In Memoriam: Jo Anne Christian

Arts patron, leading force in building Long Center has died

In Memoriam: Jo Anne Christian
Photo by John Anderson

Serenaded by Verdi, Puccini, and other composers whose operatic works she treasured, a treasured friend of the Austin arts scene made her final exit from it Thursday. Jo Anne Christian, a crusader in the campaign to build the Long Center and a passionate patron and advocate for many cultural causes, died at Christopher House. She was 79.

It's a measure of the impact that she had on our creative community that the music played for Christian in her last hours was being broadcast on classical music station KMFA, which had publicly dedicated the entire day's music to her. At several set times, announcers paid tribute to Christian's "civic leadership, philanthropy and advocacy for music, … [and] the positive difference Jo Anne has made for Austin and the lives of countless people," and played a specially chosen operatic piece, taken from Puccini's Tosca and La Bohème, Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier, Wagner's Rienzi, Bizet's The Pearl Fishers, and Verdi's Lucia di Lammermoor, La Traviata, La forza del destino, and Aida.

The selection from that last work – the Triumphal March, what else? – was especially fitting because the Egyptian tragedy opens Austin Opera's 2015-16 season, which the company has dedicated to Christian. And why not? You'd be hard pressed to find someone who's given so much to this organization throughout its almost 30-year history. Christian was a founding trustee and not only served on the board ever since but led it for many years – as president through most of the Nineties and as chair in more recent years. It was her steady hand at the helm that helped steer the opera through its most trying financial period ever, in the wake of the recession, when the painful decisions were made to sell the company's headquarters on Barton Springs Road and divest itself of the Armstrong Community Music School. Then there was the fact that Christian was one of the three generals who led the charge to build the current performance home of the opera – and the symphony and the ballet: the Long Center.

Of all the labors that Christian has undertaken in her many years as an arts activist, getting the Long Center built was no doubt the hardest, but it stands as her greatest achievement. She was among the first to see the potential in old Palmer Auditorium as a performing arts center, and she joined forces with fellow philanthropists and arts advocates Jane Sibley and Jare Smith to convince everyone else in town of the value in that vision. Nicknamed "the three Js," Christian, Smith, and Sibley fought to see the project realized through city government contracts, municipal bond elections, the dot-com bust, fundraising challenges, the loss of the original architects and their plans, and a radical reinvention of the center when the renovation had to be downsized. Getting the facility built eventually took more than 15 years, but Christian's devotion to the arts and unshakable resolve in seeing the project through were a powerful part of the reason it was completed and that the Long Center has become so deeply integrated into Austin's cultural identity in the seven years that it's been open. If Christian was involved, it was a given that she was going to work hard and persevere. On a Facebook post following Christian's passing, Robert Godwin captured something essential about her in describing Christian as "a hurricane of power and knowledge wrapped in a St. John suit."

Christian shared that force-of-nature will and savvy with many other arts organizations and cultural causes even as she was giving so much of her time and energy to the opera and the creation of the Long Center. The Blanton Museum of Art, Austin Symphony Orchestra, the Ransom Center, the College of Liberal Arts at UT, and Conspirare can all testify to the difference this 2010 inductee into the Austin Arts Hall of Fame made in their organizations, and this reporter witnessed first-hand Christian's tenacity and generosity while working alongside her on the CreateAustin Plan, which helped set the course for the arts and creativity in this city over the past decade. Her understanding of the political process and what it takes to get something done were as keen as a Swiss watchmaker's are for a timepiece: She grasped just how many gears were involved, how they fit together, and what it took to get them all moving in concert.

But that sharp mind – which no doubt contributed so much to her success as an attorney – shared space with an open heart. Given the rarefied circles she had moved in – her husband George Christian had been press secretary for LBJ during his presidency, which connected them to the Johnsons and the D.C. elite – Christian was remarkably unguarded, gracious, and quick to welcome people into her world. Once she got to know you, every greeting came with a broad smile and some affirmation of affection: a hand on the arm, a hug, calling you "friend." She made you feel at ease in her company and as if your presence mattered to her – which may explain why so many of the tributes to her now talk about the loss of a friend. She did much to encourage that sense of connection. And the reason she did so much for the arts was not some sense of social obligation or the prestige of it, but because she believed in art. She was touched by art, by music. She was caught in opera's grip at the age of 12, took piano and voice lessons while growing up in Fort Worth. She loved art all her life, and she wanted to see it thrive.

And so it has in Austin, with Christian's efforts and support making a profound difference in that happening in many ways. No one who knew her will find much to be grateful for in her passing, but if there is a silver lining in this dark cloud, it's that the public knowledge of Christian's battle with lung cancer allowed some of the cultural entities that prospered from her patronage and advocacy the time to express their appreciation through acts such as the Austin Opera season dedication, the musical tribute on KMFA, and a salute to Christian on the marquee of the Paramount Theatre. Jo Anne Christian changed Austin for the better, and she will be missed.

Jo Anne Christian was preceded in death by her husband George, who died in 2002, and by her siblings, John Martin, Hobart Martin, and Mary Lynn Penry. She is survived by her children — Elizabeth Christian, Susan Christian Goulding, George Scott Christian, Robert Bruce Christian, John Christian, and Brian Christian. Services will be held Saturday, Nov. 21, 2pm, at All Saints' Episcopal Church, 209 W. 27th. A committal service will follow at the Texas State Cemetery, 909 Navasota. The family encourages charitable contributions in Jo Anne Christian's memory, especially to Austin Opera (3009 Industrial Terrace #100, 78758), the Long Center for the Performing Arts (701 W. Riverside, 78704), All Saints' Episcopal Church ((209 W. 27th, 78705), and the Jo Anne Martin Christian Excellence Fund in English (College of Liberal Arts, UT Austin, 116 Inner Campus Dr. G-6300, 78712).

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Jo Anne Christian, Long Center, George Christian, Austin Opera, Jane Sibley, Jare Smith

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