892, there was no South by Southwest. Or FronteraFest. Or East Austin Studio Tour. No art museums. No symphony. No ballet. No opera. None of the scores of small independent arts companies generating original work and none of the ubiquitous festivals that pack our calendar today – in short, nothing to make Austin the capital of live music, creativity, or anything else of an artistic bent. The cultural landscape was as open and undeveloped as the Hill Country.
But just as the German-born sculptor built a studio here in which to make art, Ney constructed a space in Austin for the arts to grow. Although Formosa, her estate in Hyde Park, was at that time on the outskirts of the city, she made it Austin's center of aesthetic activity, hosting salons that drew officials from state government and the then-new University of Texas, as well as art teachers, students, the upper crust of Austin, and luminaries from afar such as Enrico Caruso and William Jennings Bryan. She also lobbied for an art school at UT, and while that dream wouldn't be realized until 30 years after her death, it was further evidence of the vision Ney had for Austin's cultural future and her commitment to making it happen.
For a decade now, the Austin Critics Table has sought to recognize our city's cultural heroes through the Austin Arts Hall of Fame, an honor roll of individuals who have made significant contributions to the community as artists, educators, and advocates for the arts. Most of the 71 inductees to date have been drawn from recent generations, but for the hall's 10th anniversary, the members of the Critics Table are reaching back to those figures whose artistic efforts go back 35, 70, 150 years. We identified 25 cultural pioneers such as Elisabet Ney (1833-1907) to make up the 2011 class of the Austin Arts Hall of Fame.
Preceding Ney was another community builder, in the most literal sense. Abner Cook (1814-1884), an apprentice of master builder Samuel Lemly, arrived in Austin just as the village of Waterloo was being renamed for its new role as capital of the Republic of Texas. In a town with few trained architects, Cook designed and constructed some of Austin's notable early buildings – the city's first church, the Governor's Mansion, the Woodlawn mansion, and the Neill-Cochran House – and served as a contractor on more, including the 1852 state Capitol and UT's Old Main Building.
The university didn't act on Ney's dream of an art school while she was alive, but her friends kept it alive after her death, along with her dreams of a state art gallery and a state arts commission through the founding of the Texas Fine Arts Association. It was to that organization that businesswoman and philanthropist Clara Driscoll (1881-1945) deeded Laguna Gloria, her estate on Lake Austin, in 1943 with the aim of turning the property's Mediterranean villa into an art gallery. In time, that exhibition space was spun off into the Laguna Gloria Art Museum, which evolved into the Austin Museum of Art, and TFAA acquired a Downtown home and renamed itself Arthouse. Thus, Ney's vision and Driscoll's generosity are responsible for two of the city's leading visual-arts entities.
The year of Ney's passing, a drama program at UT was as distant a dream as her art school. But a new instructor of English literature established a theatrical presence on campus until the College of Fine Arts was created. Stark Young (1881-1963) made a national name for himself as an essayist, a drama critic for The New York Times, and a novelist and playwright after leaving Austin, but during his eight years on the Forty Acres, he made a lasting imprint on arts and letters by founding the Texas Review, which, since named Southwest Review, has become the third oldest continuously published literary quarterly in America, as well as the Curtain Club, which became a major force for theatre at UT for a half-century.
The Curtain Club was noteworthy not only for how popular its shows were – sold-out performances at Hogg Auditorium were not uncommon – but also for who took part in them. Newsman Walter Cronkite, actors Eli Wallach and Pat Hingle, the musical team of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, former Gov. John Connally, and game-show host Allen Ludden all performed in Curtain Club productions in their Longhorn days. So did Austin native Zachary Scott (1914-1965) before his star rose on Broadway and in Hollywood in films such as The Mask of Dimitrios, Mildred Pierce, and The Southerner. Theatre was Scott's passion when he attended UT in the Thirties, and when he wasn't working on a campus production, Scott was acting in or directing shows for the Austin Little Theatre, the community group chartered in 1933 that later became the Austin Civic Theatre and, after Scott's death, the Zachary Scott Theatre Center. With him at the time was Mel Pape (1912-1995), now known for his character roles in movies such as Caddyshack, The Sting II, and Smokey and the Bandit Part 3, but who was then a fellow Curtain Club thespian and Austin Little Theatre's first director. He remained its guiding spirit for years.
Before Zachary Scott left UT, though, a dramatic change occurred: It gained a drama department. And a music department and an art department. The establishment of the College of Fine Arts in 1938 brought a massive expansion of creative energy to the UT campus and Austin. E. William Doty (1907-1994), a quiet organist out of Michigan, was hired to conjure this body out of thin air (as well as chair the fledgling music department and teach classes). Despite his youth (31 years old), a lack of facilities, and a paltry budget ($64,000), he built something remarkable. By fall, he was offering classes in all disciplines, and in four years had built a music building (the first building on campus to be air-conditioned!) with a modern recital hall.
Much of the new college's success can be traced to the impressive array of instructors that Doty attracted to Austin, including important artists in the region and from across the country. The art department drew a host of Texas' leading painters, among them Everett Spruce, Ralph White, and Kelly Fearing (the last two already inducted into the Austin Arts Hall of Fame). With them came sculptor Charles Umlauf (1911-1994) and printmaker Constance Forsyth (1903-1987), both of whom had made work at the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago: he showing two sculptures, she assisting Thomas Hart Benton on his murals. They not only developed the programs in their fields at UT but also oversaw them for more than 30 years.
In drama, Ellsworth P. Conkle (1899-1994), who penned more than 50 plays over the course of his career, including the Broadway-produced Prologue to Glory and 200 Were Chosen, arrived to supervise the department's playwriting program in 1939 and headed it for 34 years. In 1941, F. Loren Winship (1904-1978) jumped into the department from the University Interscholastic League, where he had been director of drama and speech. Seven years later, he was named department chair, a role he filled for two decades, during which time he championed the construction of a new home for the department. After World War II, B. Iden Payne (1881-1976), a Briton who had run Ireland's Abbey Theatre and the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon and had helped start the first university theatre program in the U.S. came to UT, where he taught theatre and directed productions of Shakespeare for more than a quarter century. Another director, Francis Hodge (1915-2008), came to the faculty in 1949 for a 30-year stay distinguished by his authorship of Play Directing: Analysis, Communication, and Style, a fundamental text in the field.
In music, educator Charlotte Estelle Dubois joined a faculty that in 1940 consisted of only seven instructors, including Doty, composer Kent Kennan (an earlier Austin Arts Hall of Fame inductee), and the great operatic bass Chase Baromeo. The first woman to attain full professorship in the department, Dubois taught there for more than 30 years, earning awards for teaching excellence.
As UT's College of Fine Arts took shape, the cultural community off-campus was evolving, too. Miriam Gordon Landrum (1893-1967) had studied piano at the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau in France and taught piano at UT in the early Twenties, but she found her calling off-campus, co-founding the Austin chapter of the Music Teachers' Association in 1930 and the Texas School of Fine Arts, a private academy offering preparatory and college courses in music, speech and drama, and art, which she ran for 37 years.
Beverly Sheffield (1913-1999) believed fervently in the need for recreation and the arts in civic life, and he acted on it from his start as a playground leader in 1934 through a 30-year run as the Parks and Recreation Department director. In 1937, trying to boost attendance for municipal band concerts in Zilker Park, he erected a postage-stamp stage in front of some wooden risers and a trellis of moonflower vines and created the Hillside Theatre. There Sheffield programmed community talent shows with sing-alongs and a weekly gospel concert he dubbed the Church of the Moon & Stars, and, starting in 1959, the summer musical that still runs every year.
In 1948, the largely amateur Austin Symphony Orchestra made a leap toward professionalism by hiring Ezra Rachlin (1915-1995) as its first professional music director. A child prodigy at the piano, he walked away from a concert career to lead orchestras. He remained with ASO for 20 years, with one of the most memorable events of his tenure being a concert at a drive-in, with musicians in jeans, ushers on horses, and the audience in cars, honking their horns in lieu of applause.
Austin's classical scene wasn't restricted to the symphony or UT's music department. Forrest Goodenough (1918-2004), a composer whose works had earned national attention since the early Forties, including a work that had been played on a CBS radio broadcast. In 1965, he was ranked ninth on the American Composers Alliance's list of the nation's top 150 composers. Blind since the age of 5, he joined the faculty of the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, where he and his wife, Dorothy, taught music for 25 years.
On the campus of St. Edward's University, another figure of national prominence was taking an arts program to the next level. Ed Mangum (1913-2001) had helped launch Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., in 1950 and with it America's regional theatre movement. Landing in Austin in the Sixties, Mangum helped develop the first degree program in theatre at St. Ed's, building in the idea of having students work with professional guest artists, and co-designed the school's Mary Moody Northen Theatre.
Another transplant to Austin in this period was Pearl Amster (1917-2000), a pianist who once played at Steinway Concert Hall in Carnegie Hall. A passionate educator, she taught piano to young Austinites for 33 years. In honor of her dedication, the Austin Civic Orchestra named its annual youth concerto competition and scholarship for her.
Teaching became an important part of the legacy of Russell Lee (1903-1986) at this time, too. In 1965 the UT art department established a photography program, and the noted photojournalist who had documented the Great Depression for the Farm Security Administration became its first instructor. He stayed on faculty for only eight years, but he became a mentor to new generations of photographers here and elsewhere.
The Sixties also saw the rise of one of Austin's great treasures: UT's Humanities Research Center. The brainchild of English professor Harry Ransom (1908-1976), it collected rare books, manuscripts, photographs, paintings, statues, furniture, and personal memorabilia from notable writers and artists. As Ransom ascended to the posts of university president and chancellor of the UT System, he built the collection into a scholar's paradise.
Within the Ransom Center's vast stores is a theatre arts collection that was for many, many years presided over by W.H. "Deacon" Crain (1918-1998). A true man of the theatre, Crain performed in Curtain Club productions beginning as a UT student in 1936 and went on to earn a bachelor's degree, a master of fine arts degree, and UT's first doctoral degree in playwriting. Also a great patron of the arts, Crain served on the boards of several theatres and provided financial support to dozens more.
Among the city's great arts patrons one must include James and Mari Michener (1907-1997/1920-1994). The Pulitzer Prize-winning author and his wife have been connected to UT since the Seventies, when they housed their amazing collection of 20th century American art there. After moving to Austin in the Nineties, they deepened their connection, founding the Texas Center for Writers (now the Michener Center for Writers) and committing $10 million to the Blanton Museum of Art.
In the Seventies, Austin saw a new kind of cultural activity as Latino artists started their own arts companies. One of the most enduring has been Ballet Folklorico de Texas, co-founded by Roy Lozano (1954-1994) in 1975. While only 21, Lozano had the vision of celebrating Mexican culture through dance. More than 80 years after Elisabet Ney, he was showing the same devotion and drive to art she had. The times change, but the essence of Austin's cultural heroes remains the same.
The induction of the 10th anniversary class of the Austin Arts Hall of Fame will take place during the Austin Critics Table Awards ceremony on Monday, June 6, 7pm, at Cap City Comedy Club, 8120 Research. Admission is free.
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